The Progression of Women's Basketball

The sound of the ball meeting the wood floor, the squeak of shoes during a backdoor cut, and the swish of a perfect jump-shot all say something special about basketball. Men and women alike enjoy the sport and honor the tradition of the game with their play, yet there is a troubling discrepancy in the number of fans following men's basketball as opposed to women's.

For example, men’s college basketball experienced a 12% increase in viewership for the NCAA National Championship game from the previous year, drawing 23.4 million viewers. Comparatively, the women’s NCAA National Championship game drew 3.2 million viewers which marked a 24% drop from the prior year. Women play the same beautiful game as men, so what causes such a discrepancy in viewership?

Firstly, an absence of star players hurt the women’s game. With the advent of the one-and-done culture in men’s basketball, the desire to play a more athletic, faster, and physical style of play quickly developed. To draw similar viewership, women’s basketball had to respond.

Recently, the emergence of star players such as Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins, and Elena Delle Donne (pictured below) have filled this need. Their absence/presence might even explain the drop in viewership between the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 women’s NCAA Championship games. Two years ago, Brittney Griner’s Baylor squad comfortably defeated Skylar Diggins and Notre Dame, capping an undefeated season for the Baylor. However, this past spring the Connecticut Huskies bested an over-achieving Louisville team by more than 30 points. While Connecticut may be a storied program and possess a rising star in Breanna Stewart, without the biggest names in the women’s game, viewership arguably suffered.





Analysts for college basketball also tend to direct attention to a lack of parity in women’s basketball as another structural flaw. After all, in its 31 years of existence at the Division I level, either Connecticut or Tennessee has been the champion or runner-up on 21 occasions. Just as concerns over the star-power of the women’s game were answered, so can questions regarding parity.

While men’s basketball recognized Oregon as its first Division I champion in 1939, women’s basketball did not crown its first champion until 1982. In retrospect, approximately 30 years after its inception, men’s basketball experienced the same lack of parity characteristic of women’s basketball. The 1960s and 1970s alone saw UCLA win 10 national championships. Then, from the 1980s until the turn of the century, there were 16 different national champions. Instead of a cause for concern in women’s basketball, skeptics should view the lack of parity as a stage in the development of the women’s game.

Other changes have been made to the infrastructure of women’s basketball that have and will continue to pay dividends. For instance, girls AAU programs are growing across the country. With more options for coaches, players, parents, and programs, girls can develop a love for basketball at a younger age, increasing their level of exposure and experience.

Other societal changes founded upon legal measures have changed the perspective of potential fans. Title IX, which was passed in 1972, encourages gender equality in both educational and athletic opportunities.  Specifically, colleges must provide equitable funding, scholarships, and available athletic programs to men and women based on the college’s student population.

In addition, the recent enactment of the Equal Pay Act speaks to society, sets the stage for development in women’s basketball, and sends a positive and progressive message to female coaches, athletic directors, and employees at-large working in college sports. Essentially, this legislation demonstrates a societal understanding of gender equality and an appreciation for the talent of all female athletes who can now flourish knowing fair compensation will be awarded.



Due to such empowerment, former WNBA President, Val Ackerman (pictured above), has taken action to ensure the continual development of the women’s game and has composed a 52-page list of issues that women’s basketball must consider to see improvement. These include a defined vision, efficient and unified governance and management, maintenance of a quality, the encouragement of increased attendance, the generation of larger revenues, and the improvement of the student-athlete experience. In years to come, Ackerman’s proposal could mark a watershed moment in the history of women’s basketball.

Make no mistake, women’s basketball warrants admiration. For example, former head coach Pat Summitt tallied 1,098 wins over her career and serves as the all-time wins leader in both men’s and women’s Division I basketball. Also, 90% of the athletes from the 2012-2013 women’s NCAA Tournament graduate as compared to 70% of athletes from the men’s field. The commitment, passion, and talent of female players and coaches speaks for itself. 

Ultimately, female recruits have a unique opportunity to make a difference and help shape the women’s game during a time of change. With additional adjustments on the horizon, women’s basketball shows the promise of continual growth.