If your TV clicker skipped right past a WNBA game, one reason may have been that you mistook it for rugby — unless you figured it for dodgeball. Fact: Women’s basketball is a beautiful game surrounded by ugly atrocities, from incompetent officiating to fiscal mismanagement. Is it too much to ask for decent referees who protect the shooters so that the audience may be entertained and sponsors attracted? Women’s basketball is at a plateau — a precarious one — and unless some real change is wrought soon, a sport with a small but devoted following will find itself shrinking.
This week the WNBA opened its 17th season, while women’s college coaches from around the country prepared to converge on the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., for annual induction ceremonies. Both events prompt the question: Why is a sport with strong audience fundamentals such a chronic underachiever in the marketplace? There are 3.2 million high school girls playing varsity sports in this country, and anywhere from 2 to 4 million people annually watch the women’s NCAA Final Four on TV. Yet the sport is floundering.
How did a game Pat Summitt strove so hard to elevate to elegance become so bruising and even unsightly, with declining scoring and falling shooting percentages? That’s right. Despite the fact that women’s skills have soared in the hands of players such as Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi
and Elena Delle Donne, offense actually has suffered in the past 30 years. Here is a scandalous statistic: According to NCAA data, scoring has dropped by eight points per game since 1982. What’s more, the average field goal percentage in the women’s college game has fallen steadily and last season was at an all-time low of 38.9 percent.
“That’s trending in the wrong way,” says former WNBA president Val Ackerman, who has been hired as a consultant by the NCAA to produce a “white paper” on the women’s game.
The reason? Poor quality and cheaply paid officiating has transformed the game into a brawl, one far more physical than the NBA. There were fewer fouls called in the women’s game last season than at any time since the NCAA has kept the stat.
Here is another question. How is it that the sport Summitt slaved to build into a self-sufficient moneymaker has instead become a financial beggar?
Another scandalous statistic: The women’s NCAA tournament loses more money than any other women’s Division I championship event. To repeat, despite sold-out arenas of close to 20,000 and healthy ESPN ratings and rights fees, the women’s NCAA tournament loses money. The reason? Incompetence again. Sheer mismanagement.
How is that possible? It’s possible because the powers that be, out of a silly allegiance to some lame idea of “equality” with the men’s game, have erected a ridiculously large cost structure. The sizes of travel parties and other amenities are just as large as those for the men’s tournament — but without the men’s revenues. The NCAA men’s tournament thrives on massive ticket sales in domed stadiums and more than $770 million annually in TV rights fees.