May 11, 2010

Embracing women’s hoops 3.0

Filed under: Wendy Parker — wendyp @ 8:39 am

Maybe there’s something about basketball’s shoulder seasons — before the college scene tips off in the fall, and the time between the Final Four and the start of the WNBA campaign in the spring — that rouses up “culture wars issues” in the women’s game.

A few months ago, the provocative but hardly edgy online media guide at Texas A & M and Web site at Florida State got the agony aunts worked up like it was 1979.

As I recall, both of those teams turned out rather impressive seasons despite the tyranny of having to pose in dresses.

Just after UConn carted off another NCAA title in San Antonio, new Missouri coach Robin Pingeton caused no small dust-up at her introductory press conference by citing her Christian faith and the all-married coaching staff she imported from Illinois State.

Among the instant responses Pingeton received was a nifty little primer about the Establishment Clause (with cameos from Mark Twain and Kristin Folkl, among other Show Me State dignitaries).

I understand why Pingeton’s comments would set off bells and whistles from those trying to combat one of the most troublesome issues in women’s sports.

It’s a real problem, but Pingeton didn’t even get the benefit of the doubt before she plunked down photos of her husband and children on her office desk in Columbia.

Matters like these tend to get a lot of press because they involve social conflict. Like the larger “culture wars” issues over abortion, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and immigration, there seemingly are no solutions, just endless rage from people tied to intractable positions, constantly shouting at, and past, one another.

I regard them as distractions because they take away time, energy, thought and action from matters that are just as important — if not more — but that don’t resonate with activists or journalists.

And I’m as guilty as taking the bait as anyone. To quote Oscar Wilde — one of the most perceptive analysts of the human condition — “I can resist everything except temptation.”

One of the main objectives I’ve had with this blog, and in part of my career as a women’s basketball journalist, is to focus on the business of women’s hoops at all levels.

By “business” I mean the wide-ranging term to include NCAA legislation and issues, the recruiting scene, media and marketing concerns, conference expansion and realignment and anything else that involves the livelihoods of those in the women’s game at all levels.

While those coaches, players, parents, publicists, administrators, corporate sponsors, executives, agents and media professionals involved in the women’s game certainly are aware of the prevalence of the “culture wars” — including the most recent news involving Title IX — the everyday, nuts-and-bolts innerworkings of the sport don’t get the same headlines.

That’s why I’m also referring to “business” in the strict sense of the word. The Obama Administration’s Title IX “tweak” that received virtually uncritical coverage won’t have nearly the effect on women’s sports as the commercial challenges currently faced by the WNBA, LPGA, the Women’s Professional Soccer league and other entities operating on the economic margins.

The business of women’s basketball pales in comparison to the men’s game, and the more dominant sports in North America. On Monday the estimable Sports Business Journal had two nice pieces on the WNBA season that tips off this weekend (sorry that they’re behind a paywall).

For the audience that publication reaches, that was a respectable amount of coverage.

But for those involved in the sport, there’s so much going on that isn’t getting out. The industry of women’s basketball is a rather large one compared to where it was 20 years ago, when I first started following the sport.

As I’ve tried to resist the temptation of flailing on about the “culture wars” — Oscar’s mantra still wins out every once in a while — I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about how women’s sports are in what I regard as a 3.0 phase.

The 1.0 stage was, of course, the period leading up to and immediately after the passage of Title IX in 1972 and the unleashing of opportunities for girls and women to simply play the sport of their desire. I used to think that just knocking down the barriers to compete was the most difficult stage, but now I’m not so sure.

The 2.0 period, roughly from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, ushered in increased playing opportunities, the beginnings of Title IX compliance and the advent of the NCAA era, women coaches, administrators and other professionals with full-time sports careers and the growth of Olympic sports and greater media exposure.

Unfortunately, Women’s Sports 2.0 also featured occasionally hostile confrontations over sexuality, whether men should be hired to coach women’s teams and increasingly pitched battles over Title IX and the money to fund its compliance. The “gender wars” flared up rather badly at times, producing lingering distrust and resentment that threatens to infect the present phase, one that I think is the most vital of all.

We’ve been in the 3.0 stage of women’s sports for about a decade or so. In women’s hoops that’s been marked by the advent of the WNBA, six-figure salaries for big-time college coaches, professionalized Olympic and international competition, greater interest from ESPN and national media, the arrival of UConn on the college scene and more accelerated summer and travel team activities at the grassroots level.

The stakes are higher for everyone involved in the sport right now, yet so much of the discussion and buzz still involves 2.0 topics. That’s because we have too many attention-grabbing activists and too many journalists eager to do their bidding.

In a sense, 2.0 was the adolescent phase, and it’s been hard growing out of that.

At some point, some of the leaders in women’s basketball who like to talk about it being a movement — and they know who they are — have to get beyond employing that familiar social and cultural rhetoric.

Many of those same individuals preside over programs and organizations that are infused with quite a bit of operating cash. They’re business men and women, even though their outfits are ostensibly not-for-profit.

They run camps, get paid to speak to business organizations, some have endorsements and others have media deals and plenty of incentives worked into their contracts that net them extra income.

They aren’t the ones railing about the horrors of homophobia and the push for Title IX proportionality, although they’re not unconcerned. They know that young girls, in fact, are turning out to play in greater and greater numbers in basketball, and many other sports, despite the stigmas and bashers that will never go away entirely.

They also know that continual progress is not a guarantee.

One day, these girls will turn into grown women, with some of them talented enough to play professionally. Others will want to coach, publicize, administer, market, report or otherwise try to make a living in sports.

This sport, and others women play, needs to attract more fans and more corporate and media support in order to gain a more durable foothold in a sports world still feeling the effects of the recession. Those with a professional stake in the advancement of women’s basketball recognize that those gains are no longer possible through political and social activism alone.

The time in which we’re living now — with a concerted effort underway to ensure that women’s hoops, and women’s sports, will succeed as businesses — will help determine whether those young women will be able to live out their dreams.

That’s why embracing the 3.0 stage is so important.

Everything else is just a distraction. And a temptation.

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