On Sunday, the Los Angeles Sparks will travel to Minnesota to take on the Lynx in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. After defeating the Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky, respectively, each team goes into the finals looking to add another championship trophy to its team’s history. The Lynx are seeking their fourth championship since 2011, while the Sparks hope to secure their third title.
Celebrating its twenty-year anniversary, the WNBA finals highlight the top two teams in the league. The Lynx, led by star player Maya Moore, has had success over the past five years. On the other hand, The Candace Parker-led Sparks have not tested a championship in over a decade. Along with the most tenured player in the league, Alana Beard, who has been in the WNBA since 2004, the Sparks hope to capture their first title since 2002. For most WNBA fans (sans those in cities such as Chicago and Phoenix), the 2016 Finals are exactly what they hoped for–the top two teams in contention.
While the WNBA formed in 1996, and has grown in its twenty-year history, women have taken to the hard court for over a century. In the late 1800s, for example, women across the U.S. east coast played the game. Although the game experienced ups and downs through its history, thousands of women and girls have played basketball over the last 120 years.
Nevertheless, the state of the game is still in contention. Thus, in this roundtable discussion, four scholars look at the WNBA in American culture. Each contributor, Dunja Antunovic, Matthew Hodler, Maureen Smith, Dain TePoel, and Mercedes Townsend, has a varying relationship to the league and the sport. They have written and published on the the WNBA specifically, on basketball, on sport and gender, and various other topics in American sport culture. In the remainder of this post, they respond to questions on the historical, contemporary, and future prospects of the league and sport.
How do you view the current state of women’s basketball in the United States?
Women’s basketball is a vibrant and exciting sport in the United States with a fascinating history and tremendous present-day international success. However, as a sports media scholar and an advocate of women’s sport I find myself perpetually disappointed by the lack of media attention to the WNBA.
Certainly, professional women’s basketball is becoming much more visible. In the league’s 20th season, ESPN/ESPN2 aired 14 and ESPN3 aired 18 regular season games. ESPN networks also air post-season games. Further, the league signed a nine-year contract through 2025 with ESPN that will keep the league on television. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that ESPN’s investment shows that the WNBA is “becoming more part of the mainstream sports culture in the U.S.” These television deals, indeed, may seem like “good news.”
However, simply broadcasting the games is not enough to build and sustain audiences. The lack of regular coverage is not a WNBA problem; it is a problem that affects women’s sports broadly. According to a study conducted by Cheryl Cooky, Michael Messner, and Michaela Musto on media coverage in the Los Angeles area, local stations dedicated only 3.2% of their coverage to women’s sports, while for ESPN’s flagship program SportsCenter that number stood at 2%. Even though Los Angeles is the home of the Sparks, the WNBA coverage was minimal during the season, and non-existent in the off-season. Similar issues are present in other media markets and media forms. Long-time sports reporter Phil Hersh wrote that the Chicago Tribune, similar to other newspapers, does not provide regular coverage of the city’s WNBA team the Chicago Sky, nor does the sport staff have a beat writer for the team. The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport’s documentary titled “Media Coverage and Female Athletes” points to these national trends using the Minneapolis area (home of the WNBA team Lynx) as a case study.
In sum, women’s basketball is an excellent case of the incongruence between participation numbers and media coverage.
It depends on what we mean by “state” and “women’s basketball” right?
I mean, our USA Olympic team might be the most dominant team in all of sports. This summer it just swept to their 6th straight gold medal with a margin of victory of close to 40 points per game. Stars from US colleges and the WNBA play all over world, and many are dominant in their leagues. So, by these – and others – the quality of play is very high.
If we define “state” in terms of quality of play at the collegiate level, I think we’ve been lucky to see some historically good UConn teams over the last few years. We’ve also watched some great Baylor, Notre Dame, and South Carolina teams. UConn has dominated in ways not seen since John Wooden and UCLA, but that is not necessarily bad for the sport. I also worry about people focusing only on the national championship when thinking about “parity.” Just last year, a 4-seed and a 7-seed made it the Final Four. Also, a 16-seed has beat a 1-seed in the women’s NCAA tourney, but not in the men’s (Harvard over Illinois in 1998). But, any one who watches enough games will see well-played basketball across the country. And, it is hard not to see some sexism in the claims that women’s basketball is ruined by UConn’s great run over the last decade while many of those same outlets were praising the Golden State Warriors and Novak Djokovic and rehash the “glory days” of the 1960s Packers & 1970s Steelers.
If we define “state” as popularity, I think women’s basketball is doing okay too. The D-1 tournament is on ESPN every year (and I think they have a contract that runs at least until 2022). It is also much easier now than it used to be to see at least a big game on TV most weeks during the season. This is the 20th season of the WNBA, and they had their highest attendance ever. They also hit some pretty good numbers, in terms of TV ratings too. So, people are watching the games in person and on television. It should continue to grow.
Also, it’s worth remembering that Steph Curry, the current “it” guy in basketball, has gone on record saying that he loves watching the WNBA and that he has patterned some of his play off what he saw in that league over the last few years.
My view comes from my experiences as a longtime fan of women’s basketball, primarily college basketball. There are times when I attend a college game and I’m amazed at the low attendance – but I also attend games where the arena is packed and the crowd is energetic and enthusiastic. With very little efforts to sell the game, the women’s final four is routinely sold out (or close); though earlier rounds have challenges filling their seats. I think, based on reading Val Ackerman’s review of women’s basketball, that those within the sport as administrators may at times feel compelled to engage in social comparison with the men’s game, which is simply a setup that leaves the women’s game in second place. Whatever sense of inferiority those administrators have, the coaches and student athletes in women’s college basketball do not share those sentiments. They produce an exciting game that showcases teamwork, speed, skill, finesse, and some incredible student athletes. At the professional level, the WNBA continues to struggle if we are comparing them to the NBA of 2016 (but compared to the NBA at 20 years, the WNBA seems to be right on target). I’m a big fan of women’s basketball – I don’t understand basketball fans who don’t enjoy the game, because to me, I’m excited and entertained by the women’s game. I appreciate the great college teams and coaches, I follow teams through the season, I attend post-season conference tournaments and the final four. Every final four I see a contingent of other fans of the game who attend year after year – leading me to believe the sport has a committed fan base that may be ignored by sport marketers and the NCAA, but who attend despite the lack of outreach. At the local level, colleges are working to cultivate a culture among season ticket holders, inviting them to pre-game chalk talks and other events to help foster a community of fans and supporters of their teams.
I should preface my comments with an acknowledgment that I am neither a diehard fan of men’s or women’s basketball. Nor is my scholarship really focused on the sport. However, I approach this roundtable with what I hope are a couple of useful perspectives. First, I fit into one of the WNBA’s target consumer demographics as a sports fan dad-with-young-daughters (though the conceptualization of this consumer base is narrow in the sense that it presumes men like me are only interested in the sport because we have daughters, and see WNBA athletes as role models). Second, women and gender in sport and sports media representations have formed major areas of study throughout my masters and doctoral programs. My understandings of women’s basketball, and the WNBA in particular, are informed by the likes of Samantha King, Rita Liberti, Shelley Lucas, Kris Newhall and Erin Buzuvis, and Mary McDonald (here and here), among others.
With those caveats, it’s an exciting time for fans, but I may be biased as a supporter of the Minnesota Lynx. They have won three of the last five WNBA titles and are one of few teams whose attendance averages near 10,000/game. But there are incredible athletes in the sport across the board. We are witnessing the coalescence of veteran stars with incredible, younger talent. The US women’s national team won its sixth straight gold medal at the Rio Olympics with an absolutely dominating performance. The game is strong, to say the least. I like to think that interest is picking up following Olympic success and the continued supremacy of Connecticut in the NCAA (despite criticism). Two decades of the WNBA hopefully illustrates the staying power of women’s basketball in the pro sports landscape to a wider audience, though concerns around economic viability unfortunately continue to grab headlines. I tend to agree with Mary Jo Kane’s assessment that compared to forty or even twenty years ago, women’s professional sports are now “in the conversation.” Marketers, executives, and journalists are long overdue to take seriously their jobs selling and covering the WNBA.
From a social and cultural standpoint, serious problems also persist. Whereas the WNBA seems to have a more inclusive culture, it also does not somehow operate outside of dominant ideologies and structural forms of power. Racial and gender inequalities remain in the hiring of head and assistant coaches. On the collegiate side, homophobia, negative recruiting, discrimination, and the underrepresentation of women in coaching are deeply troubling and lasting issues that must be addressed.
In a word, disjointed. While the sport is highly celebrated at the youth, high school, and collegiate levels—it’s the most played sport by American women and girls and is the most watched women’s sport at the collegiate level— we don’t see that support carry over when players go pro. The same goes for when the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team returns home from the Olympics. After winning an unprecedented six golds in a row, there still isn’t strong support for the WNBA—the league that is home to all of the members of the national team. In this regard, the current state of women’s basketball is highly reflective of the current state of other women’s sports in America, despite some of the historic gains of the WNBA and its players.
What storylines (on or off the court) have you been paying attention to in the WNBA?
Since Lisa Borders was named President of the WNBA, I have been following some of the official statements and decision-making rationale coming from the league as I think that those reveal much about the league’s identity and vision. This conversation is particularly noteworthy in relation to how the league views and responds to athlete activism.
As a gender studies scholar, I have also followed the coverage around Chicago Sky and US Olympic Team player Elena Delle Donne’s engagement. A Vogue article identified Delle Donne’s fiancé Amanda Clifton, in response to which the Chicago Tribune asked Delle Donne about her decision to “come out.” According to the Washington Post, this was the first time the Delle Donne “publicly acknowledged her love interest was a woman. Delle Donne said that the Vogue article was “not a coming out article.” Delle Donne did not specify her sexual orientation, but the article spurred a discussion that raises questions about how sexuality is covered in the media. Considering the long history of homophobia in women’s sport and the “collective shrug” to women’s basketball players’ coming out, it is important for scholars of sport to follow these conversations to assess how cultural norms shift and/or become reiterated through media coverage.
I have been trying to follow the WNBA’s continuing leadership in pushing for social change and social justice. Women leaders of civil rights movements often get omitted from or written out of histories, and I can already see that Colin Kaepernick (and now, with the NBA season about to begin, many men’s basketball players like LeBron James) being moved to the forefront of the movement while the actions of the Liberty and the Lynx and the rest of the WNBA players being ignored.
Also, as sad as it was to see her passing, I really enjoyed reading all of the amazing stories about the legendary Pat Summit. She clearly meant a lot to the sport, and I think the tributes to her demonstrated that she left a lasting legacy that will help to keep the sport growing.
On the court, I have not been able to follow as much as I like, but I am hoping to see a Lynx repeat. The Lynx’s win against the Mercury in Phoenix was fun to watch. There was also a really good crowd on hand.
I’m currently paying some attention to the playoffs, but earlier in the season I was interested in the exclusion of Candace Parker from the US Olympic team, the coming out story of Elena Della Donne, the MVP award going to Nneka Ogumike (also not part of the US Olympic team), coach Stephanie White going to Vanderbilt, trading of players like Layshia Clarendon to Atlanta (who played for Cal, a team I follow), etc. I also paid a good deal of attention to the political actions and comments made by WNBA players this summer related to Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem. I really appreciate their engagement in political issues and hope their NBA counterparts follow their lead.
I’ve been quite interested in the WNBA’s new playoff format this season. Instead of a select number of teams making the playoffs from each conference, the top eight teams from the league as a whole qualified for the postseason. The new format gives fans the best of both worlds by featuring single elimination matches in the early rounds, and longer, best of five series in the semifinals and finals. The eighth-seeded Phoenix Mercury provided some early drama to the playoffs by advancing to the semifinals, upsetting the no. 3 and no. 5 seeds on the road along the way. The Lynx and LA Sparks begin what should be a very competitive series for the championship on Sunday, Oct. 9.
I’ve also been following actions by WNBA athletes and teams in support of Black Lives Matter. The lack of credit they have received for consistently pressing the issue and furthering conversations around racism and police brutality in black communities is frustrating, especially in comparison with the attention garnered by Colin Kaepernick and other football players. While the backlash may be more intense and vitriolic against football players, there is plenty of risk involved for WNBA players too. For example, in Minneapolis, officers working a Lynx game walked out over player comments denouncing racial profiling and BLM warm-up jerseys (which also supported the Dallas Police Department). And the WNBA swiftly handed out (and then rescinded) fines to the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, and Phoenix Mercury for “uniform violations” after players wore black t-shirts in support of victims of recent shootings. I think the public backlash against those fines caught the WNBA somewhat by surprise, and illustrates a gap in the latter’s understanding of the seriousness of this issue for its players and fans. Overall, WNBA players’ actions and tactics have ranged from the pre-game shirts, to taking a knee during the anthem, and a “media blackout” to keep the focus on police brutality. I think they are offering a productive model for sports activism that does not place the onus on a single athlete, and can engage its fan base in ways that build momentum for the wider movement.
My attention this season has certainly been peaked by WNBA player protests, namely players wearing shirts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and joining in Colin Kapernick’s national anthem protest. As recent demonstrations made by pro-athletes have revealed/reaffirmed, the intersection of sport and issues of social justice remains very divisive amongst fans, pundits, and other players. Arguably, because of this, WNBA players’ participation in these demonstrations presents a unique issue for the league. On one hand, the WNBA prides itself for being amongst, if not the most, diverse and socially involved leagues. On the other hand, the league is struggling to gain and sustain consumer support, and its players taking a stand on such a polarizing issue may push potential fans further away. I think this problem was most clearly seen in the league’s fining the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, and Indiana Fever (as well as these teams’ players) for wearing shirts in support of BLM in July, then reversing the fine with league president Lisa Borders tweeting, “Appreciate our players expressing themselves on matters important to them.”
What can be done to get more recognition for the sport? For the WNBA?
In an interview with the Sports Business Journal, Borders said that the WNBA plans to raise the league’s profile through social media as “digital platforms are by far the most efficient and in some ways the most effective.” There is some evidence for this. For example, last year the Chicago Sky’s media relations team created a Mean Tweets video in which players read insults directed at them. The campaign garnered momentary mainstream media attention. I do not believe that social media solves problems. And research on how digital platforms can be used to promote women’s sport is inconclusive. But until attitudes about professional women’s sport and priorities in newsrooms change, teams will have to come up with creative ways to capture media attention.
Many careers have been made on trying to answer this question; I have written and taught about this, but I can only really come up with one need for now: Eliminate institutional sexism and gender discrimination.
One way we can do this as consumers is by continuing to support women’s sports through going to games and watching them on television, and through social media (these metrics matter to decision-makers).
As historians and educators, we need to continue writing women sports into our Histories. If we need an example for our classroom to explain some concept, we should try to use WNBA players or women athletes. We should encourage students to write about women’s sports, and we should look for places for us to write and talk about women’s sports in our own work. We should also be sure to give space and attention to the many great scholars already doing that work. We should cite them, we should assign them, and we should share them.
One group, fembot collective, organizes feminists writing days where people actively write women’s histories into Wikipedia. Tom Oates is working with a few other scholars to try to organize this sort of public sport history; I took part last spring and wrote a few seasons of Iowa women’s basketball into the Wikipedia world.
These are little steps that can help create bigger change down the line.
I’m not convinced there is any concerted effort on the part of athletic departments in college sport and the WNBA to promote the sport. At schools like Tennessee and UConn, they can rely on their tradition of success – these schools are outliers. But Utah gets over 15,000 fans to attend women’s gymnastics, so why not women’s basketball? ESPN airs the women’s tournament, why not show more games throughout the season so viewers become more familiar with the teams and storylines? There are some great college programs – so when ESPN shows UConn at the expense of other programs, they do not help grow the game. I’m not suggesting they don’t air UConn games, but many fans would like to see a game where the outcome is still a question. You can find many of these games in the Pac 12, the Big 10, and even in some of the smaller leagues, like the Big Sky. Sac State’s women’s team set the record last year for the most 3 point attempts – this would be entertaining for many fans – don’t save it for the highlights – show us the game! Why not a sports center show all about women’s basketball or women’s sports? This idea that a team has to be successful (read “winning”) to be watched does not play out in men’s professional sports (see the Sacramento Kings – despite losing seasons, they are about to debut their new $450+ million arena to a sellout crowd that continues to support the mediocre team). How do losing NBA teams survive? The support of other NBA teams (who could also subsidize the WNBA. Most professional leagues for men have losing teams and financially poor teams and are subsidized by their competitors. Let’s have this sort of socialism work for women’s sports!!). There must be a marketing genius out there that can think of a way to sell and promote women’s basketball – let’s find her.
It’s not a good sign when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver admits that “people in the sports business” like himself have “historically underestimated the marketing it takes to launch a new property,” and Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts says “it took us a while to figure out that this was not the NBA and we had to approach it differently.” Some of these owners, executives, and marketers would be wise to consult with scholars who have been researching this problem for decades. The WNBA has some of the best athletes in the world. As Cheryl Cooky, Michael Messner, and Michela Musto posit, media outlets need to provide the WNBA and women’s sports in general with equitable quantity and quality of coverage, and they need to hire media professionals and on-air personalities with the will, knowledge, and expertise to do so. Those on the sport ownership side need to demand better and more than they are getting in terms of quality and quantity of media coverage and promotion.
One of the biggest issues plaguing the sport and, subsequently, the WNBA is a lack of visibility. Maya Moore said it best in her essay for The Player’s Tribune, “If we want to grow the women’s game, we’ve got to grow the visibility.” I think the visibility/recognition issue women’s basketball faces goes hand-in-hand with the way the sport and its players are marketed. As specifically seen in the WNBA, instead of showcasing player ability and talent, oftentimes, their roles as the pillars of their homes and communities are showcased. While these roles are undoubtedly commendable, they are oftentimes very gendered and, more importantly, are not enough to entice fans to (literally) “buy-into” a professional league. With this, the ways in which women’s basketball is marketed and its players are discussed needs to focus more on a narrative of elite athleticism which, in turn, can help boost recognition of the sport and its professional league.
If you were WNBA commissioner, what would you do to improve the league/sport?
Thankfully, I’m not a WNBA commissioner, but I do think that it is important that the WNBA and the teams in the league hire individuals who who are aware of the historical patterns in women’s sports coverage and of the ways in which sexism is perpetuated in the sport industry. This is important so that the internal staff does not reproduce the gender norms that have prevented women’s basketball from gaining acceptance.
On the long run, I believe that systemic change will come from a collective effort within and outside of the WNBA to demand respect for women’s sport. As educators, we can contribute to that effort by exposing students’ pre-conceived notions about women’s sport, assigning scholarship written by feminist sport scholars, and encouraging students to take internships with women’s sports teams.
I do not know enough about what the WNBA commissioner can actually do to answer this question, but I think I would work to empower players into decision-making positions. I would maybe set-up a group of players as the board that could discuss issues of marketing, pay, etc. This would also give many of them some executive experience in order to boost their resumes and help them in their post-playing career.
I’d call the NBA out – either contribute financially to the success of this league or change the name of the WNBA. The NBA has benefited by appearing to be interested and supportive of women’s sports, but they have not contributed in ways that could grow and sustain the league. I’d fire Isiah Thomas as the team president of the New York Liberty. He has a documented history of sexual harassment and his position as team president of a women’s team is inconsistent with a league that is serious about supporting women in sport as athletes, coaches, and administrators (and fans). I’d also work to hire more female coaches. I’d travel to other countries where women’s basketball players successfully earn 2-5 times their WNBA – how do they do it and could some of their methods be duplicated? I’d also work with USA Basketball to grow women coaches in the college game and at the Olympic level. There are so many high quality coaches in women’s basketball that the national team does not need to hire Geno Auriemma two Olympics in a row to win a gold medal. I’d even consider changing the schedule of the WNBA to be more consistent with the traditional basketball season, despite the competition it would face from other basketball leagues, including college level. Lastly, I’d add some expansion teams – including one in the Bay Area, where there are thousands of fans of women’s basketball ready to support a team.
WNBA President Lisa Borders, still in her first year on the job, needs to be given time to address this question. Everyone usually goes to capitalizing on digital technologies and communications in some creative and innovative fashion, and I’m sure there’s truth to that in reaching born-digital consumer bases. But I would also work on a campaign that gets out a message resisting the idea that the WNBA is desperate for fans and legitimacy. They have both. Their longtime fans can probably be celebrated more in ways that tell some of their narratives and commitment to the league and its players. Twenty years is enough time to start drawing out more of the WNBA’s cultural memory that can be linked to its emerging class of superstars.
Focus on changing the marketing narrative, push for more primetime television slots, and distance myself as far away from Isiah Thomas as possible.
Dunja Antunovic is an Assistant Professor of of Communications at Bradley University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matthew Hodler is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Cultural Studies of Sport at Miami University. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Maureen Smith is a Professor of Kinesiology at California State University, California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan TePoel is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies at the University of Iowa. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Mercedes Townsend is a J.D. Candidate at Tulane University Law School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.