The cycle is predictable: A milestone occurs in women’s sports. The player(s) involved are lauded. The laments begin about why women’s sports aren’t as well paid or supported by the public at large. The milestone fades out of the media headlines. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This cycle played out a month ago when former WNBA player Becky Hammon took the helm as coach of the San Antonio Spurs summer league team, the first woman to do so (the Spurs won the championship with 6-1 record). Before that, it was the U.S. Women’s National Team and their third World Cup soccer win. Despite Carli Lloyd’s insane hat trick during the championship match, or the feel-good story about soccer legend Abby Wambach making her final World Cup appearance, or the fact that the USWNT has taken home the World Cup trophy three times during the past 24 years, the world champs will be paid much, much less than their male, trophyless counterparts—indeed, the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team has never won a World Cup trophy.
The two women’s sports leagues of interest here in the United States are USWNT and the WNBA. Like women’s soccer, the WNBA suffers from lower ratings and interest than its male counterpart and parent, the NBA. The salary differential is equally staggering: The current WNBA salary cap means that any player can’t make more than $107,000 per season, compared to the NBA’s salary cap of $70 million. This is a compelling reason for star players such as the Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi to be paid to sit out the four-month WNBA season and play overseas instead for millions of dollars. That this would never occur in the NBA goes without saying.
Instead of focusing on pay comparisons with the men’s leagues, however, perhaps a look should be taken at how the packaging of women’s sports is hindering the WNBA and its seeming struggle for greater basketball relevancy. WNBA president Laurel Richie is satisfied with the increasing numbers for WNBA game attendance and overall league health, which is good for the league. Yet there is still much progress to be made in order to garner a greater fraction of its parent league’s market share. Richie acknowledges this: “I feel like sometimes we get covered as good girls playing a good game of basketball and isn’t it good for young girls to see these role models.”
Maybe that’s the problem.
Take a look at the marketing styles for the NBA versus the WNBA. The men’s league has bold team names, colors and logos designed to reinforce the sport’s inherent masculinity. The WNBA team logos, while featuring equally colorful palettes, tend to err on more ladylike designs and colors, and team names are even “softer,” such as the Atlanta Dream and The Chicago Sky. While some NBA teams occasionally designate Family Nights and family ticket packages, the WNBA markets aggressively to families, particularly with its more affordable pricing structure. The focus on families—and the mothers who often make the everyday purchasing and entertainment decisions for the home—is off-putting to the rising number of women who choose to start families later in life, or not at all. The notion that women should support women as a mainstay of the WNBA’s marketing strategy is perhaps an unfair burden to place on the female gender. Men aren’t asked to support male-oriented sports by virtue of having a Y chromosome.
The NBA is messy. With its array of reel-worthy dunks and the occasional dust-up, colorful personalities and controversial statements, it may not the best place to look for upstanding citizens or role models, the league’s community outreach efforts notwithstanding. All of the fines in the world won’t stop the player (and sometimes coach) antics that provide constant media fodder. And it’s expensive: The average price of a ticket for the 2014-15 season ranged between $30 and $124, based on the team’s location. But that’s what makes the men’s league fun.
In contrast, the WNBA has always walked a paradoxical tightrope between (female) professional athletes doing professionally athletic things, and the image of WNBA players as being too masculine in looks and deeds. Most players are not a Skylar Diggins, who has appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and is perhaps known more for her model-quality looks (and perpetual crush object of rapper Drake) than her award-winning skills as a guard for the Tulsa Shock. Being camera-ready while doing a lay-up is not a priority for the rest of the league’s players, and expecting them to be is hypocritical. By perpetuating antiquated notions of ladylike behavior and appearance, and superimposing them on a sport that celebrates “unladylike” behavior such as sweating profusely, cursing and aggressive play, the WNBA not only sends confusing messages to the very girls it purports to want to lift up, but also sucks the fun out of the playing atmosphere by hindering the players from fully expressing themselves.
The men’s league understands that at the end of the day, games are entertainment—no more, no less. People attend and watch games to escape their everyday drama for a few hours; there is no escape value if the game environment replicates a certain part of one’s life. Perhaps if the WNBA treated its league as such, and not as a de facto breeding ground for athletic role models and a safe haven for the traditional family unit, it may attain the media conversational level that Richie seeks.