The other night I went to see women playing basketball, a sport I love to watch and used to love to play. These were not ordinary women. Most of them were over 6 feet, several over 6'6". Many could dunk, although dunking is not a significant part of the women’s game, as it is for men. They were extraordinarily skilled with the ball, repeatedly hitting shots from beyond the 3-point line, dribbling in traffic between their legs and behind their backs, and controlling the ball with one hand. Their team play was terrific.
The Minnesota Lynx beat the Phoenix Mercury in the second game of their semi-final playoff for the Women’s National Basketball Association championship. About 12,000 fans did the usual professional basketball things: waving little towels, standing up and sitting down, distracting Mercury foul shots, mugging for cameras, and trying to catch T-shirts propelled into the stands with a slingshot. Since then, the Lynx won one more game and will play in the finals.
The average attendance for the men’s basketball team in Minneapolis, the Timberwolves, was 14,500 in 2015-2016. Their record was terrible, 29-53, placing 13th out of 15 teams in the Western conference, and missing the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season. That’s the weakness of women’s sports in America. Fans prefer to see a losing men’s team over a winning women’s team. Average attendance at WNBA games is less than half of NBA games.
For the past 32 years, American women have dominated the basketball world. Since winning Olympic gold for the first time in 1984, the US Women’s Team has won nearly every international game they played. They missed one Olympic gold medal out of eight and two World Championships out of eight, losing a total of three games in 16 championship runs, always to the eventual champion. Their record is 126-3.
But professional opportunities here are limited. The first women’s professional league, the WBL, lasted only from 1978-1981. Salaries barely reached $5000, and were not always paid. The Women's American Basketball Association existed only for the 1984 season, and FOX Sports bought the Women's Basketball Association after a few seasons in the 1990s and disbanded it.
The WNBA is celebrating its 20th year. It was a creation of the NBA, which owned the league for its first years. Only recently have teams gotten individual ownership. For its first 11 years, the WNBA was unable to get a network agreement to pay teams television rights.
Maya Moore dominated the scoring in the game we saw, one of best and best known players in America. Moore has played in the WNBA since she was the first draft pick of 2011. She also won the Euroleague title in 2013 with a Spanish team and has led her Chinese team to league titles since 2013. Moore describes the nature of women’s professional sports in America: “We go from amazing AAU experiences to high school All-American games to the excitement and significant platform of the collegiate level to this. Less coverage. Empty seats. Fewer eyeballs. Somewhere up the chain of command — in companies that, in many ways, dictate what is 'cool' — people are making choices not to celebrate the WNBA and its players.” Moore lays the blame on “engaged and invested cultural influencers and partners in corporate America”.
Women play WNBA ball because they love the game. The economics of women’s sports in America continues the inequality of salaries, press attention, endorsements, and fan excitement.
I rooted against Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, but I’ve loved watching her play since she led UConn to 3 national championships in 2002-2004. Lucky for me she was playing this year, after sitting out the last WNBA season. Taurasi’s real professional life is in Russia. Phoenix made her the first WNBA draft pick in 2004, but by 2005, she was also playing for Dynamo Moscow. She switched to Spartak Moscow in 2006 and led them to 4 consecutive Euroleague championships, twice winning Finals MVP.
After a couple of years in the Turkish basketball league, she switched to UMMC Ekaterinburg. She earned $1.5 million for a season at UMMC Ekaterinburg, compared to $107,000, the top WNBA salary, in the US. When she broke her hand in 2014 league play, she had to sit out the championships. Wanting her to be in top form for their season, they offered to put her tiny WNBA salary on top of hers, if she skipped the 2015 WNBA season. She took the deal.
Brittney Griner, another number 1 WNBA draftee, made less than $50,000 in her first year, but collected $600,000 from a Chinese team. The men’s first draft NBA pick made over 100 times what a comparable woman makes in the WNBA.
Check your local paper for coverage of women’s sports. Local high school teams might get nearly equivalent coverage, but men’s college teams, and even more, men’s professional teams crowd out stories about women athletes. What happens during the WNBA season can be hard to find out from papers like this one.
Chicken or egg? Will corporate America only change its bottom-line mindset when the real America buys more tickets to see professional women play? Will that only happen when our public media, from the cable giants to our local papers, pay more attention to professional women?
Progress is slow. But if you want to see great ball, check out the WNBA finals coming in a few days.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 4, 2016