Women’s basketball still struggles for attention

Jeff Walz offers a money-back guarantee to any fan who attends a Louisville women’s basketball game and is not captivated by the quality of play. “I’ve never had anybody e-mail me and ask for their money back,” says the eighth-year Cardinals coach. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, they’re impressed with the level of talent, athleticism and how good the players are.”

As Walz notes, there’s much to commend contemporary women’s college basketball. In the ACC, more women’s teams than men’s are getting to the NCAA tournament. Overall, skill and talent in the women’s game, even the ability to dunk, is on the rise. So, too, are coaches’ salaries, the number of televised contests, and programs muscling into the top 20.

Yet despite those advances, and what’s viewed by many aficionados as an embrace of more fundamentally sound basketball, the women’s game lags far behind the men in popularity. In fact, in most media accounts college basketball is synonymous with the men’s version, reflecting a 70-year head start as a sanctioned varsity sport. But the lack of regard is not just historical; women confront a ceiling that is as much cultural as competitive.

One limit to widespread interest remains painfully obvious. The sport’s elite are rarely vulnerable to anyone except other heavyweights. Ten-time national champion Connecticut in particular routinely steamrolls schools that among the men might put up a tough fight. The latest example: In this year’s opener No.1 UConn, with three undefeated seasons and a record of 260-12 since 2009, played at No.7 Ohio State and won by 44 points.

Meanwhile, the overall attention and promotional resources devoted to women’s basketball remain modest. Not coincidentally, so does attendance, with far more seats empty than filled around the ACC and Division I.

In 2010, ACC women averaged 2,411 spectators at their home venues. Last season, despite the addition of Louisville – one of the nation’s best and highest-drawing programs, averaging 9,515 fans at the Yum! Center – the average ACC home turnout was only 2,932. The league’s men averaged 11,134 at home in 2015, up from 10,335 in 2010.

To be fair, college game attendance is in decline nationally, and attracting students to any sporting event is a challenge these days. Under the circumstances, even minimal increases in attendance are notable.

Still, the gap in popular support between the sexes is glaring.

North Carolina’s top-ranked men averaged 12,687 spectators for this season’s first two non-league games. The Tar Heel women, also ranked, averaged 1,782 for an equal number of home dates. The N.C. State men averaged 15,371 fans for their opening three home contests, the women 1,142 for two. Duke routinely leads Triangle women’s teams in home attendance. The Blue Devils’ first two outings of the 2015-16 season at Cameron Indoor Stadium attracted an average of 3,645 spectators, compared to putative sellouts, 9,314, for a pair of men’s games.

“We talk about it all the time,” Dominique Wilson, a junior guard at N.C. State, says of such disparities. “I feel like women’s basketball would be more popular if we were seen in the media more. Most people don’t know about it.” Wilson and her teammates go largely unrecognized on their Raleigh campus unless adorned in team paraphernalia.

Self-imposed ceiling?

That low awareness underlines a longstanding argument in favor of greater attention from the male-dominated sports media. But weak attendance and low TV ratings don’t prompt enhanced coverage. Wilson says women’s teams instead turn to Instagram and other social networking platforms to reach beyond their game’s support base, identified in surveys as adults over 50 and families with young children.

Debbie Antonelli, who majored in business management and marketing while playing basketball at N.C. State from 1983 through 1986, regards the ceiling on interest in women’s basketball as largely self-imposed. She sees another women’s sport thriving on television by offering plenty of action and considerable athletic grace.

“Look at volleyball, it’s killing us!” says Antonelli, in her 28th year as a TV basketball analyst. By contrast, the Cary native says women’s college basketball is suffocating itself with poor outside shooting, a plodding pace, and “mud wrestling” under the basket.

“We’ve got to be better scorers,” Antonelli insists, calling her lobbying for a heightened commitment to offense a personal “crusade.” “The rules have to help offense. We have to be more entertaining. We have to be more exciting. We need to score 80 points a game. We’re capable of doing that.”

Last year Notre Dame, the ACC women’s regular-season and league tournament champion, nudged that bar, scoring 79.8 points per game en route to its fifth straight Final Four. Duke, the point pacesetter among ACC men, was less prolific. The Blue Devils, the eventual 2015 national champions, averaged 79.3 points per outing.

Picking up the pace

A steady decline in scoring led to a wealth of rules changes across college basketball this year, aimed at increasing offensive freedom and improving the game’s flow. Among the changes on the women’s side are reduced stoppages and a move to four quarters instead of two halves. “The game’s going to move quickly. Be ready,” warns Nora Lynn Finch, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for women’s basketball. But there’s more involved in improving the standing of women’s basketball than tinkering with style of play. “Maybe it’s our culture,” says the Wolfpack’s Wilson. “I don’t want to sound clichéd, but there’s a belief men’s sports are more important than women’s sports, even though we put in the same amount of work.”

The key to fostering greater support, says Finch, is attracting football and men’s basketball fans already loyal to their schools. But that’s no easy task. “How do we get status associated with a women’s event?” asks Finch, involved with basketball as a player, coach and administrator for more than a half-century. “That’s the secret when we’re a society that does not reward being at a women’s anything as much as a men’s something.”

Finch believes female athletes are as often celebrated for their sexuality as much as for their achievements, and so ascribes much of the popularity of women’s beach volleyball cited by Antonelli to the bikinis worn by competitors. “Men like to see women’s legs – and other body parts,” she says. That fondness is one that supporters of women’s basketball are loathe to accommodate.

“If you turn women’s basketball into the Lingerie League, they would get a lot more viewers as well,” agrees Barbara Osborne, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specializes in research on gender discrimination in sports. “Which is pretty much the way beach volleyball has chosen to promote itself. Because diving into the sand with a bikini isn’t really healthy.”

She adds tennis and figure skating as sports that benefit in popularity from the “skimpy outfits” female athletes wear.

Such considerations fit a broader, sexualized social pattern, Osborne says. For all the progress that’s been made, she still sees females involved in athletics relegated to “second-class” status in everything from wages to the number of cameras assigned to game telecasts to individual’s endorsement opportunities.

“Sport absolutely led as far as (promoting) racial integration,” Osborne points out, “but sport have been very much lagging behind relative to gender equality. It has created way more barriers than it has opportunities.”

Athletics do offer a path to success open to everyone who’s able to participate. “People still gravitate toward excellence,” Finch says. Eventually, anyway.