Women's and Gender Studies

Women's Basketball: A League of Their Own

By Jessica Noel

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Introduction

Brenna Rushing said it best when she wrote “The SMU women’s basketball team wins games; the men’s team wins fans” in an article that appeared in the Daily Campus in April of 2009. At that time the women’s basketball team had a record of 20 -11, compared to the men’s nearly inverse final record of 9 – 21. Despite the discrepancy in athletic accomplishment, the men’s basketball team averaged nearly 2,000 more fans a game than the women’s team (Rushing, 2009). This phenomenon is not unique to SMU’s campus. Nationwide, at both the professional and the collegiate level, men’s basketball grosses more fans than women’s basketball. What accounts for this disparity? Research suggests that the male dominance of sports significantly undermines the legitimacy of the female athlete (Messner, 1988; Smith, 2001). Furthermore, I propose that the difference in fan support may be a consequence of the strong association of female basketball players with gender nonconformity by virtue of their basketball player status.

Men dominate athletics in the United States. In various sports women have had to prove their athletic skill and passion for their sport in order to be perceived as legitimate and even in pursuit of that legitimacy, women flounder among a sea of male athletes (Messner, 1988). The cultural arena of sports is defined by patriarchal standards, and women who are successful in this arena challenge the typical female gender role. The male athlete represents the pinnacle of masculinity: active, fit, muscular, competitive, a champion. Female athletes who are active, fit, muscular, and competitive portray gender atypical behavior (Messner, 1988). These women aren’t viewed as champions. They’re viewed as traitors of their femininity.

This “gender atypical behavior” can lead to the perception of homosexuality among female athletes. Many female athletes will even avoid association with the feminist label in fear of being stigmatized as a lesbian. In a study by Blinde, Taub and Lingling (1994) twenty-four female athletes were interviewed and questioned about their perception of female athletics. The majority of them viewed their commitment to their sports as a bonding experience, but their avoidance of being labeled a “feminist” and fear of stigmatization correlated with their lack of activism and awareness regarding women’s issues (Blinde et. all 1994). These interviews demonstrate that a woman’s entrance into sports is seen as evidence of homosexuality, which is a label that even the athletes themselves try to avoid.

Professional and Collegiate Basketball

There are two well-known professional basketball associations in the United States: the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WBNA). The WNBA has twelve teams. The NBA has more than twice that, with 30 teams. First year WNBA players make a minimum of 35,190 dollars per season, while rookie NBA players make a minimum of 457,588 dollars per season (womensbasketballonline.com; insidehoops.com). This disparity is also manifested in fan attendance. The WNBA team that grossed the most fans during the 2010 season, New York Liberty, averaged 11,069 fans per game. The NBA team that grossed the least amount of fans during the 2010 season, the Indiana Pacers, averaged 13,520 fans per game. Even the most unpopular men’s team averaged nearly 2,500 more fans than the most popular women’s team. The Chicago Bulls, the NBA team that grossed the most fans, averaged 21,726 fans per game. Compared to the WNBA’s New York Liberty, the Chicago Bulls averaged almost twice as many people in game attendance, a near 10,000 people difference (wnba.com; nba.com).

A popular blog site poses the question why are WNBA game attendance records so low? Another user poses the same perplexity and cites the collapse of many professional women’s teams and wonders why this disparity exists, especially when tickets to WNBA games sell for as low as ten dollars. Respondents’ answers demonstrated the bias against female basketball athletes and the blatant discrimination towards women who don’t conform to the stereotypical feminine gender. Various responses are presented below:

  • NBA players love this game, they have gained respect from everyone. I love women, but not in sports!”
  • Women do not possess comparable physical and athletic prowess to come close to the level of the NBA. Why go see a WNBA game when a massive upgrade in athleticism, talent, and excitement is readily available?”
  • Men don’t find women’s basketball to be entertaining, nor worth watching… More than half of the entire WNBA’s fan-base are lesbians.”
  • Because very few people care about women’s sports except when they wear very little or very tight clothing” (yahooanswers.com).

While these responses have not been empirically validated, they do reflect a certain perception that many American’s hold towards women’s basketball. These comments, such as the female inferiority in athletic ability and the idea that sports are for men, further elaborate on the consensus of male dominance and lack of credibility afforded to female athletes.

The inequity in fan support also appears in collegiate athletics. As cited earlier, “The SMU women’s basketball team wins games. The men’s basketball team wins fans” (Rushing, 2009). Table 1 below presents the average attendance records for five popular Texas universities in 2010.

Table 1: Average Game Attendance for the 2010 Basketball Season

School Men's Basketball Women's Basketball
SMU 2,688 964
Texas Tech 9,290 6,837
TCU 3,686 2,563
University of North Texas 2,716 865
University Texas at Austin 14,629 4,909

*Information from the NCAA Division I website for male and female basketball.

At each of these five Texas universities men’s basketball averaged significantly more fans than women’s basketball. At SMU, the men’s team averaged nearly one and a half times more fans than the women’s team. In order to complement this empirical evidence I attended and photographically documented two basketball games at SMU. The first game: women’s basketball, SMU vs. Tulsa, February 13th, Saturday at 2:00pm. The second game: men’s basketball, SMU vs. Tulsa, February 19th, Saturday at 2:00pm. Both games were identical in time, opponent, and day of the week. Both games however, did not yield the same support.

Ethnographic Comparison

I didn’t know what to expect when I entered Moody Coliseum on February 13, 2011 for the SMU women’s basketball game. Admittedly, I had never been to a women’s collegiate athletic event at Southern Methodist University. What I found was evidence that many people had never and would probably never attend a women’s college basketball game at SMU. The air was empty and the spirit low. I walked into the student section and found that there were no more than 15 people sitting in the stands, and most of them positioned themselves behind Tulsa’s bench. When someone scored there were no cheers, no boos, just silence. The fans that were there talked quietly amongst themselves. As I moved across the stadium to the parent and general fan section I observed a few more people, but not many. No one stood to cheer for either team and although the band and cheerleaders performed at the game, there seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm. The game seemed almost like a scrimmage or a practice game, not something that actually mattered – at least not to the general SMU population.

Exactly one week later on February 19, 2011 I attended the men’s basketball game and observed a very different atmosphere. There was an overwhelmingly larger amount of fans at the men’s game, but the student section sparked the most notable difference. Everyone was standing, cheering, and the bleachers were nearly full. Two fraternities were in attendance and everyone was sporting the symbolic pony ears in support of the mustangs, the male mustangs. When SMU shot a free throw silence calmed the stadium, but when Tulsa shot from the line roars of distraction filled the student section. It was clear that this game mattered. The SMU men’s basketball team lost that day 74-66 and the women’s team beat Tulsa 66-58, but it was clear which team won the support of the student body.

Conclusion

The lack of support for female athletics is a concern in contemporary America. In a nation that promotes equal opportunity, freedom from oppression, and continued progress in gender equality, these disparities makes me question how far we’ve really come. Particularly concerning is this idea that because a female athlete plays basketball like a man, she must be interested in women like a man. Not only does this assumption challenge the value of gender equality in pursuit of individual dreams, but it also presents a bias against the lesbian community. It says that if an athlete is a lesbian she has not transcended gender adversity, because she is actually just like a man. We must recognize that just because women have the ability to participate in organized athletics in the United States, does not mean they have gained the respect that they undeniably deserve.

References

Blinde, Elaine M., Diane E. Taub, and Lingling Han. 1994. “Sport as a Site for Women’s

Group and Societal Empowerment: Perspectives from the College Athlete.”

Sociology of Sport Journal 11: 51-59.

Insidehoops.com. Accessed April, 2011. http://www.insidehoops.com/minimum-nba-salary.shtml

NBA.com. Accessed April, 2011. http://espn.go.com/nba/attendance/_/order/false

NCAA.org Accessed April, 2011. 

http://web1.ncaa.org/app_data/weeklyrpi/2010WBBattend1.html

NCAA.org Acces April, 2011.

http://www.ncaa.org/wps/wcm/connect/8753820042742b01b8b6be967b4a3893/Awide_Mbkbattlists.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=8753820042742b01b8b6be967b4a3893

Messner, Michael A. 1988. “Sports and Male Domination: The Female Athlete as

Contested Ideological Terrain.” Sociology of Sport Journal 5: 197-211.

Rushing, Brenda, 2009. “Women's Basketball Draws Wins, But Not Fans.” The Daily

Campus. http://www.smudailycampus.com/2.6641/women-s-basketball-draws-

wins-but-not-fans-1.960347

WNBA.com Accessed April, 2011. http://www.wnba.com/

Womensbasketballonline.com. Accessed April, 2011.

http://womensbasketballonline.com/wnba/rosters/salary.html

Yahoo Answers, July, 2010.

http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100629183522AAaUUw7