But this year, after a playoffs riddled with late starts on alternate networks and overt disrespect for the game, ESPN/ABC/NBATV all decided the final moments of the 2018 WNBA season weren't worth celebrating. This was a final slap in the face, a last evidential stamp on where the W stood in relation to its broadcast partners and, by extension, the viewing public, doubters, haters, and general misogynistic vitriol that has plagued the league since its inception.
There was a palpable enthusiasm and purpose coming into this year. After all, we'd just seen maybe the greatest NCAA Women's Final Four of all time, and there was a concerted push to carry the interest generated by that spectacle forward into the WNBA. Websites were either expanding or springing up out of whole cloth and hiring extremely talented writers to boost coverage. My podcast feed went from having two women's hoops pods to eight at warp speed. Everywhere from established platforms like ESPN's "Around the Rim" to upstart blogs to the truly beautiful and life-giving community that is #WNBATwitter, one mandate emerged: Grow The Game.
Certainly, there are elements of that growth process we can't control. Fans and media won't be in the room for the next round of CBA negotiations. Decisions on revenue sharing and travel policy, the two most critical issues that need significant overhauls for the good of the league, are not things anyone outside the W's power structure can have a direct hand in. But those conversations and the leverage the players hold in them will be predicated on viewership and attendance numbers, which tie directly to advertising revenue, which could increase those numbers even more, and so on. We have reached a critical inflection point for the game, and we all want that graph to curve upward. I have an idea about how to achieve that, or at least to help. It's a small one, and possibly misguided and/or ineffectual, but I've been thinking about it for a while now, so please bear with me.
There was an episode of "Around The Rim" a while back where the guest informed them that Smith College actually played the first ever women's basketball game. I had always thought the first game was Stanford vs. Cal at the San Francisco Armory on April 4, 1896, but that was the first intercollegiate game. (There is a $3 Kindle book well worth your time called "The First Women's College Basketball Game" that compiles student and local newspaper articles leading up to, during, and after that momentous event.) But the first time a woman put a ball through the hoop wasn't a sanctioned college game. Of course it wasn't; college basketball didn't exist when it happened. James Naismith rolled the ball out for the first time on December 21, 1891. The first ever basketball game was a scrimmage at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was an entirely new sport. The first women's basketball game would therefore have been a scrimmage too, not an official intercollegiate match up. And so sometime in March 1892, Senda Berenson, then the newly minted "gymnastics" coach at Smith College, replicated Naismith's experiment with what proved to be raucous and enthusiastic results.
In the context of modern women's basketball, this seems like an incidental piece of trivia, but I think it's actually vitally important. December 1891 to March 1892 is a few months, a tiny blip on the timescale. This is essential because in public perception, women playing basketball is a relatively new thing. Most of the invective thrown at women's hoops is flat-out sexist bullshit, but at least some of it stems from a lack of understanding of the roots of the game. The majority of basketball fans seem to think women's basketball was "invented" by some confluence of Title IX, Pat Summitt, Nancy Lieberman, and the Olympics. This could not be further from the truth. The WNBA itself is new, yes. But a few scant months separate basketball's invention from women embracing it. In the grand scope of history, women have been balling since balling was a thing you could do.
After listening to that "Around The Rim" episode, I read everything I could on the history of women's basketball. There is so much beauty and history. SO MUCH. And we, as fans, have not done right by that history. We can use it, we can reach back to move forward. As part of a larger overall picture, we can use the beauty and courage of past generations and honor them by planting a flag, one of many that we need, but an essential part, of growing this game we love.
The aforementioned "The First Women's College Basketball Game" is essential. But also: read Lydia Reeder's "Dust Bowl Girls" and David McElwain's "The Only Dance In Iowa" and probably most importantly Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford's "Shattering The Glass" and there is a deep, rich, and rewarding exegesis of women's hoops going back well over a century.
The fans have been there from the beginning. They walked miles over dirt track roads in the dead cold of Midwestern winters to scream their throats raw for the young women on the court playing highs school ball on Friday nights. The gyms were heated by wood stoves, sometimes set in the middle of the actual playing floor; sometimes placed where they could heat the building while also lurking for unsuspecting opposing players to run into. A true home court advantage if ever there was one. But they came to cheer for women's basketball, for the pride of their home towns, for the game they knew and anointed as the marker of success for their small communities. Because they loved it. Because it was everything; the way local fans have always congregated to their towns and their teams. Reading the accounts of those games, written long before my parents were born, is no different than reading a write-up of any other sports game. High school football in Georgia or Florida or Texas, basketball in Indiana or Kansas. In the days of sawdust floors and tin bleachers, fans were rabid, passionate, dedicated-to-the-point-of-unhinged over women's hoops. The game has always been here. It has always been loved. It has always mattered.
In the barnstorming era, premier squads packed local civic centers in Philadelphia and Durham and Austin and Dallas. Elite ass-kicking squads of ballin' ladies traveled the country laying waste to everything in their path. It was not uncommon, when a traveling team stopped in a city for a few days' worth of exhibition games against local competition, for the women's team to take on a local men's squad. It was also not uncommon for the ladies to run the men's asses up and down the court and eventually out of the fucking gym.
Throughout all of this incredible and transcendent history, the same bullshit we are still dealing with now was ever present. Organizations rose up to protect the "sanctity" or "modesty" or "propriety" or whatever of women and say that these nice young ladies shouldn't be engaging in the rough and "manly" world of sports. (Gag)
But the game kept on. It has always been a beacon for change. One of the foremost points of pride for most WNBA fans is the league's embrace of activism. But women's basketball has fought those battles literally from jump. The W is fighting for feminism, for the LGBTQIA community, for Black Lives Matter. This is not in any way meant to downplay the significance of those fights, just to say that while tt hasn't always been as soon as it should have, this game has almost always been the first to advocate for important causes for women and POC going way back.
Which brings me to my long-winded point. How can we use this? We are in a fight to protect and grow this game we love, and we have history going back to damn near when the first basketball was tipped and we almost never talk about it. Cant' we make a holistic historical argument here? I understand we have to give professional basketball priority. I understand the W needs our help more because college hoops ain't going anywhere and we have to boost viewership of the W because the league's survival depends on increased revenue to hopefully pay the players what they're worth and get some decent travel channels. I understand that this requires highlighting the current stars of the game. We have a perfect recipe right now. Old vets still kicking ass in DT and Sue, mid-career greats like Maya and Angel ripping it up, and a new generation of Goddesses in Stewie and A'ja et. al. You sell the game on the stars that are there. That's important; it's vital. But I feel like if we showed the world how deep and passionate the history is, how far back it goes, they might sit up and take a little more notice. Why not run ads with faded pictures and info blurbs chronicling important historical moments, all the way back to Senda Berenson in 1892? Why not lobby the broadcast partners for a few E60 segments on Babe Didrikson or Ora Mae Washington (which, on a related note, how the HELL was she only now inducted into the HOF?!?!?!?) If we can show people how great this game has always been, and that there has never been basketball that was not played by women, maybe that would help.
It doesn't solve the myriad problems facing the game. Not close. I'm just asking a question. Would displaying the full beauty and struggle and historical import of women's basketball as a complete entity help to grow the game? And if so, how do we make that happen?