Monday, November 16, 2009

What's the Gameplan for Women's Sports?

Believe it or not, 2009 has been a vital year for women’s professional sports in the United States. I’m sure few of you—men and women both—have noticed, but the past twelve months have provided highlights and, unfortunately, many lowlights, all which will no doubt reshape the female pro sports landscape for the foreseeable future. Now rather than bore you with a list of events accompanied by explanations on their significance, I’m instead going to use the events of the past year as part of a broader look at women’s sports in general.

I like this topic because, when you really stop and think about it, women’s sports—especially women’s team sports—is a loaded feminist issue that, at a certain point, typically ceases to be discussed outside of academic circles mainly because, let’s be honest, it doesn’t generate much interest from either men or women. Plus, it’s sports, which in twenty-first century America (thanks in large part to women’s movement-inspired legislation like Title IX) is not really the bastion of political movement it once was. Access to sports for women, primarily at the youth, secondary and collegiate levels, gets broader and more diverse each year. There’s really never been a better time to be a young male or female athlete.

Unfortunately, this level of equality doesn’t extend to both male and female professional athletes. While I fully recognize that professional success is in no way the best or most accurate barometer by which to gauge the progress of gender equality efforts (this would be like saying record sales is the main determinant of artistic merit), I still feel that women’s professional sports’ inability to gain cultural traction raises questions about the root nature of women’s sports.

In late 2008, the Houston Comets, winner of the WNBA’s first four championships, went out of business. The team’s ownership and WNBA’s league offices were unable to find a new owner willing to pony up a paltry $10 million to purchase the franchise. This past October, about three weeks after the Phoenix Mercury won the 2009 WNBA championship, the three-time league champion Detroit Shock announced they were leaving the Detroit for Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The WNBA has only existed for thirteen seasons. The league, which was created and is effectively backstopped by the NBA, has received since its inception enviable amounts of corporate sponsorship and television exposure. Yet the two franchises that have won over half of the leagues titles either don’t exist anymore or have moved to another city. In both cases, the team’s home market (Houston and Detroit) was clearly not viable.

I don’t want rag on the WNBA, but the general consensus among sports writers and journalists is that the league’s business model is flawed. Rather than research markets that are open and excited about the prospect of supporting a women’s basketball team, the WNBA began by placing teams in markets with already existent NBA franchises, in effect killing each team’s ability to fulfill a city’s need or meet a specific market’s demand for professional basketball. The WNBA teams, in theory, would act like sister franchises, operating during the summer and early autumn, a kind of lead-in for the men’s professional season. This model has changed as time has gone by and teams have failed. Still, the WNBA’s operating philosophy mirrors that of the larger, more established NBA. A female professional sports league, in other words, attempts to operate in the same way, shape and form as it male counterpart.

As I previously mentioned, the WNBA’s flawed economic model has been roundly criticized. Interestingly, what has not been truly called into question is the actual game of women’s professional basketball itself. I’m talking about the size of the court, height of the baskets, things like that. It’s not such a novel concept. I know I’m not breaking new ground here. But an interesting side-effect of the Title IX-inspired growth of women’s sports is the tendency for the promoters and facilitators of these sports to simply put women on the same field of play, using the same rules, all in an effort to say, “See, women can play too.”

Basketball is the best example of this phenomenon because it is the most popular women’s collegiate sport as well as the female sport with the most well established professional operation. Why have serious discussions about actually creating a space that is custom-fit to a women’s game never been undertaken? The game of basketball was created by men as a team sport for men. The NCAA, NBA and FIBA institutionalized this male creation. Whether or not you love women’s basketball as it is or find it completely unappealing is irrelevant to the question of why a uniquely female version of the game of basketball has not been institutionalized by the NCAA, NBA or FIBA. Am I out of line to think that some of the WNBA’s woes are less economic and more because the on-court product just doesn’t inherently have the same amount of excitement that fans have come to expect from professional basketball? Am I out of line to think that actually tailoring a women’s sport to the unique abilities of women—rather than shoe-horning women into a sport tailored especially for men—would create a product that rivals the excitement of the men’s sport?

The viability of women’s sports at all levels is a very important topic. I have a lot more to say on this issue, but for now I’m really hoping to begin a discussion, to take get an idea of how people—both men and women, athletes and non-athletes—feel about the state of women’s sports. So let’s hear it!

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