I actually think the WNBA is doing pretty good for a relatively new product. The NBA wasn’t drawing tens of thousands of fans in its early years, players weren’t making a bazillion dollars a year. The WNBA is doing things right — expanding slowly but steadily, paying its players wages that are sustainable, and carefully advancing into the future. Granted, it would be nice if the same could be said for the Minnesota Lynx, but alas, they appear to be subject to the same vagaries of fate that their brother organization is.
So the WNBA is currently America’s sixth-largest professional league? That’s not that bad, really. They may not be making money, but they’ve got a good base of support, and they’re tied to the NBA, which gives them a solid base of financial support for the long term. (Indeed, the NBA wisely is using the WNBA as a loss leader, figuring that drawing new fans to women’s basketball will bring new fans to men’s basketball.) Their attendance isn’t growing yet, but it’s a steady 8,000 a game, despite the league playing in the summer opposite baseball and during a period when families are busy.
No, the WNBA is doing pretty well in its 14th year of operation, and every indication is that it will continue to do well for some time. But of course, the WNBA is basketball played by dumb ol’ girls, and so rather than note its success and treat it like the country’s sixth-largest major league, sports pages and newscasts continue to treat it as an oddity, something to shoehorn in on page C13 underneath the minor league baseball scores, or to mention in passing before tossing it back to the main anchor. And when it’s mentioned by (overwhelmingly male) sports columnists, it’s to talk about why women’s basketball is hated by everyone, which would seem odd, given that thousands of people go to each game. What’s more, it’s not good enough to say that it’s hated by everyone — they go forward and say it will always be hated by everyone, which seems to fly in the face of everything we’ve seen with women’s sports in the past forty years.
That’s why this brilliant takedown of just such a column is a must-read for anyone who’s ever been in the stands for a sporting event played by women. The column is by Alex C., a man (gasp) who actually toured every WNBA home venue in the country (double gasp) and actually likes the sport (bring me my fainting couch!). And he nails precisely why columns like this keep getting written:
So, now the inevitable question. Why? If the WNBA will indeed never succeed, why do professional writers, like Mr. Pearlman, continue to write such things? One would think if they were one of those who doesn’t care about the WNBA, (becasue nobody does) they would not even write about it, because, well, they (should have) no idea it exists.
I have one theory, and it might sound a bit far fetched, but stay with me.
The Answer? Fear. Fear of the unfamiliar.
When a guy like [Jeff] Pearlman sees a female athlete in the same place (i.e. the basketball court) previously occupied by their male counterparts, childhood sports heroes, or person of worship, there is a sense of fear being felt. Fear that a woman could actually compete and possess skills at a level only held by men for so long. What else could possibly motivate a professional writer to write about something that supposedly they care nothing about, and have no interest in? Money? No, there are plenty of sports out there to cover. Fame? Write about something that they admit no one cares about?
Only one thing I can think of, knee-jerk fear, leading to irrational thinking, and thus taking the form of negative content in an attempt to disguise their prejudices as legitimate sports writing.
Nail. Head. Hit.
The hatred of the WNBA is all about keeping women and men in their place. Men are athletes. Women are not. And “everyone” knows that. “Everyone” agrees on that. “Everyone” will always agree with that.
But of course, not everyone agrees with that. When the US women won the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the Rose Bowl was full. NCAA women’s basketball draws well, both in person and on television. And yes, the WNBA still plays to half-empty arenas — but as anyone who watched a Timberwolves game can tell you, that doesn’t differentiate the leagues from each other.
Women’s participation in athletics has skyrocketed since Title IX was passed into law, to the point where it’s unusual for a girl growing up not to play some sports. The WNBA is the sixth-largest pro league right now. But it wouldn’t have existed save as a curiosity a generation ago, and a generation from now, it could draw as well as hockey — even as well as the NBA. That may scare some people. But that’s just too bad.