More on How to Make Women’s Sports Leagues Grow – With Specific Attention to the WNBA

The final draft of my latest for Time.com — Here’s What It Will Take for Women’s Sports to Grow in the U.S. –was submitted last Monday morning.  A few moments later my family and I left for a vacation.  And apparently, minutes after we departed it was posted at Time.com.   While on vacation in Colorado I was able to access the Internet occasionally.  But I did not have much time to respond to some of the reactions.  Now that I am back in Cedar City, I can finally offer some more thoughts.

The purpose of the article was to shed some light on the attendance numbers we see for women’s sports leagues.  In 2014 the WNBA averaged about 7,500 fans per game.  This is about 10,000 less than the average NBA team.  And the WNBA does better than both the National Women’s Soccer League and National Pro Fastpitch.

These numbers stand in stark contrast to what we saw for the Women’s World Cup Final.  This was the highest rated soccer game — played by men or women — in the history of soccer in the United States.  The rating for this game was even better than what we see for the NBA Finals and the final game of the World Series.

So how can the Women’s World Cup Final do so well while women’s sports leagues do so poorly?  I think one of the primary issues is the ability of casual fans to take a rooting interest in the outcome of the game.  A World Cup is contended by teams representing nations.  So if you are a U.S. citizen you naturally root for the U.S. Women’s World Cup.  But if you watch a basketball game between the Tulsa Shock and the Indiana Fever, who is the casual fan supposed to follow?

In the article I note how this was historically a problem with men’s sports.  The NBA is a world-wide phenomenon today.  But in the 1950s, it was a very small operation.  Attendance in the 1950s was less than 4,500 per contest. In the 1960s, it was consistently less than 6,500 per game.  That means when the NBA employed the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson, NBA attendance was less than what we see in the WNBA today. A similar story can be told about Major League Baseball and the National Football League.  In the early years of professional sports leagues, attendance tends to be quite low.

I argued in the Time.com article that this is primarily because it takes time for a fan base to develop.  To become a fan requires an investment of time.  You have to get to know the players and the history of the sport.  In addition, other fans have to make the same investment so you have someone to talk with about the sport.

The response to this story has generally been positive (the one exception I will note in a moment).I wish to mention two specific stories written in response to the Time.com article.  First, Melanie Schmitz provided a list of Other Women’s Sports That Deserve A Little Love In Light Of The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Win.  In the Time.com article I mentioned soccer, fastpitch softball, and basketball.  Schmitz also noted softball.  In fact, she noted that the U.S. women’s softball team just took another World Cup title (something that has not gotten much coverage in the sports media).  Beyond softball, Schmitz advocates more support for women’s cycling and martial arts.

Sally Holmes at Elle.com had a somewhat different response.  In Why Is It Only Okay for Us to Be Women’s Sports Fans Now? It’s Been Time, Holmes makes the following observation:

Despite going to an all-girls school for 13 years, having one of my closet friends recruited to play soccer at a top-tier college, and having Venus, Serena, Mia Hamm, Lindsey Vonn, and Maria Sharapova presented to me as worthy role models, I wasn’t really into women’s sports. Because I wasn’t really exposed to them. Because we don’t celebrate female athletes the same way we celebrate their male counterparts.

Holmes goes on to note my argument that building a league takes time. But she also notes that there are issues with how women are treated in today’s sports world. The pay, relative to men, seems immensely unequal.  And Holmes points out that there are those people — whom she labels “dopes” — who think women’s sports are not worth watching.

In sum, time is not the only barrier women’s sports leagues have to overcome.  The attitudes expressed in the now infamous Andy Benoit tweet are also a barrier.  As noted in my Time.com article, Benoit — a writer with Sports Illustrated — sent out the following tweet a few weeks ago: “…women’s sports in general (are) not worth watching.”

Benoit soon deleted this tweet, but not before others had seen it and saved it for everyone to see.  And this led Benoit to eventually apologize.

In my Time.com article, Benoit’s tweet was not the only tweet cited. And it is this second tweet that caused some people (from what I can tell, all of them men) to have a problem with my story.  Before I discuss this tweet, let me start by explaining how I came to write this article, since its origin is related to how this second tweet appeared.

On June 22, writer Jessica Luther sent out the following tweet.

Ppl watch/follow the little league World Series with rapt attention and then shrug at women’s pro sports bc “skill level isn’t enough.”

Luther’s tweet makes an excellent point.  And in the original article I submitted to Time.com, this paragraph was included:

Women’s skills and athletic achievements are being compared directly to the skills and achievement of men.  But with a bit of thought we see this comparison is silly.  Those who question women’s sports do not as often note that the Duke men’s basketball team, which won the 2015 national title, would get embarrassed by the Golden State Warriors. Or that a kid playing in the Little League World Series would get smoked by Justin Verlander.  In sum, fans of college sports or little league sports never seem to require their male athletes to compete with the best professional players.

Unfortunately, the original version of this article exceeded 1,600 words.  And Time.com prefers my articles to be under 1,000 words.  Since the focus of the article was on why attendance for women’s leagues tends to be relatively low, this paragraph was removed because it simply was not central to the story I was telling.  And although every writer wants more of their words to appear, I completely agree with the decision to cut that paragraph (even though I really like the argument Luther is making).

When the Luther tweet appeared I simply retweeted it.  And this led Andy Glockner — executive editor of the The Cauldron and a contributor to Sports Illustrated — to tweet the following:

When women can’t dunk or make shots, or women play on a huge soccer field w/ poor GKers, [goalkeepers] the product can get marginalized.

One should note that Luther explicitly is arguing against the tendency to compare women’s sports to men’s sports.  And Glockner’s tweet appears to be making just this sort of comparison.  In addition, as noted in the Time.com article, I think the evidence suggests Glockner is incorrect (more on that in a moment).

Glockner’s tweet was quoted in my Time.com article.  And after Time.com posted the article last Monday, Glockner sent out the following four tweets:

@wagesofwins Excellent job taking a tweet completely out of context. http://time.com/3945762/world-cup-womens-sports/ …

That’s one of the most intellectually dishonest uses of a tweet I have ever seen, @wagesofwins. I should demand a retraction.

That’s truly disgraceful. We were discussing a perception issue, and why certain sports may suffer more than others, @wagesofwins.

I’m going to contact @Time. That’s egregious. I’m not going to stand by while someone smears me dishonestly to feed an agenda. @wagesofwins

After I saw these tweets on Monday night (after a day of traveling) I contacted my editor at Time.com.  She has never heard from Glockner (and this was several hours after Glockner sent out the tweets).  And as of today, she still has not heard from Glockner.  So as far as I know, Glockner never contacted Time.com and demanded anything.  In an effort to help out, though, I did ask my editor what she thought of Glockner’s complaint.  Unfortunately for Glockner, my editor and I see this issue the same way.  His complaint is not warranted.

To understand why, you needed to click on the link in the Time.com article associated with Glockner’s tweet.  If you took that step, you would see that this was not the only tweet Glockner sent out on the same day the quoted tweet appeared.  Glockner also had this to say (and again, you can see this if you follow the link):

No, I dislike women’s basketball b/c I find much of it sloppy with bad shotmaking in addition to slow/less athletic.

In the original version of the article, this second tweet was also noted.  But again, in the interest of brevity, and because it was not central to my story, this second tweet was not reported in the final story (although, once again, you could see it if  you simply clicked on the link).

This second tweet appears to contradict the story Glockner tried to tell after the Time.com article appeared.  If you go back to Glockner’s protest you will see him claim that “we were discussing a perception issue…”.   I take this to mean — and I think people reading Glockner’s protest had the same interpretation — that Glockner is arguing that the specific tweet quoted in the Time.com article was not actually a reflection of his views.  Instead, Glockner implied he was just talking about the views of others.

But the second tweet makes it abundantly clear that this is not the case.  Glockner was not saying other people think women can’t make shots.  He makes it clear that a) he personally dislikes women’s basketball, b) he personally thinks women who play basketball can’t make shots, and c) he personally thinks women who play basketball are slow and less athletic.

The words “bad” and “slow/less” are relative terms.  One assumes that Glockner is comparing women basketball players to men.  And again — following from Luther’s point — this is not a very good argument.  Women do not have to be “better” than men for their sports to be both legitimate and entertaining.  Again, no one seems to have this standard for male college athletics or little league sports.  So it seems silly to apply this standard to women.

In addition, Glockner’s claim that women can’t make shots does not seem consistent with the data.  Again, here is what the original article said (but was eventually limited to one sentence in the final version because it is not central to my main story).

Glockner’s other point — that women can’t make shots (or are bad at shot-making) — doesn’t seem to match reality.  From 2011 to 2014, WNBA players have an adjusted field percentage — a measure of shooting efficiency that considers both shooting from two-point and three-point range — of 47%.  Again, the NBA players dunk.  If we remove those shots from the data (after all, dunks are not really shots from the field) we see that NBA players across the last four seasons also have an average adjusted field percentage of 47%.  In sum, it doesn’t appear WNBA players — at least, relative to NBA players — can’t make shots.

Glockner argues that he doesn’t like women’s basketball because women can’t make shots. I think the evidence suggests that this is certainly not true with respect to the WNBA.

It is clear in reading this that I tend to think the WNBA is worth watching.  It is also clear from all of Glockner’s tweets that he personally is not a fan of women’s basketball.  And again, I would argue that this may not be about the entertainment value of women’s basketball.  Or as Will Leitch argued, if you think a sport isn’t interesting, the problem isn’t the sport. The problem is you.

And this is a similar argument Alexander Goot made at the Cauldron.  After Andy Benoit apologized for his tweets, he also said he would “stick to football”…Goot argued that is the wrong lesson to be learned.  As Goot noted:

“… we don’t want you to stop talking about women’s sports. We just want you to do it smarter.

We want you to be open to the idea that female athletes are capable of incredible feats of athleticism. We want you to consider that the same story arcs and narratives that make men’s sports compelling also exist in the women’s game. We want you to realize that competition can still be riveting, even if a serve doesn’t travel quite as fast, or a drive doesn’t carry as many yards.

And… (listen closely, because this part is important), we want you to understand that even if you disagree, even if you stop, and watch, and consider, and you still decide that women’s sports aren’t your proverbial cup of tea, that doesn’t mean you’re rightand it certainly doesn’t mean you ought to disparage those who play, and those who feel differently.

I have the same request of Glockner.  I think women’s basketball is well worth watching.  And I think if basketball fans make an investment of time, they will generally agree.

So if you feel like Glockner, take some time to watch the WNBA. But don’t just watch.  Get to know the players and the teams.  Take a rooting interest.  And I think eventually, you will see that you actually have very good basketball to watch each summer.  In other words, you can stop watching people just talk about the latest NBA news in the summer and actually watch people play basketball.  In the end, I have to think that has to make any basketball fan better off.

Let me close with one more issue that was just briefly touched upon in the Time.com article (and this is not related to the Glockner tweet but was something someone asked to see more about).  As the article notes, the WNBA is actually more competitive than the NBA.  Again, the following was part of the original article (and again, this was limited to one sentence because it is not central to my Time.com story):

Not only do WNBA players makes shots at the same rate as we see in the NBA, one could argue the games are often more competitive.  Decades ago economists Roger Noll and Gerald Scully separately developed a measure of competitive balance that compared the dispersion of wins in a league to an ideal measure that would exist if all teams were equally competitive.   From 1997-98 to 2014-15, the average Noll-Scully ratio for the NBA has been 2.8.  In other words, the actual dispersion of wins in the NBA is 2.8 times larger than the idealized dispersion.  To put that in perspective, this ratio in Major League Baseball tends to be around 1.8. And in the NHL and NFL it tends to be around 1.5.

For the WNBA, this ratio from 1997 to 2014 was 1.9.  So the WNBA tends to be more competitive than the NBA.  A simple glance at winning percentages confirms this story.  Last year the NBA had three teams that won fewer than 25% of its games.  In contrast, every WNBA team in 2014 won at least 35% of their games.   In sum, outcomes in the WNBA are little less certain and this increases the entertainment value of the games.

By the way…. for those who want more on the Noll-Scully measure, Andres Alvarez wrote the following for this website: http://wagesofwins.com/noll-scully/

Once again, none of this was central to the article.  So I completely agree with my editor at Time.com that all of this had to be trimmed down substantially.

And hopefully all this provides some additional insight into the article I published at Time.com last week.  Of course, if you still are unhappy with this story, you can contact me at berri@suu.edu.  Although I will be tweeting out this story, it doesn’t seem particularly helpful to argue complaints in a forum that limits responses to 140 characters.

– Dave Berri