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.
The women’s game is rife with this kind of fiscal insanity. Bloomberg News found that women’s basketball at 53 public universities in the six largest conferences had operating losses of $109 million in 2010, while men’s teams has operating profits of $240 million. Now, exactly how equal can women feel when their sport is not self-supporting?
As for the WNBA, it’s well-managed but is fighting for its life in the men’s pro landscape and remains reliant on the NBA for its underpinning, with flat average attendance of fewer than 7,500 a game and fewer than a half-million average TV viewers.
It’s baffling. There is no reason the game shouldn’t attract large sponsors and grow. It’s got huge participation numbers, a passionate and loyal fan base and attractive competitors.
Moreover, broader trends in women’s athletics would seem to favor growth. For the first time, in 2012 the U.S Olympic team had more female athletes than male, and they brought home 58 of the 104 American medals. In 1972 only 1 in 27 high school girls played a sport. Now 2 in 5 compete for varsities, and their most popular sport is basketball. “As far as women’s team sports go, it’s the unqualified leader of the pack,” Ackerman says.
Yet instead of growing, it has plateaued. And one reason for that, ironically, may be Title IX. According to Ackerman, the security of Title IX, which assures equal funding for women’s sports, may have stifled innovative thinking and fostered complacency.
Ackerman identified the 1990s as an “extraordinary growth period.” At places such as Texas and Tennessee, coaches such as Jody Conradt and Summitt built the game with ingenious promotions and brutal hard work. They were their own marketing directors. “They had to do it all — and they really mattered,” Ackerman says.
But the urgency to promote the game and sell tickets has somehow been lost. The fact is, too many women’s programs used Title IX as a protective shield. Ackerman says, “The mind-set of the past is, ‘What is our due under Title IX.’ ”
Title IX is a great law, but it wasn’t meant to disguise profligacy and stupidity. What the women’s game needs just as much is decent business sense — as opposed to amateurish gather-round-the punch-bowl NCAA committees peopled by former volleyball coaches and deputy athletic directors. It needs a basketball committee that will ask, with 800 basketball games on television in the last year, why should the viewer choose the one that is low scoring and unsightly thanks to lousy officiating that creates bruising knockdowns instead of high-octane offense?
“They have to prove themselves as an entertainment matter,” Ackerman says. “They have to try to attract the crossover fan. . . . It’s less a challenge of culture than of clutter. . . . You’re trying to rise up above all of that. There could be 15 games on. Which one are you going to chose? It’s a hard, non-Title IX-based reality.”
Among the ideas Ackerman would like to see explored: getting a grip on the ugly physicality of the game by upgrading officiating, “elevating the professionalism and bringing a business mind-set to ticket sales and television,” and exploring dramatic rule changes to make the game more exciting and faster-paced. Most interesting, Ackerman would like to see the NCAA explore putting the women’s NCAA Final Four together with the men’s — same city, same weekend, different arenas — to foster crossover audience expansion. Other NCAA sports, like lacrosse, have that arrangement.
“It would turn it into Wimbledon,” she says. Overall, she’d like to see an innovative bent to promotions — even in finding better uniforms. “My sense is that there is a growing desire to see if commercial possibilities can be built out,” she says.
The alternative is building down.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/