U.S. Women Win Fifth Consecutive Basketball Gold. Will the WNBA Benefit?

The WNBA has struggled to find a place in the crowded landscape of predominantly male sports that rule the best broadcast slots. Could a gold medal be the boost it needs?

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TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / Getty Images

US players celebrate winning 86-50 against France during the London 2012 Olympic Games women's gold medal basketball game between the USA and France at the North Greenwich Arena in London on August 11, 2012.

Thirty six and a half points. That’s the average cushion the U.S. women’s basketball team had on its opponents in its six-game journey to Olympic gold. The color of the medal wasn’t really in doubt; America has dominated the game as Olympic champions since 1996.

Coming into the final, the U.S. in its bracket had outshot France by an average of 18.7 points, and despite the vociferous French fans chanting “allez, allez les Bleus,” by halftime the U.S. women had a 12-point lead, thanks to outscoring the French on fast breaks and turnovers. With Kobe Bryant in attendance, the Americans, led by three-time Olympic champion Sue Bird, stretched their lead to 36 points in the second half, finding the net to eventually clinch the gold at 86-50.

And now that the U.S. squad, all of whom play for the WNBA, have had their golden moment in London, they’re headed to the States to pick up where they left off, with the second half of their truncated season. And they’re going to be faced with the age-old question that was raised before the league was formed in 1997, and every season it has played since, and that will probably dog it for every season for the forseeable future. Where is the love back home?

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Yes, viewership of WNBA games is up. According to ESPN, the league’s 2011 season drew 5% more viewers than the previous year, the third straight year it climbed; there have also been more ticket holders at games over the past five years. And yes, more girls are citing players like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Diana Taurasi as role models and more girls are shooting hoops because of them. But the reality is that despite training and playing and honing their skills just as male hoopsters do, women players simply don’t command as much attention or revenue. The Indianapolis Star recently ran a side-by-side tally of the NBA’s Kevin Garnett’s earnings against those of the WNBA’s Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever, and a member of the USA women’s basketball squad. The numbers were telling. Both players are league MVPs, and Garnett owns one Olympic gold while Catchings now owns three. But Garnett earns $21 million a year in salary, plus another $10 million in endorsements, according to Sports Illustrated. And Catchings? The Fever pays her the league maximum of $105,500 a season, and with endorsements, her career earnings total $3 million to $4 million.

And she’s one of the better paid WNBA athletes. On average, NBA players earn more than women’s league players by a ratio of 200 to 1.

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It’s true that the WNBA is only 15 years old, compared to the NBA’s 63-year history in the sport, so that certainly has something to do with the salary gap; it takes time for a league to get established and build a fan base and attract sponsorships. But it’s been 40 years since Title IX, which mandates that any federally funded sport programs provide for boys and girls equally. The law has certainly filled the pipeline for a couple of generations of basketball players, as high school programs and scholarships for college players have encouraged more girls to play.

But that hasn’t translated into a robust league yet, as far as sponsorships and endorsements are concerned; in the U.S., the WNBA has struggled to find a place in the crowded landscape of predominantly male sports that rule the best broadcast slots and soak up commercial opportunities. It’s only been in recent years that ESPN has begun broadcasting all of the WNBA finals games, and it’s been six years since a major network has shown the games.

Some of that has to do with the audience itself; getting women to watch women’s sports is a challenge. In a recent study of why women watch sports, most admitted athletic contests weren’t must-see TV for them. They were more likely to catch coverage while doing other things, or by coincidence, but rarely by making time in their day to watch. The women also said they wouldn’t follow a team or player throughout an entire season, primarily because of the time commitment that would require. Men, on the other hand, track teams and players not only throughout a season but over years, devoting time on weekends or weeknights to following their favorites. So despite the fact that more women may be participating in sports, that boost hasn’t been translated into more women watching sports, and that’s the key to establishing a base for commercial and revenue opportunities. “The public narrative that as more women play sports, more women are going to watch sports, is simply not happening,” one of the study authors told time.com. “And one reason for that is the role that women have in the family unit. Their role as domestic caretakers trumps their role as fan.”

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Comparing the men’s and women’s games may also put the women at a disadvantage. “Men’s basketball is all dunks, and it’s flashier, and women’s basketball is more about finesse,” says Jenna Stigliano, 29, of Connecticut who came to watch the gold medal final in London. “The slower pace may turn people off.”

Or perhaps we’re just focusing on the wrong thing. While the sponsorships are slow to come in, the league is making an impact perhaps where it counts most – in school gyms. As of last year, seventeen former WNBA players are head coaches for college teams, and dozens more are employed as coaching assistants. That may be where the league can have its greatest influence in growing both the sport and inspiring girls to become hoopsters. And that may end up expanding the league itself, as the bolus of younger players pushes into the professional ranks and start to create a supply that seeds a demand.

There are signs that may be happening, not just in the U.S. but around the world, as women’s basketball gains more exposure on the global stage. “Teams are getting better every single year,” says Catchings. “Every time we go out, we have that target on our back; everybody is trying to play their best game and beat us.”

Which is why gold medals can’t hurt, especially for sponsorships. Last year, the WNBA signed a league-wide contract with Boost Mobile and have partnered with American Express and InterContinental Hotels.

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“I hope we can use this as a boost going back to the second half of our season,” says Candace Parker, forward for the Los Angeles Sparks, who led the U.S. team in points against France. “In terms of attention and ways to promote the league, this is the best time after winning our fifth consecutive gold medal.”

Plus, says Stigliano’s husband, Todd, 31, who coaches boys’ high school basketball, it’s all about perspective. “It would be good if women’s basketball got as much attention as men’s basketball, but women’s professional sports in the U.S. is light years ahead of the rest of the world. We’ve talked to people since we’ve been in London about women’s soccer and they just laugh, because they don’t have a league like we do.” U.S. women have leagues of their own; now it’s about growing them into something more lasting.