Growing up, I was a huge fan of basketball. I played on my schools’ teams, during recesses, lunch breaks, after school, and even on weekends. I watched NBA games every chance I could and kept up to date on the latest trades and statistics. To say that I lived and breathed basketball may be a cliche, but it accurately describes the love I had for the game. Throughout the early years of my basketball obsession, I had only been exposed to the NBA (National Basketball Association). It wasn’t until my high school years when I discovered the Women’s National Basketball Association, better known as the WNBA. Many of us know of its existence, but how many of us can actually name the teams or some of the league’s superstars? Do the names Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie or Diana Taurasi ring any bells? While, NBA stars such as Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant are household names, the majority of the public barely acknowledges the WNBA and its athletes. Back when I was younger, it did not seem weird to me that nobody I knew watched WNBA and that I couldn’t discuss last night’s game with any of my friends. I made the assumption that the WNBA’s lack of popularity was due to the stigma of “women not being able to play sports as well as men”. I basically assumed it was a difference in sex (male vs female) issue and just accepted it as it was.
Fast forward to today… I realize that it is more than just sex issue. We must consider the challenges derived from specifically being a female basketball player rather than just a female athlete.
The rise in popularity of other women’s professional sports in North America became evident as I began to see more media coverage and discussions online. Over the years, I started to witness the public’s interest in women’s sports, particularly tennis, ice hockey and soccer. Along with basketball, these sports are ranked in the top 9 of the world’s most popular sports based on factors such as audience, media coverage, salary, gender equality, etc. As some of the biggest sports in the world basketball, tennis, ice hockey and soccer all have their own respective major women’s national league or women’s national team/athletes in North America. It goes without saying that everyone recognizes the names Venus and Serena Williams. While they have received criticisms throughout their careers (which we will get to later on in this article), there is no denying that they are some of, if not the most popular, female athletes in the world. Moreover, during the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, the media coverage for the women’s ice hockey finals was inescapable in North America as USA and Canada rivalled against each other in both years. I didn’t even have to watch the finals to know the score since my social media newsfeeds were feeding me live play-by-play updates whether I wanted to or not.
In addition, more recently, the captain of Canadian women’s soccer team, Christine Sinclair, was selected to be on the Canadian cover of the FIFA ’16 video game while U.S. Olympic gold medalist, Alex Morgan, was on the American cover. This was the first time in 22-years that the FIFA video game franchise featured 12 women’s national teams. All of these are examples of women’s sports in North America garnering attention and popularity through mainstream media (TV, social media, video game promotion).
The question is, why hasn’t the WNBA received the same amount of public attention and mainstream coverage? The growth in women’s sports in North America, particularly tennis, ice hockey and soccer demonstrates that the disinterest in the WNBA is beyond the issue of sex. It is more than the stigma that “women can’t play sports”.
About the WNBA
Before we get into the factors that play into the inequality of women’s basketball, let me briefly run down on the history and statistics of the WNBA. The league began in 1997 following the success of the 1996 US women’s olympic basketball team. It was created as a branch of the NBA along with the professional minor league, NBA D-league (Augustyn, 2016). In its early years, the first eight WNBA franchises were owned by their NBA counterparts. They had the financial backing and were controlled by its NBA franchises (Walker, Sartore, MacIntosh, 2012). In 2002, the league allowed the selling of franchises to ownership groups for cities that did not have an NBA team, unaffiliating part of the WNBA from the men’s league and expanding it to become a league of its own.
Today, after their 20th season, the WNBA has 12 teams and a ESPN TV deal beginning next season and runs through 2025 (Lefton & Lombardo, 2016). Based on these facts, the WNBA may seem well off and considered to be a successful league in women’s sports. According to Ackerman, one of the founders and first president of the WNBA, it took the NBA 27 years to reach the average attendance of current WNBA games. He claims, “The WNBA’s legacy is its longevity” (Lefton & Lombardo, 2016). Although the attendance is impressive compared to the early progression of the NBA, the numbers were not as impressive compared to previous WNBA seasons. Attendance dropped to an all-time low this past year and TV ratings decreased by double digits on ESPN. With this in mind, even though the WNBA has been around for 20 years and can be considered successful in its longevity aspect, the decline of its popularity and profitability cannot be ignored.
Perhaps the biggest change over the last two decades of the league’s existence is the influence it had on the success of other professional women’s sports. The WNBA pioneered the popularity of professional women’s national leagues and teams which in turn made the WNBA less distinct (Lefton & Lombardo, 2016). As previously noted, the rise of women’s tennis, ice hockey and soccer in North America casts a shadow on the existence of the WNBA.
Back to the question of why the WNBA? What separates the league from other women’s professional sports in North America that have garnered more public attention and media coverage? Let’s compare characteristics and factors between the sports that could potentially explain the reasoning behind the disinterest in WNBA in North America.
Without dismissing the gender stereotypes that sports entail, there are certain qualities about female athletic bodies that arguably play a significant role in how we perceive women’s basketball. Traditionally, women’s bodies are seen as fragile, docile and weak (Couture, 2016, p.124). This idea contradicts the naturalized narrative of athleticism which requires strong and muscular bodies traditionally viewed as masculine. With this in mind, what is distinct about the bodies of female basketball players?
Basketball players are considerably tall and have strong upper body built (muscular shoulders and arms) from handling the basketball (Shelton & Siegel). They also use their bodies to defend against other players or “post-up” in offense. These features alone contradicts the norm of what is socially acceptable for female bodies to look and act like. In contrast, hockey players have paddings that cover up their muscular bodies and soccer players rely more on their lower body strength which is not regarded as much as a masculine trait than having a built upper body. The physical attributes of basketball players blurs the bodies of females and males. Often times, we hear people say “She looks like a man” while referring to the person’s masculine physical attributes. Blurring bodies (Couture, 2016, p.127) refers to the ambiguity of the athletic body when it comes to gender. Athletes in the WNBA have muscular figures that challenge the normative ideal feminine body. Therefore they blur and intersect the bodies of masculinity in a league created for women.
As one of the most recognizable female athletes in the world, Serena Williams have had to face several negative criticisms in terms of her body. Tennis and basketball are similar to a certain degree where upper body strength (muscular back, shoulders and arms) is a crucial part of the average body type for their athletes. Serena Williams’ famous catsuit controversy during the US Open spawned discussions targeting her masculinity and femininity. Williams’ catsuit was essentially a bodysuit that accentuated her body curves. In this sense, the catsuit represented her femininity, the way it showed off her curvature and left no room for imagination (Schultz, 2005). While others criticized her muscular figure and were displeased by her attempt to challenge the traditional norm of femininity. Similar to female basketball players, Serena Williams has a muscular physique. The difference is, Williams’ uses the catsuit to blur the line between femininity and masculinity. The catsuit represents both feminine and masculine aspects of her body. Tennis players are able to hide their masculinity through their fashion choices in uniform. The jerseys WNBA players wear are the same as the NBA. The limitations in fashion and style representations may also be a factor in the lack of popularity of the WNBA.
So what does the concept of athletic bodies and gender representations have to do with the popularity of sports? Evidently, the issue at hand regarding the disinterest of the WNBA is more than just women playing sports. The gender roles that WNBA entails can have a direct affect on its demographic. According to the title of a Huffington Post article, “The WNBA’s Biggest Problem Isn’t Lack of Interest From Men. It’s Women” (D’Arcangelo, 2016). The article states that when it comes to women’s basketball, men would rather watch the NBA because of the dunks and overall aggressiveness. But when a WNBA player dunks, they think it’s too masculine. This may be the reason why 75% of the WNBA’s audience is composed of women. However, the 75% is only a small portion of the population in numbers. The generalization is that women don’t care about sports making it harder to market the WNBA. The article interviewed Phil Guarascio, former vice president of corporate marketing at General Motors (one of WNBA’s original sponsors), commented on the demographic saying,
“It is really hard to sell sponsorships to big brands if you are a niche sport,” – (Lefton & Lombardo, 2016)
I couldn’t help but wonder what he meant by a “niche” sport. The two main demographics for the WNBA are families with young children and women (Earnhardt, Haridakis & Hugenberg, 2011). In attempts to target these demographics, the WNBA is known for their affordable tickets (for families) and involvement in the LGBTQ community. What has failed in this attempt is that there are other sports avenues that are known to be family friendly as well (i.e. baseball games). The WNBA does a great job in representing feminism and promoting female empowerment. But in doing so, it alienates the male demographic which makes up the majority of the population of sports fans. On the other hand, tennis draws attention to those with an interest in fashion, therefore it is a sport that broadly markets to both men and women. Because of the WNBA athletes’ muscular physique and lack of feminine representation, it becomes harder for the female demographic to relate to while disinteresting men thus, the WNBA fails to reach a significant number of the general public’s interest.
Through this discussion, we have noted that women’s basketball, specifically WNBA, includes several aspects different from other major women’s professional sports in North America which hinders its ability to reach the mainstream public affectively. Instead of questioning the sex of players as a catalyst for a sport’s popularity, we must consider the multifactorial gender identity theory. The WNBA’s lack of attention is more than an issue of sex, the issue lies within gender roles, practices, attitudes, representation and expressive traits in a social context (McCabe, 2008). We must take these gender factors into account and apply them to the marketing aspect of the WNBA and its demographic. These qualities may potentially be the reason why the WNBA has not been able to reach the level of popularity in North America that other major women’s professional sports have. It is not as simple as men versus women or female versus male. It’s identity versus demographic. We cannot generalize female athletes. Each sport comes with its own challenges and complications in specific social contexts. Rather than analyzing the context of “women and sports”, we must consider “women and which sport”.
Couture, J., (2016). Triathlon magazine Canada and the (re-)construction of female sporting bodies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 33, 124-134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/ssj.2015-0010
D’Arcangelo, L., (2016, March 14). The Wnba’s biggest problem isn’t lack of interest from men. It’s women. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com
Earnheardt, C. A, Haridakis, P., & Hugenberg, B. (2011). Sports fans, identity, and socialization: Exploring the fandemonium. Lexington Books.
Lefton, T., Lombardo, J., (2016, May 9). Two decades of the W. Sports Business Daily. Retrieved from http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com
McCabe, C. (2008). Gender effects on spectators’ attitudes toward Wnba basketball. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal. 36(30). Retrieved from http://www.questia.com
Schultz, J., (2005, August). Reading the catsuit: Serena Williams and the production of blackness at the 2002 U.S. Open. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 29(2), 338-357. doi:10.1177/0193723505276230
Shelton, C., Siegel, D. Race and sport. Sport: In Search of the American Dream. Retrieved from http://www.science.smith.edu
Walker, M., Sartore, M., MacIntosh, E., (2012). Beyond the “business case” for the Wnba: Astrategic perspectives approach for league sustainability. Journal of Contemporary Athletics. 6(1). Retrieved from http://www.questia.com