This past Monday night, there was a college basketball game. A historic game that represented the epitome of what the best games are all about. Could a historic program continue its dominance to notch its 100th consecutive victory in front of its home crowd and against a ranked opponent?
The UConn women’s basketball team answered the question with an emphatic “yes.”
If you were looking to view this historic moment on television, however, you would not have found it on ESPN. Instead, the No. 3 Kansas men’s basketball team’s game against No. 9 West Virginia was on that channel. An important conference battle, no doubt.
The Huskies’ game instead played on ESPN2, an upgrade from the stations that NCAA women’s basketball and the WNBA can typically be found on.
But it still left me wondering, what does women’s basketball have to do to get on ESPN?
What the UConn basketball team has done over the past few years is nothing short of amazing. This a team that has broken NCAA basketball records — a team that is winning these games by exceptional margins, having more 60-point wins than single-digit wins in the 100-game streak.
If a women’s basketball team on the cusp of its 100th consecutive win isn’t top channel viewing, well then I don’t know what is. What counts anymore? What does women’s sports have to do to be viewed as just sports?
After winning a Wimbledon semifinal in July 2016, Serena Williams was asked how it felt to hear her name discussed as one of the “greatest female athletes of all time.”
Her response was simply, well, perfect.
“I prefer the word ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.’ ”
Williams can get away with that slamming, drop-the-mic-worthy response, because she is one of the greatest athletes of all time. The argument against that is dwindling the more Grand Slam titles she picks up.
But her response is both representative of the fact that her success does indeed put her in a higher class and of the struggle that female athletes face to be regarded as athletes on an equal level. She has had the performances to back up what she’s saying. An exceptional career is enough that the majority of the sporting population will smile at her comments, agree and move on.
But the acceptance of Williams won’t stop many NCAA programs from calling their female programs the “lady” (insert cheesy mascot) or referring to them as female athletes instead of just athletes. We don’t refer to LeBron James as a great male athlete. We call him a great athlete.
Normally it goes unnoticed. We have all kind of accepted that women’s sports as a whole, outside of the Olympics, simply don’t get our attention in the same way. Female athletes continue to get overlooked.
Ratings are a significant part of the reason these games aren’t getting the same attention. But maybe showing these dominant teams more could change that. The 100th win was the highest-rated NCAA basketball game on ESPN2 this season, men’s or women’s, and it was the highest-rated regular season women’s college basketball game since 2010.
Contrary to what many “experts” may say, these numbers show that the Huskies’ dominance over the past few years is not something that has deterred people from viewing but instead led more people to tune in.
It led the Huskies to grace the front page of websites and some sports sections — something most female athletes rarely get the honor of. This is team is pure dominance on a unique level. And that’s what is catching people’s attention. Women’s sports need to be incredibly successful, akin to that of the Huskies and Williams, to get publicity, while we talk about dismal men’s teams and players constantly.
On a level that is closer to home, in the 2016 fiscal year Cal men’s basketball tickets totaled about $3.5 million while women’s only brought in about $181,000. While this may have been impacted by the men’s team’s success coupled with an inexperienced women’s team, that number is still striking. People just don’t think of these sports in the same way. Even the coaching budgets for the two teams is separated by nearly $3 million.
Maybe, just maybe, UConn’s success on ESPN2 is a sign of things moving in the right direction. But more likely, things will shift back to where they have been, and that will be a shame. We shouldn’t have to wait for win No. 200 to see these teams get the consistent attention they deserve.