No, Women’s Basketball’s Lack of Popularity Isn’t Due to Racism, Homophobia
Member of the WNBA’s championship winning Seattle Storm, Sue Bird has a theory as to why women’s basketball is less popular than women’s soccer and it goes like this, “to be blunt it’s the demographic of who’s playing. Women’s soccer players generally are cute little white girls while WNBA players, we are all shapes and sizes … a lot of black, gay, tall women … there is maybe an intimidation factor and people are quick to judge it and put it down.”
It is reasonable to assume that this is in part because Americans like basketball more than soccer. But, the world likes soccer more than basketball.
The world’s obsession with soccer has given that sport the World Cup in which every four years the world’s best soccer-playing countries battle it out to see who is best. The tournament is held from early June to early July where, for the most part, the only sporting competition on TV is regular season baseball or golf.
Because of the international aspect of the World Cup, even Americans who do not care for soccer can get invested. Rooting for one’s national team is just another opportunity to show the rest of the world why your country is the best. When Alex Morgan scored against England in last year’s World Cup, conservatives and liberals could come together in one of the country’s last remaining bipartisan traditions: dunking on Piers Morgan. Morgan did something for the country, Bird did something for Seattle.
No sport has the equivalent of the World Cup. Not baseball/softball, not hockey, and not basketball. Basketball’s grand quadrennial tournament is the Olympics. But, at the Olympics there is much more competition for headlines. Primetime coverage is dedicated to the individual sprinters, swimmers, and gymnasts who are great at their craft, but that most people have never heard of and therefore provide excellent storylines.
Team sports take a back seat, even the women’s soccer team at the Olympics is not covered to the extent it is at the World Cup. Not only that, even men’s basketball has become somewhat of a minor attraction. The novelty of the Dream Team has faded and only really became a major storyline again in Beijing in 2008, but that was only after the debacle of Athens 2004. Seeing NBA stars dominate far inferior competition just is not very exciting. As Chharles Barkley said, “I don’t know anything about Angola, but Angola’s in trouble.”
And that’s another reason why women’s basketball does not resonate with people like women’s soccer. There have been eight Women’s World Cups, the U.S., despite being the best team in the world, has won four of them and there is always the possibility of drama.
When the U.S. beat Thailand 13–0 in 2019 in pool play, there was talk about whether such a drubbing was unsportsmanlike, but whatever the basketball equivalent of 13–0 is, it is ubiquitous in the Olympics.
To give a sense of the lack of drama at Olympic tournaments, the question is not who is going to win, but how much is the U.S. going to win by. There have been 11 Olympic women’s basketball tournaments. The U.S. has won eight, including eight of nine and six in a row. The U.S. has won those last six gold medal games by an average of 25 points.
There is no basketball equivalent of Brandi Chastain taking her shirt off in jubilation after winning a penalty kick shootout in the World Cup finals because no woman has ever had to make a buzzer beater in the gold medal game.
It would take an astonishing amount of naivety to argue with Bird that at least some of the popularity of the women’s soccer team is due to physical appearance. Heterosexual men like good-looking heterosexual women. Duh. But, that doesn’t explain why players like Bird’s girlfriend Megan Rapinoe are so popular.
Maybe, not everything in life is as simple as painting everyone else as racists or homophobes.