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Slam-Dunk

Why is it that women's basketball is always on television even though no one's watching it?

7:45 PM, Apr 8, 2003 • By STACEY PRESSMAN
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AFTER SYRACUSE'S BIG VICTORY last night, the women's NCAA tourney concludes tonight with the University of Connecticut taking on the University of Tennessee. In an effort to make this match-up seem like less of an afterthought, the defenders of women's basketball will be out in force.

"Women's basketball is the best pure form of basketball out there," they'll tell us. "They play the sport the way it's meant to be played, below the rim and with more team play as opposed to one-on-one."

I have to disagree: Women's basketball sucks.

There, I said it. I have nothing but respect for women's basketball players. They're talented athletes and fierce competitors. But watching 40 minutes of underhanded lay-ups just isn't exciting.

Political correctness has crept out of the academy and into the sports establishment. No one is allowed to say anything negative about women's basketball in fear of coming across as sexist--or worse. But the fact remains that with the exception of the Women's NCAA Final Four match-ups (the two national semifinals and tonight's championship game will do quite well), virtually no one watches women's basketball. Yet out of either a slavish devotion to political correctness or intimidation, the media puts these games on television.

ESPN has shown all 63 games of the women's NCAA tournament. NBC tortures audiences with the WNBA all summer long. No one denies that viewership for these games is close to non-existent, or that any other programming with similar ratings would be canceled posthaste. But the networks claim that money-losing commitment is a "long-term strategy" and they're banking on the "development of the sport."

I'm a woman and I love sports, but enough already. Promoting women's basketball on equal footing with the men's is an embarrassment because they're not co-equals. At both the collegiate and professional levels, the women's game is a parasite that feeds off the men's.

Sure, some programs--like UConn and Tennessee--actually turn a profit, but the rest of them can't survive without heavy subsidies and a "long-term commitment to growth." Out of the 324 Division I women's programs last year, only 6 made money. Overall, women's hoops is by far the NCAA's biggest money-losing sport in Division 1A--yet it receives attention way beyond what it deserves, with heavy promotion and lots of airtime on television (all 63 games of this year's tourney--in 37 regional windows--aired on ESPN).

Where I live, I got to see UConn's first round annihilation of Boston University, a game UConn led at halftime 49-22. Is showing this debacle really "growing" the sport? And how ironic that Boston University was served up as UConn's sacrificial lamb. Boston University, you'll remember, is a school that lost its entire football team to Title IX compliance. One would have thought that without big-time football's "drain" on the athletic program the women of BU could put up better numbers.

The Nielsen ratings for this first-round tourney action? A puny 0.34 (294,902 households).

Let's put that in perspective. Remember the XFL on NBC? The pro-wrestling inspired football league lost parent company General Electric something in the neighborhood of $50 million and was canceled after one season, due to low ratings. Well, the XFL championship game between the Los Angeles Xtreme and the San Francisco Demons garnered a 2.1 (2,157, 000 households). Here's more perspective: The 2002 championship game of the WNBA garnered a 1.0 rating (1,085,000 households) on NBC, the same network which ruthlessly cut the XFL. Yet the WNBA is now in its seventh season on network television.

In men's sports, ratings are everything. With women's sports, no one cares so long as you're "on message." (The WNBA is so political that its website has an entire zone devoted to "Show Your Support for Title IX.")

The infuriating thing is that there are plenty of sports where the women's game is equally, if not more, enjoyable to watch than the men's. And it doesn't require charity and hype to get people to tune in. We've got tennis, soccer, volleyball, gymnastics, and figure skating. But no, the girl-power publicity machine is not going to be satisfied. They're going to jam women's basketball down your throat UNTIL YOU LIKE IT!

Sports programming should be about entertainment, not waging the gender wars on our television sets.

Stacey Pressman is a contributing writer to ESPN.com's Page 2.