in Opinion | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Girls can Jump

Women's basketball

in Opinion | 01 JAN 98

Professional sports in America has been undergoing an identity crisis. The astronomical salaries accorded to star players has soured the public's attitude to sports in general; stadium attendance as well as television audiences have been ebbing for most of the decade. Sports professionals know that when the main product is on the wane there is only one way to increase profits - diversification. This has meant introducing the sport the rest of the world calls football with the Major League Soccer teams; it has also meant reaching out to 'new' audiences through such strategies as the New York Yankees' hiring of Japanese fastballer, Hideki Irabu, or the Los Angeles Dodgers' of Korean Cho Sun Park.

But the biggest step has been taken by the National Basketball Association. A female league, the WNBA, was launched a few months after the triumphant success of women's basketball at last year's Olympics. Its ebonics-lite 'We Got Next' mantra began to appear in television ads and on T-shirts everywhere. But what be it they gettin'? A professional women's basketball association had already been in place for several years under the auspices of the American Basketball League, having signed exclusive contracts with the American stars of the last three Olympics - Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo and Ruthie Bolton-Holifield. But then came Big Brother NBA, armed, unlike the ABL, with television time.

The ABL had decided to build its franchises in places such as Connecticut where college women's basketball already had appeal. More shrewdly, the NBA paired its women's teams with male ones in cities where it already had a fan base, co-ordinating the names and colours of the female teams with those of their male counterparts. Thus venues such as the 20,000 capacity Madison Square Garden found themselves in the unprecedented position of intermittently playing host to a predominently female audience. Teenage girls traded statistics in the aisles, gesticulating as their passive male dates feigned interest. Women drinking beer booed and hissed visiting teams. The progression to gender equivalence may seem only natural in a capitalist democracy, but in the domain of athletics, strict rules of physicality have been used to enforce gender stratification (and to reify racial clichés). Women's entry into a populist game such as basketball is a first.

Unsurprisingly, corporate sponsors are beginning to discover the appeal of women's basketball. While ads for sneakers aimed at women usually feature a sweaty athlete pumping iron or running across what looks like a desert, the WNBA has provided more accessible star athletes. Rebecca Lobo has benefitted from this approach the most. Just as the powers that be in Ridley Scott's G.I. Jane (1997) select the first female cadet in the Navy Seal programme on the basis of their media appeal ('No, too butch'), the young Lobo is, shall we say, more femme than most of her colleagues, and has reaped the windfall of the endorsement money, putting her in the same range as male athletes. With that comes the power to truly make a league of their own.

However, after only one season, the star system of the WNBA is being recast. New star Teresa Weatherspoon of the New York Liberty has developed an attitude problem that should keep the New York sports writers in words for a few seasons; team regular Cynthia Cooper led the Houston Comet to the first WNBA championship while her superstar teammate, Sheryl Swoopes, missed most of the season due to the birth of her first child. (Reportedly she was back on the courts one week after her daughter's appearance.) In Los Angeles, towering over almost every other player in the league, China's Zheng Haixia has been dubbed 'the Gentle Giant' not only because she is 6 foot 8 inches tall and 254 pounds but because she has a smile that should ensure an American toothpaste endorsement.

Equality notwithstanding, women's basketball is a different game. There are two halves as opposed to the men's four quarters, the 3-point line is further in, and a college regulation ball is used, but beyond this you'll find more fast breaks and passing than in the NBA. Although I attended all but two of the Liberty's home games and was helplessly glued to NBC or cable whenever a game aired, I never witnessed a slam dunk even though every player seemed physically capable of the shot. I expect in the next season we'll catch the women of the WNBA stuffing it - if not for the greater cause of feminine empowerment then because they needs, and gonna gets, more.