Call it the 'Our Girls Syndrome.'
And also call it a pothole on the bumpy road to mass acceptance for women's basketball.
The latest outbreak of the Syndrome (hereinafter 'OGS') is happening in Connecticut, where the Connecticut Sun can't match the fervor for the immensely popular UConn Huskies, despite the team's location in a supposed hotbed for women's sports. But Connecticut is far from the only example.
When the Columbus Quest of the ABL was dominating that league, and Ohio State (in the same city) was drawing big crowds to women's basketball, the Quest were virtually anonymous. In fact, Sports Illustrated did a story in which Columbus residents were interviewed, some literally just outside the place where the Quest played, and none even knew the team existed.
In the Bay Area, a major preseason tournament was played in San Jose, just a few miles from Stanford, but if the Cardinal weren't playing, the fans didn't show.
What it seems to come down to is this: College teams (where most of the attendance for the women's game occurs) don't draw students as much as they draw community members -- and usually older people. For whatever reason, older fans are drawn to the women's game, perhaps because of the price, perhaps because of the easy access to the coaches and players, perhaps because the old guys like to look at attractive young women (and their wives know they can't do anything aside from look), and perhaps because older women like to imagine they could have done that if only they would have had the chance.
Barring an indepth study, no one knows for sure, and it really doesn't matter that much. The happy news is that fans come to the women's game, and come on a regular basis.
But those fans, in great part, are not fans of women's basketball as a whole. They are really fans of their team, and their team only. They root for their girls, and that's all they're really interested in. They might travel with the team, and go nuts for postseason, but thanks to OGS, they're not going to get at all excited about other women's teams, or women's games.
The WNBA isn't the only organization to have bumped heads, and bank accounts, with OGS. Though the NCAA can sell out the Final Four (which has become a four-day party as much as a basketball event), its regional tournaments are generally ignored by ticketbuyers. Why? Because unless Our Girls are playing, local fans don't want to go -- and the regionals usually don't feature any local teams. If they do, then the stands are packed, but for the women's regionals to be anything like the men's (filling large arenas), a cure for OGS must be found.
Of course, it may be that there is no cure, or more precisely, no short-term method to develop fans of women's basketball (as opposed to fans of specific teams). The women's game, at this point in its evolution, looks a lot like the much reviled San Antonio-New Jersey NBA finals, with not much flash and dash, not a lot of exciting offensive talent and long stretches dominated by defense. In short, it might be more the product that's at fault rather than prejudice against women in sports (though that certainly exists).
If that's the case, the only way to rise above OGS is to upgrade the product, and improve the game. The only way that will happen is if the quality of women's basketball improves, and that requires better athletes who are capable of creating their own shot. It wouldn't hurt if a few more women would start dunking (Margo Dydek, where are you?) and it wouldn't hurt if officials would realize women aren't as strong as men and start protecting the shooter around the basket a bit more, but what's really needed is more entertaining athletes, who in turn play in more entertaining games.
The WNBA wobbles back and forth. Some games, like this week's 65-51 Sacramento win over Indiana, are all but unwatchable; others, like last year's Seattle-Connecticut finals, are big fun from start to finish. (Of course, you can find three or four stinkers on every NFL Sunday as well, and no one has ever claimed that every baseball game in that endless season is a riveting spectacle.)
Eventually, women's basketball must reach a level of play that will draw more men, and entertain everyone who watches with the skill and desire of its players. There will always be a place for those who want to root for their girls, and they will be welcome, but it certainly looks like the OGS has taken the game about as far it can. Now, it's time to build on that foundation -- and move on to a bigger, more eclectic audience.
6/24/03, updated 6/8/05