There’s no doubt: American women are the best female basketball players on the planet.
The usual Olympic gold medal was collected – not without some effort, of course – and now the WNBA, the best league in the world, has started up again.
The Las Vegas Aces, led by A’ja Wilson, are the top team, with the main challenge expected to come from the Seattle Storm, which features both the aging Sue Bird and perhaps the league’s best player in Breanna Stewart.
“Perhaps” is a key word here, for a couple of reasons. First, there are those who claim Wilson is the better player, and since she is two years younger, has more room to improve. Stewart is more versatile, especially when it comes to her ability to shoot threes and play on the perimeter, but Wilson’s skill set from the free-throw line to the basket is unmatched.
The other aspect, though, points to the problems the league and the women’s game face: You would have to look long and hard to find people who care enough to argue about who is the better player. There are no on-line articles laying out the case for Wilson, much less anything in print about why Stewart is more valuable.
The media focus during the Olympics was on Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, both at the end of brilliant careers, and Bird especially justified that focus by clearly being the best point guard on the team. Taurasi was hampered by injuries, but was still effective, but as with any sport, it’s as important to be developing new stars as it is to honor older ones.
Wilson looks to be that new star, combining a positive media presence with fiery competitiveness and plenty of skills, but despite being the league’s MVP in 2020, and boasting a statue outside the arena at her college campus (South Carolina), she is far from a household word. Stewart, less mediagenic, has never managed to find a footing when it comes to national recognition, even though she has been a star since her high school days in New York.
Of course, this lack of attention has dogged the WNBA since its inception 25 years ago. Paid attendance usually averages about 4,500 a night, and the fact that 4,500 people are willing to spend their hard-earned cash to watch women play professional basketball is in many ways very impressive. On the other hand, playing before crowds of that size in arenas that might seat 20,000 is not only depressing, but also not particularly profitable. (A recent terms sheet for a prospective Oakland franchise listed the nightly rental cost for that city’s arena to be $86,000 – which is a tough nut to crack with just 4,500 paying customers.)
Television ratings have been going up, but note that the increase is more about percentages than raw numbers. You read about the NBA ratings being down, but that league still averaged 1.32 million viewers per game. The WNBA? About 200,000.
People can talk about the reasons the audience for women’s basketball being so small, and there are many, but more than anything, it’s just sad. Granted, just because someone is good at something doesn’t mean we should watch, as the audience for Olympic badminton shows, but still, one would hope that American sports fans would appreciate excellence enough to acknowledge it by turning on the TV or heading to a game.
Fans of the women’s game may say that marketing is the problem, but from the high school level on up, women and men both prefer to watch males play basketball. Yes, the men are more athletic, but in terms of how the vast majority of recreational players approach the game, there’s more to appreciate watching the women. After all, how many guys down at the park dunk? How many can stay in the air long enough to switch hands on a layup? And how many can even hit the rim, much less make a basket, from 26 feet?
Of course it took a long time for the NBA to find its audience, and maybe the same is true for the WNBA. Maybe that big jump into mainstream acceptance is right around the corner, with huge crowds and millions of viewers on the cusp of emerging. After 25 years, though, it’s getting harder and harder to justify that optimism.
As Yogi Berra supposedly said “If the fans don’t want to come, you can’t stop them” – even if they can see the best the planet has to offer.
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