Russ: The US women’s basketball team is systemically underappreciated

Sports media coverage, sustained dominance, and systemic racism and sexism may be holding women basketball players back

For decades, at least one sports constant has existed: the United States of America has the best women’s basketball team on the planet, and has since it won the first FIBA cup in 1953. It’s compiled eight Olympic gold medals since 1984, and eight FIBA world championships since 1979. The only team that has sniffed that level of success is the former Soviet Union, who won Olympic gold in 1976 and 1980 and contributed to a gold win in 1992 by the Unified Team, which featured players from the new nations of the former superpower. The Soviet Union also won six world championships between 1959 and 1983.

But those serve as mere statistical asides. The U.S. is top dog in women’s basketball and has been for decades. Other nations have come and gone but U.S. hoops have stood the test of time.

And, yet despite it all, the team is criminally, systemically underappreciated.

The word “systemically” is used purposefully. According to a 2018 Sports Business Journal article, Former FIBA Secretary General Patrick Baumann said that women’s basketball trails behind its male counterparts in terms of popularity because it “translates in the level of interest expressed by broadcasters, other media and the corporate world.” This rings true with what studies have shown regarding women’s basketball across organizations. A ThinkProgress piece written in 2017 showed a gender bias existed on ESPN and NCAA websites regarding the NCAA college basketball tournaments. According to the article, NCAA’s website was three times more likely to show men’s basketball images as the lead than women’s basketball. On ESPN, the men’s tournament was featured nine times more at the top of the website. Coverage of women’s basketball would not only raise the athletes’ profiles, but would help cut down on the verbal abuse they face online, at least according to Elena Delle Donne in an article from The Cut.

It’s not just Delle Donne that feels it. League-wide, WNBA players face sexism and disrespect online, and are put in the position time after time where they are forced to battle against perception in addition to other teams. That perception is not only amongst fans, but also the domestic league’s front office. It wasn’t until January 2020 that the WNBA and the WNBPA reached a new collective bargaining agreement to provide the players basic accommodations that their male counterparts had been receiving for years, such as moving them out of coach on flights. They also have the opportunity now to get a 50/50 revenue split with the league in 2021.

The U.S. women’s basketball team has an uphill battle against poor mainstream sports media coverage, the worst of social media, and their own domestic bargaining agreement. 

Opportunity to be seen serves as only one of the problems facing the women’s national team. Again, perception has been another factor. The U.S. has been so dominant for so long that victory at this point is expected, but hasn’t translated into a dynasty the way the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Lakers were able to create. Add onto that the fact that, while basketball has become more and more international, it is largely an American sport. 

There was no goliath to topple for the women’s basketball team to seize the spotlight, at least not for the last 36 years. There was no moment where the team’s victories galvanized stateside popularity. There was no revolution sparked by the 1996 USWNT World Cup win. There was no Brandi Chastain tearing off her jersey and crying out in triumph. There was no grand moment like the 2012 Olympics where all competing nations had female athletes. And if there was, how many people missed it while the majority of coverage was focused on their male counterparts?

One final reason that the women’s national team isn’t regularly celebrated for decimating the world’s finest basketballers? It’s simpler than statistics. Howard Megdal, the editor-in-chief of High Post Hoops, a website dedicated to women’s basketball, says that race may play a factor in the coverage the team gets. “I think this country is still terrible at properly celebrating and valuing women of color who make up a significant majority of USA basketball teams,” Megdal said.

It seems bold on its face. But consider: the U.S. women’s soccer team has been lauded for their achievements but, though they are impressive, has only four Olympic gold medals and four World Cup championships to its name. Yet consistently it’s the Megan Rapinoe’s and Carli Lloyd’s of the world who end up doing the late night shows, rather than the A’ja Wilson’s and Nneka Ogwumike’s who battle up and down the court. This is not to pit women’s basketball fans against women’s soccer fans. After all, both teams are pushing for greater pay within their respective sports and advocating for social change. But it’s something to consider why one team gets more representation and reputation than another. If we’re counting championship parades, women’s basketball is at a disadvantage.

Maybe America is simply bored with the dominance of its women’s basketball team. Maybe the coverage doesn’t impress upon the public how great the team is. Maybe there is a subtle cocktail of racism and sexism that precludes the country from fully appreciating the team. Maybe it’s all of the above. 

But these women are at the top of the game globally, and deserve more national attention and glory. We should relish the Sue Birds, Diana Taurasis, Liz Cambages, and Brittney Griners while they’re here. If the short history of the WNBA has taught us anything, it’s that even the greatest don’t last long. The Houston Comets won the first four WNBA championships, and now the team is defunct. If we don’t relish the players who compete on our soil, we’re certainly a ways away from holding in high regard those who win Olympic and World Cup golds internationally.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons