Still wet from sweat and the London rain, it seems the USA Women’s Basketball team haven’t been able to grab a towel for their foreheads or allow their new gold medals to collect dust upon a mantle-top before getting back to their day jobs – professional athletes in the WNBA.
The twelve women, majority of whom are of the 2011 National Champions Minnesota Lynx or played collegiately with basketball juggernauts Tennessee and Connecticut, secured the fifth consecutive gold medal for the United States and the seventh gold since women’s basketball was deemed worthy of becoming an Olympic sport in 1976, just a mere 40 years after the men.
News coverage in the local Los Angeles area showed Sparks fans supporting the Americans as they dominated their final Olympic matches, reminding viewers that the WNBA season would be starting up in a couple of weeks and that “tickets are cheaper than a Lakers or Clippers game.” What a great deal, I thought. Why not support our very own Candace Parker and her 6’4” stature swiftly gallivant on her home court like the towering queen she is? Just as soon as I was pulled into the hype and the nationalism and all the gooey things the Olympics does to people like me who’ve kept running shoes in the box since last Christmas, I suddenly became irritated as I let the situation sink in. Why did it take the fair-weather fandom of the women’s team crushing it over seas to remind us that this thing called the WNBA exists and that its players are worth watching? Why were “cheaper tickets than the clearly much more popular and recognizable men’s teams” a draw? Why is attendance so low that the tickets are able to be that cheap in the first place? Should I stop talking to myself now and just go see a game so I can figure it out for myself? Okay.
So that’s what I did. Mind you, I have little experience with basketball. In high school two different coaches approached me on two separate occasions and asked if I played because I am 5’8” and they were desperate. Tragically, it did not fit in my newspaper and Academic Decathlon schedule, as well as the fact that I’ve never been able to stop falling on flat surfaces long enough to be called an athletic type, and so that dream bubble burst as I was quickly reminded of my place in the world. I’d always been good at doing the loud rowdy fan thing, though, and, as a Texas native, it was appealing to watch be able to watch a game at the Staples Center without dealing with those pesky Lakers. So I gleefully purchased two tickets online for LA Sparks vs. San Antonio Silver Stars and figured whichever friend wanted the extra one first would be my companion in cheering on our favorite team, the United States Feminism.
And that’s where I suddenly became aware of something I didn’t realize even existed. After mentioning the game to some friends, the overall male response to a WNBA game was negative, mocking and downright misogynistic. Never mind that we were going to support the girls who brought our nation gold in their sport and at $30 less per pop than their male counterparts.
I was given the following responses:
“What are you, a lesbian?”
“Sorry, that sounds really lame.”
“Now, I don’t wanna sound sexist…”
Ah, the ol’ “this will probably sound sexist” which isn’t about seeming sexist at all, but being, because if you are the slightest bit aware of how your ill-formed ideas are perceived when spewed out of your mouth without filter, you should be competent enough to admit that if something is going to come across a certain way, it’s because, deep down, you see it that way. But do go on with your statement, kind sir. What is your take on the WNBA that could only sound sexist? I’m clearly obligated to dig deeper. Most of the men I talked to, all in their twenties and considered left-wing, liberal, and socially accepting individuals, had the same answer. The women don’t play as hard as the men.
Depending on what you mean by “hard” this is only slightly true. They run and push and fall just like any athlete passionate about their game, no matter male or female. What was meant, though, was in regards to the flashiness of their play, i.e. slam dunks. The average height of your WNBA athlete is 5’11”. The men, 6’7″. The WNBA has seen only four players dunk in regulation games in their history, the first ever from Lisa Leslie, while the men dunk regularly at any given NBA game. What we’re not considering, though, is that despite the slightly smaller ball meant for smaller hands, they’re playing with the same 10 foot hoop with an 8″ inch disadvantage. These dunks all came from women who are over 6’4″ and, therefore, the height of the guys. That’s like asking my short roommate to be able to reach the tallest shelf in our bathroom if she wants to be able to clean herself, and, unlike our apartment, the basketball court doesn’t allow step stools. I’m not at all suggesting sizing should be adjusted and catered towards the women, just to consider that they’re playing it catered towards a man. So, to every guy who gripes that women don’t dunk, I’m sorry, but can you?
Next came the female friend responses, which, sadly, mirrored the guys’ almost exactly. A woman saying that going to watch a woman’s sport would be unexciting and pitiful was something I just couldn’t wrap my head around. When did this happen? Women brought home more medals in the Olympic games this year than the men, and just days after Kerri Walsh Jennings, Misty May-Treanor and teen prodigies Gabby Douglas and Missy Franklin proved the XX chromosome’s powerhouse athleticism, the idea of a Sparks game is apparently a joke. What is the origin of this intra-sexism? They go to Lakers and Dodgers games, wear girly-cut T’s supporting the teams and aren’t necessarily athletic individuals themselves aside from morning jogs and yoga classes to rightfully come down on something for seeming “weaker” to the point of silliness. It’s still a rigorous professional sport that none of us could challenge any of these players to and walk away with limbs in tact. I’m not sure if the idea of rooting for the men’s teams is a way of “fitting in” with the boys, or going along with what seems cool. The idea of a woman being a big football fan or having interests in anything associated with being “unfeminine” while still being feminine is almost revered; she’s a part of the “boy’s club” while still hot and girly. However, if she played football herself, she’d be called derogatory terms regarding her sexuality because suddenly it’s not girly enough. It’s glamorized to be the woman who can chug beers and keep her lipstick in tact so she can yell for her (male) team while looking good, but if she wants to strap on some shoulder pads herself, you’ve got another thing coming. It’s more culturally acceptable to do cartwheels in a mini-skirt, instead.
Maybe it’s less about the “coolness” of rooting for the boys, but more on the “un-coolness” of rooting for the women. Why? Because with their tree-topping heights and muscular builds it’s harder to identify and relate to them? Because, as a woman, watching the men play is more enticing on the levels of physical attraction? I get it, it’s one of the reasons I enjoy baseball. Then is this why you don’t see many male WNBA fans? Because with their modest uniforms that look identical to the guys’, the eye candy isn’t there for you to enjoy in between plays? Why will no one take my extra ticket, still?!
The NBA has been around since 1946, so there’s the association with teams as a part of city pride that allow for a much more deep-rooted history than the newer WNBA founded in 1996. However, we’re coming down on something because it’s newer and less popular, yet earned and justifiably deserved as this country had a lack of female representation in professional sports. We asked for this kind of progress. They represent us as a nation and as women with the freedom to do what they love, and that’s as backward thinking as a suffragist saying she’d rather watch the men vote because they look all strong and serious punching in those little holes. We need these women.
I finally go to the game with my female roommate whom I featured as an example. Fortunately, like expected, we had a complete blast. The overall energy of the Staples Center was positive and family-friendly as the women came out for opening introductions, each one handing a ball off to a kindergartner. Gush. Lots of young girls wore their own school’s basketball uniforms, and a dance group from a performing arts high school danced in between quarters. Modestly and appropriately, to my delight. We sat next to a family with young kids, and in front of Japanese tourists fitting in all the LA sights. Not only did the home team destroy San Antonio, they did it mostly through some of the most precise three-pointers I’ve ever seen.
But it was hard not to the notice the huge advertisements of Boost Mobile and Farmers Insurance in the arena and not just on the flashing mega screens. They were also on the women’s uniforms. In past years, the teams were all owned by the NBA, but now most are independently franchised by sponsors, something that is supposed to be important for their growth. However, from watching them on the court they look more like billboards than as a part of a team. It’s easy to see that sponsorship is one of the reasons why we don’t see more promotions for WNBA teams. Go into any Target or Forever 21 store and you can find apparel, for women, boasting the names of their nearby NBA, NFL, or MLB teams, but I’ve yet to see an oversized tank with faded vintage-y letters for the Sparks in a Los Angeles woman’s clothing store. Dick’s Sporting Goods is the only place I’ve seen get it right.
But who do we blame? Would there be a demand for items like these if game turnouts were higher, or should they be manufactured and put in stores in the first place to remind consumers this world exists? I’ll be completely honest, my reasoning for having never been to a game didn’t come from a lack of interest – I forgot we even had a women’s basketball team. Why? Because promotions for them are absolutely nonexistent in this city. Therefore, when you don’t see the team name flashed around town on billboards and signs at sports bars, you assume there’s no reason to promote them because it’s probably unappealing, and so people mock it because they don’t know otherwise. Oh, we have a women’s basketball team? Well, no one really talks about them so they’re probably no good.
I stuck around after the game to talk to fans exiting the Staples Center about why they loved the Sparks. Two women in their 40’s who had season tickets and have been going for years earnestly stated that they preferred going to WNBA games because the women “play more for the love of the sport.” And their bank accounts show it. Candace Parker was the the number one draft pick in 2008, where she made $44,000 her first year, the highest ever for a rookie, mind you, and still faces the WNBA legal pay limit of $105,500. Her brother, the now-retired Anthony Parker signed on to the Toronto Raptors after a stint in Europe due to a lackluster early NBA career. His check for coming back to the states – a $12 million three-year contract. Don’t think the ladies are living exactly like librarians, though. They thrive mainly on endorsements and most have to play in European and Australian leagues during the off-season to earn what they clearly deserve, but it still doesn’t compare to the Cribs lifestyle of most NBA gents.
Before I left, I approached three dressed-up ladies to get a couple more opinions. In a lovely and perfectly serendipitous sequence of events, they turned around to reveal an embroidered “Farmers” logo on their crisp white oxfords and claimed to be there with the District Manager, Daryl Tallon. How great, a chance to chat with an endorser himself. Tallon, an adorably cheerful middle-aged man probably a single happy beverage or two deep, claimed they chose to back the Sparks because “[Farmers] wants to support important things in the community.” But does the community realize how important they are?
I finally shouted, “Lakers or Sparks?” to a group of purple-ized fans heading to their car. A man snapped back at me, a hint of irritation in his voice, “Both! C’mon, this is 2012, we’re all equal!” Someone get this guy a drink and a gold medal.
Support your nearest WNBA team and find information on games and tickets at WNBA.com
photo courtesy of The New York Times