This is 8 in a series of 10 early-season essays.
Yeah, you, buster. You're as guilty as the next one. There's nobody around, it's okay to admit it - it's happened to you too.
Here's the scene: you're sitting at the sports bar, watching the sports ticker out of the corner. There it is - a score that sticks out like a sore thumb. You do a double-take, your mind racing to fit this mammoth upset into some type of context. You blurt out, "Holy s**t, did you see that? Sacred Heart
beat Syracuse by 27
And that's when you see it - the telltale "NCAAW" in the lower right-hand corner.
"Whoops," you say sheepishly, climbing back into your beer glass. "Women's score
It's okay, it happens to all guys sometimes. Or you're driving like hell to your favorite mid-major arena to make a 7 p.m. start time. You arrive to find that the 5 p.m. women's game is in double-OT, and you risked speeding tickets and higher insurance rates for nothing. You curse fate.
No sport in history has received as much mileage out of a single quote ("If you want to see the best basketball in the world, watch a women's basketball game." - John Wooden). I've seen the ends of plenty of Patriot League and MEAC women's matches in my travels - while the games have certainly fit well into my "two evenly-matched teams = good game" philosophy, I'm not sure I agree with the old Wiz.
But that's a worm-can most are unwilling to crack open - to badmouth women's basketball is to open oneself to charges of hating The Game Itself, or allegations of straight-up sexism. I recall a recent "Outside The Lines" roundtable on this topic, why the women's game isn't making inroads despite selling out an NBA arena every March for its Final Four. The guys all looked at their shoes and muttered until the token female on the panel admitted that she didn't like watching it either - then they realized it was okay to complain about the "lack of dunks" and how it's played "too close to the floor." The debate devolved, as it usually does, into a discussion of whether women's basketball should "go there" - that is, make a concerted effort to sell the sexy.
And hey, we're human animals, it's definitely a factor. I'll freely admit that Lindsey Whalen
is my ultimate female sporting ideal - a talented, quick and smart point guard, and h-o-t-t HOT
. (Women ogle male ballers all the time - this is about equal opportunity, people.) But the fact that my idol now plays in a gambling palace
is a cold-shower reminder of how desperate and awful the professional side of the women's game is, David Stern's best attempts at kindhearted gestures notwithstanding.
No, it doesn't help matters that the WNBA is a horrible, worthless, unwatchable product. It's a cacaphonous hodgepodge of different nationalities and styles and flavors, with too much time and effort spent on trying to establish inside presence. Banging post play isn't so much the way to respect as it is to an ugly, bloody mess, the very antithesis of the solid fundamentals Coach Wooden espoused.
The real and actual problem with women's basketball in America - at the college level, at least - has nothing to do with sexiness or dunking or floor-spacing. The issue is plainly one of disparity, the yawning gap between the elite few and everyone else. Even the most closed-minded of hoops junkies have to agree that they've seen good women's games, but the examples given always tend to involve a combination of Connecticut, Louisiana Tech and/or Tennessee.
There are just as many schools - 330 or so - with NCAA Division I entries as there are in the men's game. The complete lack of a middle class becomes jarringly evident when the Women's Tournament begins - with few exceptions (like, say, when the lovely Ms. Whalen led her Minnesota Golden Gophers to the Final Four
out of a 7-seed in 2004), the brackets go far too predictably to sustain an office pool. Take, for example, a Philadelphia subregional game this past March between the 1 team in the WRPI
(Tennessee) and the 12 (Texas Tech) - with a trip to the Final Four in Boston on the line, the result was an ugly 75-59 pasting. Trust me, I suffered through the whole thing.
The true greatness of (men's) college basketball is its rich and vibrant texture. The great teams pay their debt to the game - great coaches spawn disciples, who build up their own programs and spread inspiration to the far corners of Hoops Nation. Sports dominance is fascinating, attractive to viewers, and serves as a powerful aphrodesiac, but it's a means to an end. It does nothing to ensure the future of the overall product.
A more astute observer can probably do a better job of narrowing down an exact metaphorical date, but women's college basketball in the early 2000's is in a very similar place to where men's college basketball was back in the early 1970's, in Wooden's UCLA heyday. No golden age that, with one great team, a few good squads and hundreds of bad ones. Bird and Magic may have lit the fuse in 1979, but it hasn't been star power that's sustained the Tournament as an American institution since then. It's the unpredictability, the relative parity and the nail-biting excitement that keeps the public's imagination captured.
You're not going to make women's hoops "better" or "more popular" by giving people more Connecticut and Tennessee, Flubber-covered sneakers, or bodyhugging Lycra outfits like the ones the Australian Opals
wear. Spreading wealth is the key, and that's exactly what's starting to happen. Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt disciples are popping up elsewhere
and finding their own success. Kim Mulkey-Robertson spent 19 years at powerful Louisiana Tech as a player and assistant, then went to Baylor and won a national title
this past March. It takes time, but the natural process works.
As for what you can do right now, try to stop bitching if you show up at the end of the 5:00 women's game - take a moment to watch, appreciate. Show up a few minutes earlier next time, catch the second half. Who knows? The day may come when you feel compelled to leave the gym after the first game to make a 7:15 movie showtime.