Letäó»s Talk About the WNBA: Evaluating itäó»s Success in Spite of the Odds

Posted By: Nyasha Sarju
Posted On: February 22nd, 2017
Attending: Ulster University

     Recently, a long-time personal idol, women’s basketball icon, Stanford All-American, and 8-year WNBA player, Candice Wiggins participated in an interview about her experience as a player in the WNBA. Despite being the 3rd draft pick in 2008, being named the WNBA’s sixth woman of the year in her rookie season and winning a WNBA championship with the Minnesota Lynx in 2011, Wiggins’ interview detailed an experience that was much more grim than would appear on the surface. Citing the “harmful” culture of the WNBA, Wiggins said that “It was a depressing state in the WNBA. It’s not watched. Our value is diminished. It can be quite hard. I didn’t like the culture inside the WNBA, and without revealing too much, it was toxic for me. … My spirit was being broken.” (Leonard). She also alleged that she was bullied in response to her unashamed straight female identity and felt that she didn’t fit in well with the masculine culture of the WNBA. Furthermore, Wiggins made some very questionable claims, stating that “98 percent of the women in the WNBA are gay” and that “Nobody cares about the WNBA. Viewership is minimal. Ticket sales are very low. They give away tickets and people don’t come to the game.” (Leonard). Even though the number of gay or straight players in a league should be irrelevant, other statistics might suggest that the proportion of lesbian women in the WNBA is closer to between 40 and 50 percent, making the 98% assertion look a bit far-fetched. 

     Since the account of her interview was published in the San-Diego Union Tribune, many former and current WNBA players, gay and straight, have responded, refuting this bullying culture and proclaiming the positive, inclusive and uplifting experiences they have had during their time in the league. While no one account should be marginalized based the conflicting experiences of the masses, it is interesting and provocative to explore why these differing accounts have arisen. For her grievances, I extend my deepest condolences and hope that others will take her concerns seriously and try and reflect on the ways they can positively contribute to the culture.  

     My knowledge of the intimacies of the WNBA is limited to a summer experience as an intern with the Seattle Storm. I was quite taken with the diversity within that organization, from race, to age, to sexual orientation, to style, to family structures, to personal lifestyles and aspirations. I felt so inspired and enriched just by listening to, talking with, and watching these incredible women play. There was an atmosphere of love and accountability and there were clear and common goals that drove the vision of the program. Being in the presence of such excellence and grace was inspirational as a young woman and as a collegiate basketball player. I would be remiss to speak further on the culture of the WNBA because I am not in it and my view was quite limited; however, the other aspect of Wiggins’ accounts that I found troubling were her references to the masculinization of the sport and the lack of success of the league. I don’t find these assertions troubling because they lack factual evidence, but because they don’t give enough context as to why the league faces the challenges that is does.

     Candice and I will agree that the WNBA, a league founded 20 years ago, has struggled to substantially grow its attendance, fan base, revenue or popularity since its inception. Where we may disagree is the why. In my opinion it is of the utmost importance to clearly differentiate between the outcome and the underlying mechanisms. I think this lack of success is NOT the fault to the WNBA or of the players. Why? Because the league’s talent, athleticism and competition has skyrocketed, and anyone who actually takes the time to watch it would recognize how incredible it really is. The WNBA is a league that started out with 16 players and has expanded to encompass 12 teams that play in large arenas in big cities, with a draft every year. Naturally, one would expect this continued growth in competitiveness and ability to be accompanied by a proportional growth in success, by means of a rise in popularity, attendance, and profit; but unfortunately the WNBA continues to struggle in generating the profit growth that tends to define organizational success. The WNBA and its players defy society’s acceptable realms of women in sport because it is largely dominated by strong, black women and despite its varied make-up, it is frequently interpreted as “one big lesbian party” according to WNBA star, Seimone Augustus (Katz). This statement is only partially justified by the 40% of the WNBA’s players that identify as lesbian (Evans) as well as by their biggest fan base, lesbian women.  The WNBA recognizes the social predicament that this portrayal creates and as a result has tried to extend its marketing strategies to appeal to a more heteronormative population. In America, where white men run the country, and “sixty percent of the television viewing audience is male” (Evans), supposed macho black women are not a product they want to see and therefore the white male and male fan base as a whole is largely absent from the WNBA. The emphasized masculinity of the WNBA, combined with and driven by the race and perceived sexuality of the players, has continued to limit the success and marketability of the WNBA, thus making it a league predisposed for limited success in American society.

     And yet this predisposition does not mandate failure. If it did, then no one who was un-athletic would become a professional athlete, no poor person would become wealthy, and no black person would survive or thrive in America. We know that individuals and organizations can defy the norm, can rise above their limitations and can do great things. That is why I think it is important to celebrate the WNBA, an organization who I believe has the odds stacked against them, and yet has managed to stay alive and continue to produce great basketball and provide its fans with an ultimate experience. In 2016, the WNBA saw record-breaking attendance numbers, increased ESPN and ESPN2 viewership by 11%, increased League Pass subscriptions by 24%, elevated its social media presence and following, and had record breaking sales via WNBAStore.com (WNBA Website). So while the growth may be slow and at times feel stagnant, The WNBA and its players have been resilient and that should be commended. Furthermore, I think it is paramount that people understand all that the WNBA and and its players are up against – a struggle of race, sexuality, hegemonic masculinity and femininity and a culture where sport has been relegated as a male entity. 

     Within female athletics there is a constant pull between being a dominant athlete and retaining femininity. Women are sometimes forced to sacrifice their ability in an effort to retain their femininity (Carty 138). This issue creates a dichotomy in which female sport is either hyper-masculinized or hyper-feminized. Sports serve an important role in supporting and promoting “conventional social values” of masculinity and consequently limit the ability of female sports to be seen as normal or acceptable (Griffin 16). Sports are not just athletic games that encourage competition and perseverance but also serve as profit machines that drive national and communal pride. In this country sports have been a vehicle for fostering a culture of hegemonic masculinity through the perpetration of dominating and masculine values, which are displayed by intense competition and physical toil (Griffin 17).  In other words, sport has long been seen as a “training grounds” for masculinity (Griffin 17). Women in sport threaten this masculinity because if “women in sport can be tough minded, competitive, and muscular too, then sport loses its special place in the development of masculinity for men” (Griffin 17). While some female sports have complied with society’s call to femininity through their attire, lack of peak physical strength, and/or a continued promotion of their more feminine qualities, the WNBA faces a unique challenge – as there are no aspects of women’s basketball that have an explicit feminine appeal. Further complicating the issue of hegemonic masculinity and femininity are the constructs of race and perceived sexuality. 

     In the essay "Queering Whiteness: The Peculiar Case of the Women's National Basketball Association" Mary McDonald analyzes the ways culture can be learned through sports, and how race plays a role in creating that culture. McDonald discusses how the media portrays white female athletes, in particular, former WNBA player Suzie McConnell-Serio as a “good white girl” (McDonald 382).  McDonald discusses the way that Suzie fits perfectly into the picture the media loves to portray of female athletes- blonde, white, heterosexual, and motherly. McDonald points to many articles that treat McConnell-Serio’s success as a WNBA player as secondary, making her motherhood of four and marriage the most important part of her success story.  These representations of the WNBA were the most successful and popular in bringing “normalcy” to the league. Suzie’s ability as a (perceived) rare, white, and heterosexual WNBA player made her the poster child of their success (McDonald 382). There have been extensive scholarly conversations about how the constructs of race, sexuality and gender norms influence and affect female sports, but few of these have looked at the interplay of these constructs. Modern day representations of feminine WNBA players reinforce the societal norm that the female sports can only be celebrated and promoted when the femininity and heterosexuality of the athlete is not compromised by that athlete’s participation in sport. Take for example, Candace Parker, a storied player with an extraordinary record of achievement and success in the game. Candace Parker has, deservingly, become a feminine face of the WNBA. Among the countless articles written about this superstar and supermom is an article by ESPN with a subtitle stating that Candace is  “the total package: your sister's pal, your brother's prom date, supermom-to-be” and in which the first line describes her as “Beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup she is proud of but never flaunts” (Glock). Once the article finishes advertising her most relevant traits of femininity and heterosexuality, it begins to mention her basketball superstar status and her revolutionary contributions to the game. But as we see by the first line of the article, it is not her skill alone that makes her marketable; rather, it is her beauty, heterosexuality and normativity combined with her extreme basketball ability and athleticism that has created a sellable package in the WNBA player of Candace Parker. Articles like ESPN’s are not uncommon because the media continues to perpetrate American societal norms in order to promote products of social worth. 

     In a country birthed in racist views and values, femininity and masculinity in America are more complex than just man and woman, dominance and submission, because they are equally influenced by the social construct of race. While all female athletes have to assert their femininity, black female athletes also have to prove their lack of sexual deviancy in addition to their ability to possess social normalcy. In America the definition of beauty is centered around thin, white, blonde females because they are seen as normal, attractive women who are non-threatening to the throne of white male dominance and who instead aid the existence of a male dominated society. Seventy-five percent of the players in the WNBA are black compared with the fifteen percent of the league that is white (Lapchick). Additionally, American history and ingrained racial prejudices allow little room for black females within the definition of hegemonic femininity. Instead, since the time of slavery, black women have often been portrayed as “sensual, promiscuous, and deviant,” especially in comparison to their white female counterparts. The beauty and femininity of black players is generally superseded by the representations of their large muscles and strong bodies (Carty 147). Somewhat contrastingly, black women have also been portrayed as animalistic, barbaric, and lacking the ability to be controlled. Therefore, black female athletes are often seen as more aggressive and less feminine, and are subsequently less marketable. The American society we live in places white women in a position of privilege in that at the root of the “basic definition of whiteness is its superiority to blackness” (Pettyman 83) and thus black women are instantaneously at a social disadvantage with respect to everything, and in this case, with respect to their sexuality. According to King, black women have never been able to give voice to their sexuality, hence rendering it an abstract of deviancy without a label and resulting in the extreme tendency towards ignoring the black female regardless of sexual orientation. Consequently, American society has little concern and places hardly any importance on the existence of black lesbians (King 280) because their narrative fits nowhere into society’s constructions of sexuality and race. So, while female blackness has been largely undefined, the homosexual narrative has been even more of an anomaly – something that has made black lesbian players unmarketable to many groups.  

     So, yes, Candice, the WNBA has faced many challenges with regards to turning a profit and marketing itself successfully, but much more important than this fact is that DESPITE the barriers of trying to market perhaps the most marginalized group of women in American society, the WNBA remains, and continues, slowly but surely to grow and to produce excellent basketball consisting of the highest level female players in the entire world. I am a huge fan of the WNBA because I think it is made up of an exceptionally diverse and complex array of phenomenal ballers, competitors, women and human beings and I feel inspired and empowered daily by these women, including you. It is important to recognize that the league’s popularity, revenue, etc. is not growing as it should be, but to leave it at this sells these phenomenal women (of which you are one) short. And if men don’t want to watch the WNBA because it threatens their masculinity or doesn’t have enough hot chicks in it (even though I think there are lots of beautiful women in it), then so be it, lets get more WOMEN watching the WNBA. Lets target a broad female fanbase that could be out there but does not yet exist. Lets recognize barriers and propose solutions. Is the pay in the WNBA too low? Absolutely. But in order to change that we have to find ways to generate the revenue that these women deserve. I think there is a huge difference between having value and being valued. I believe the WNBA has value and at the same time I think we need to find ways to make it more valued. 


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