Complaining won’t get you on Sportscenter

Geno Auriemma thinks observers of intercollegiate athletics aren’t giving women’s basketball players the due that their male counterparts receive. True or not, Auriemma ’s ire is misplaced. As CBS will tell you, the nation isn’t so impressed the men these days, either.

Auriemma  issued some choice words concerning the public perception of women’s basketball prior to his University of Connecticut team breaking the all-time record for consecutive NCAA Division I victories. Auriemma took offense to the NCAA basketball establishment showing such a belated interest in his team’s accomplishment. “Because we’re breaking a men’s record, we’ve got a lot of people paying attention,” Auriemma said. “If we were breaking a women’s record, everybody would go, ‘Aren’t those girls nice, let’s give them two paragraphs in USA Today, you know, give them one line on the bottom of ESPN and then let’s send them back where they belong, in the kitchen.'”

Auriemma ’s sound bite seems plucked from an era more distant than that of the streak his team recently broke. I take Auriemma to raise a perfectly relevant issue: how and why do we devote our attention to women’s athletic accomplishments, and what does that say about prevailing gender biases in America? But Auriemma contemplates a world in which top amateurs compete for our attention. That isn’t today’s reality.

Amateur basketball players of both sexes fail to wow us these days. Nielsen ratings for the Men’s NCAA Basketball Final have dropped precipitously in the past fifteen years. That’s just the big game. The networks hardly find regular season NCAA basketball marketable anymore.

The institution of competitive basketball went free agent in the 1990s. A handful of high school basketball players made a successful leap to the NBA, encouraging more to follow suit. The most successful and magnetic player of this group just entered his fifteenth NBA season. Not coincidentally, NCAA ratings started to drop around the time Michael Jordan’s heir was turning down scholarship offers. The flood of inexperienced pros may have contributed to the decline of the NBA’s product, ironically. It has certainly diluted the talent in the college game.

Just as importantly, amateur sports aren’t fighting over a few paragraphs in a print newspaper anymore. Basketball fans access the sport through television highlights, real time online updates, and Youtube videos. A columnist testifying to the consistency and determination of a 90-game win streak struggles to capture our imagination the way an awe-inspiring dunk on Youtube can.

Auriemma’s team isn’t fighting the men’s national champion for recognition. He’s fighting LeBron James and Kobe Bryant for air time. No amount of consistency or determination can overcome the deficit Auriemma’s team faces in that battle.

Title VII combined with the dedication of thousands of women’s coaches and athletes have helped to level the playing field between men and women in amateur athletics. As Auriemma probably sought to point out, we still harbor some unfortunate biases.

The market for basketball fame is otherwise virtually unregulated these days, however, and the competition is fierce. Amateurs, men and women, have failed to compel us in this unforgiving environment the way they once did. Clamoring about gender biases won’t help. Auriemma needs to find a more effective way to market his team’s incredible achievements, or he will only see his market share continue to shrink.

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