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We’re having the wrong conversation about what’s wrong with women’s basketball

"With women’s basketball, it’s always the same jokes."

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 01: Texas A&M Aggies guard Danni Williams (12) and Texas A&M Aggies guard Chennedy Carter (3) watch the replay against the Arkansas Lady Razorbacks during the third period between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Texas A&M Aggies in a SEC Women's Tournament game on March 1, 2018, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN. (Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 01: Texas A&M Aggies guard Danni Williams (12) and Texas A&M Aggies guard Chennedy Carter (3) watch the replay against the Arkansas Lady Razorbacks during the third period between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Texas A&M Aggies in a SEC Women's Tournament game on March 1, 2018, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN. (Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s that time of year again. No, I’m not talking about spring or March Madness. I’m talking about the annual conversation about whether or not the superiority of the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team is actually somehow bad for the women’s game.

Like clockwork, this yearly debate pushes us further and further away from any productive conversation about the state of women’s basketball, just as its season reaches its peak. It is, in essence, a trap. And it’s one that we keep getting stuck in, over and over again. (Hence, this article.)

“With women’s basketball, it’s always the same jokes,” Elizabeth Williams, a WNBA All-Star center for the Atlanta Dream and former basketball star at Duke, told ThinkProgress. “These media outlets, they know better. Why write an article about something you don’t know about, it’s so frustrating.”

Molly Yanity, an assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac and former sports reporter, actually thinks that might be the problem — how much these media outlets don’t know about the sport upon which they keep rendering the same judgment.

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“What gets under my skin about this is that the people who try to make this argument don’t know about the history of women’s sports and media in the United States,” Yanity said.

This year’s edition of “the conversation” began with UConn’s historic 140-52 thrashing of Saint Francis University, who drew the unenviable challenge of taking on the Huskies in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The game ended in a rout that rewrote the record books. Yet instead of marveling at UConn’s achievement, Josh Peters of USA Today took his analysis in another direction, explicitly calling their win a “loss for women’s basketball.”

I could stop here and point out that, while this margin of victory was excessive, there is nothing particularly notable or alarming about a No. 1 seed blowing out a No. 16 seed. I could also mention that it makes perfect sense that UConn was extra dialed in during that game, given it was their first NCAA tournament game since being upset by Mississippi State in the Final Four last year. What’s more, according to reports, the UConn women had the opportunity to watch the Virginia men’s basketball team lose in the first round to UMBC — their lightly regarded 16th seed opponents. Watching history unfold in the men’s bracket in an online group chat, the UConn women pledged that it wouldn’t happen to them.

But these logical facts are merely a digression where this conversation is concerned.

Peters’ article elicited a response from economist David Berri, who argued in an article for Forbes that it’s not a lack of competitiveness that’s hurting women’s basketball; it’s a lack of media coverage. Then, Berri’s article spurred a take from Jason Lisk of The Big League, who took particular offense to Berri’s assertion that the lack of women in sports media has an impact on the lack of coverage for women’s basketball.

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“This seems to put the issue on the (male-dominated) sports media. If only the dang media would talk about women’s basketball more, people would be interested and watch,” Lisk writes in his article, which carried the title The Number of Men in Sports Media is Not the Issue With Women’s College Basketball Interest. “The more likely causation flows the other way. The consumer interest is relatively low in news articles and analysis of women’s basketball, and thus there is less coverage.”

Are you even following this? UConn is really good at women’s basketball, which is bad for women’s basketball, and nobody covers women’s basketball, but only because nobody cares about women’s basketball, because women’s basketball is bad, unless UConn is playing, in which case they’re so good that it’s all bad again. Oh, and none of this is the fault of the patriarchy. It’s simple, really.

“There’s a complete disconnect between the criticism and the reality. UConn is actually the reason a lot of fans do pay attention to women’s basketball,” Williams said. “Nobody talks about how bad Golden State is for men’s basketball. It’s such a double standard.”

The most frustrating part about this predictable conversation — besides its awesomely asinine premises, that is — is the way it splits the public into two clear camps: Those who hate women’s basketball and think it’s ridiculous to think that anyone could ever enjoy it; and those who will defend it at all costs. The gap between those camps? There lies the trap. That’s where this conversation gets stuck.

“Why write an article about something you don’t know about, it’s so frustrating.”

First of all, let’s state for the record that there are many men who provide excellent coverage of women’s basketball, and women in sports media should not be exclusively tasked with covering women’s sports. But of course the lack of women in sports media is part of this problem — 90 percent of sports editors are male. Ninety. Percent. And if those men truly don’t carry any bias into their work, as Lisk suggests, they’re doing a very poor job of showing it.

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Last year, ThinkProgress compared the coverage discrepancy between the men’s and women’s basketball tournament on ESPN and the NCAA’s website. The results were staggering. It found that on the NCAA website, men’s basketball was three times as likely as women’s basketball to be the lead image on the home page, and more than twice as likely to be featured in the top headlines. On the ESPN home page, the men’s tournament was nine times as likely to land a featured spot at the top of the website, and almost three times as likely to be featured on the front page as a whole. And, of the 57 ESPN television shows that ThinkProgress reviewed, 27 episodes didn’t mention women’s college basketball once. Only 12 episodes didn’t include a single segment about men’s college basketball.

ThinkProgress specifically picked ESPN and the NCAA’s website because both of those entities should have, in theory, been invested in covering the women’s basketball tournament, since it was an NCAA event and ESPN had the exclusive television rights. (CBS airs the men’s tournament.)

The results were not particularly surprising. Three years ago, a study found that ESPN’s SportsCenter only dedicated two percent of its coverage to women’s sports — a number that has actually declined significantly over the last couple of decades.

As Yanity suggests, this conversation must be viewed in the context of the history of women’s sports and its attendant media coverage in the United States. Not only did women’s sports only get started in earnest many generations after men’s sports rose to prominence, women’s sports outside of tennis didn’t really start to rise in popularity until the late 1990s. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics, was a particular watershed moment for women’s sports. The WNBA’s launch followed in 1997. And what happened just a few years later? Well, the economy started to decline, newspapers began to downsize, and the media moved online, and entered the zero-sum game of click-generation. At this point, not only were there far fewer sports reporters on local beats than ever before, but those reporters were heavily incentivized to cover the sports and athletes that already had established audiences.

“We’re black women, that’s part of it. We’re always that punching bag.”

This disproportionately impacted women’s sports, which were still finding their footing. And it has left us with an unbalanced equation: Women’s sports have improved dramatically in quality over and depth over the past few decades, but the quality of mainstream media coverage of them has eroded over the same period of time.

But there’s more to this conversation, particularly when it comes to basketball.

“We’re black women, that’s part of it,” Williams said. “We’re always that punching bag.”

Williams is right. Basketball has a much higher percentage of black players than other popular women’s sports such as tennis and soccer. And it’s a sport that most Americans consider masculine by default, which makes it difficult for viewers to perceive its players as feminine. Then there’s the sport’s close (albeit sometimes strained) relationship with the LGBTQ community.

In other words, improving the popularity and coverage of women’s basketball is something that has to happen alongside tackling sexism, racism, and homophobia in society. Those hurdles cannot be ignored or talked around.

Williams, who is constantly frustrated by how her sport is — or, primarily, isn’t — covered, knows that visibility and bias are the fiercest challenges the sport faces, on the collegiate and professional level. UConn’s storied dominance, on the other hand, is the least of the sport’s problems; the conversation desperately needs to change to reflect that.

“It’s legit the best basketball in the world, the best players in the world, and when people watch, for the most part, they enjoy it,” Williams said. “You just have to come to the game and see it yourself.”