The roots of women’s basketball invisibility run deep

In the weeks leading up to the 2012 London Olympics, there was anticipation among women’s basketball fans at Team USA’s impending fifth consecutive gold medal – an unprecedented feat. Plenty of press was generated, but the rest of the sports world didn’t seem to be noticing.

Fast forward to the medal ceremony, and nothing had changed. The Women’s National Team had won their medal unheralded and virtually unnoticed. It was arguably the most obscure team gold in Olympic history.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new, as illustrated in Maya Moore’s thought-provoking essay on the invisibility of professional female basketball players.  The Minnesota Lynx All-Star forward pointed out that there is “an unnatural break” between the exposure high school and college players receive, and that of the WNBA:

“‘Wait, what happened here?’ That’s a question we as WNBA players ask ourselves,” Moore writes. “We go from amazing AAU experiences to high school All-American games to the excitement and significant platform of the collegiate level to … this. All of that visibility to … this. Less coverage. Empty seats. Fewer eyeballs.”

The former Connecticut standout wonders if corporate America has deemed professional female hoopers “uncool,” and whether there is an undue focus on whether or not uniforms should be tight. Neither does service to the high-quality product that the WNBA offers.

Moore also knows – as we all do – that women’s basketball unfairly suffers from comparison to the professional men’s game, which has become less about fundamentals and team ball and more about dunks, one-on-one play and the glorification of stars over the last 20 years. But she is right on the money in identifying that female athletes are not held up as role models in our society.

“It seems the core of the issue is that celebrating the female athlete is a challenge,” Moore writes. “I see a lot of females being reduced to — and males to a certain extent — just physical celebration. It’s pretty shallow. It disrespects everyone involved, including the fan…..let’s dive deeper into what makes us unique. Try harder. Make efforts to help people understand why our game and players should be celebrated. Tell them we are cool.”

“There’s a balance, of course. You obviously can’t spend an amount that isn’t proportionate to the reality of the demand. But at least match the reality. Look at the response to Sue as ‘Summer Bird’ with State Farm. Fans are always asking when ‘Betty Lou’ will return again. There’s a demand that’s not being met. It might not be on the scale as the NFL or NBA, but there’s a want. Just meet the want and it will grow from there.”

In our current atmosphere of disrespect, it’s easy to forget that the cultural snub of pro women’s hoops is relatively new. In fact, it was the buzz around Team USA’s 1996 gold medal in Atlanta that lead to the formation of the American Basketball League, and then the WNBA.

The members of that team – Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Rebecca Lobo, Teresa Edwards and Jennifer Azzi, to name a few – were stars. Swoopes became the first woman to have a Nike shoe named after her. Edwards, Staley, Swoopes and Lobo guest-starred on the popular sitcom “Martin” that year.

It was on the popularity of the sport in the mid-nineties that opened the door for professional leagues. It paved the way for Chamique Holdsclaw, who signed a multi-million dollar deal with Nike a few years later, and became the first woman to be features on the cover of SLAM Magazine.

In the WNBA’s first years, there was a lot of national buzz and excitement. The Los Angeles Sparks and New York Liberty played the league’s first game at the infamous Forum in Inglewood.

But since then, as the song goes, the music has died. It’s a phenomenon that’s also affected college women’s basketball, which has seen steady attendance declines over the last decade. This includes top-drawing programs like Tennessee, Connecticut, Texas Tech and Iowa State, according to the 2013 Division I Women’s Basketball White Paper, prepared for the NCAA by the WNBA’s first commissioner, Val Ackerman.

I asked Ackerman, who is now the commissioner of the Big East Conference, why the popularity of women’s basketball has taken a dive since the glory days of the mid-Nineties. She said the era was intense for a number of reasons.

“The Nineties was a magical time in women’s basketball,” Ackerman said. “We were realizing the full effects of Title 9, there were rivalries and great coaches. All of those factors contributed to an intense atmosphere.”

Ackerman said the novelty of the sport eventually wore off.

“Once everyone got past the ‘new’ stage, interest settled down,” she said.

She has a point. But I think it goes further than that.

Our culture and its values are reflected in music and art form. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, hip hop and pop were full of strong women with powerful influences and voices: MC Lyte, Madonna, Queen Latifah, Salt N Pepa, TLC. You could name several strong female movies stars: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Glenn Close.

Women have since faded out of hip hop. Today we have Nicki Minaj as our lone female representative, and she raps about sexual acts instead of telling powerful stories about herself or asserting her intelligence and dominance through her music. I can’t think of too many regular powerful women on television or movies, although Taraji P. Henson gives me hope.

The ideal body type for male hip hop and R&B artists seems to be “stripper” nowadays. I keep wondering, where is the respect and appreciation for female athletes? But when you have the two main hip hop radio stations in Los Angeles wishing listeners a “happy 4/20,” as they did last week, you know where society’s priorities lie.

Maya Moore is right: WNBA players need a bit of help from corporate America. And I assert – and have done so with the league itself – that obtaining the help of rap, hip hop and other musical artists and actors would be very helpful, too. Little Wayne, Ludacris, Common and Tom Cruise have been to games. Couldn’t they help promote? Jay-Z is Skylar Diggins’ agent. Couldn’t he do more to get the word out?

Every opportunity needs to be capitalized upon. And the sooner, the better.