Friday, January 30, 2009

REPORTER BLOG: Basketball Loneliness

By Julia Woehrle

"So you're going to the basketball game Julia?" my colleague says.
"Yes, the women's," I answer.
"You'll be the only one there."
Now that got me thinking.
So, when I went to the game Ohio University versus Northern Illinois, I paid close attention to the atmosphere in the Convocation Center.

Dismal Empty Seats
Most of the time when I let my eyes wander to its empty seats, the Convo seemed to be immensely huge. And in the face of this enormous space the players on the field looked very small. Somehow it just didn't feel right: the music of the band, the cheerleader's shouts, the announcer's voice... all of it echoed back hollowly from the Convo's empty seats.

TV report on the women's game on Athens MidDay

The Men's Game - the Convo is Packed
Both Bobcat teams lost their home games on Dad's weekend. But whereas hardly any Dads got to see the loss of the women's team, quite a few Dads (and Moms and kids and Grandpas and Grandmas) were hanging on the edge of their seats watching the men's game. The women profited a little bit from the fact that the men's game was scheduled right after theirs, during the second half people slowly started filling up at least some of the empty seats. But that was nothing compared to the crowd that had arrived for the second tip-off of the day. For the men's game the Convo was packed.

Happy Cheers for a Crowd that isn't There
What felt so weird watching the women's game was the fact that the whole infrastructure at the Convo that actually greets an audience at the men's game seems opulent and out of place whenever that audience isn't there.

Nobody sees how the cheerleaders do their somersaults, hardly anybody joins them in their "O-H-I-O!!" and the position where the band is positioned sits is the most crowded space in the Convo. The point is, the work that is the backbone of this women's Basketball game that "nobody" is watching is just as professional as it is in the men's version. How sad that it doesn't get the same kind of attention.

A Different Sports Culture, but Not that Different?
I switched on my "watching big sports events memory". In my family EVERYONE is a P.E. teacher. I grew up under the principles of Turnvater (father of gymnastics) Jahn and under the influence of a family that would gather in front of the TV every day of all the Olympic Games, gymnastics and track and field worldcups. We also watched the Soccer Worldcups and Eurocups. But guess what? While the gender gap was practically non-existent in my socialization as a viewer of big non-team sports events like tennis, gymnastics and track - whose soccer games did we watch...?? Huh??? ONLY THE MEN'S.

I am from another sports culture, I am old-European, I am from soccer world. But one thing seems to be the same in the US and my home country Germany: most famous female athletes do not play team sports. And in Germany the national women's soccer team was a lot more successful in the last decades than the men's. I know Miroslav Klose, Michael Ballack and Timo Hildebrandt, but none of the female soccer players in the national team. How many WNBA players can you name? And how many NBA stars? Isn't the world of Sports Super Stars, where the big money is made, still very much a men's world? And even more so if a team is involved. Just look up US sports in Wikipedia. You'll see that obviously football, basketball, baseball and hockey are the most popular team sports. How many women football, basketball and hockey players do you know??? And no, apparently softball doesn't count, Wikipedia doesn't say a thing about softball.

Tough Guys and Pretty Girls
Another confession got me thinking about just why exactly women's team-sports often attract many fewer visitors than men's do. After I came back from the game my roommate said, "I feel bad, I never watch the women's games. Only Volleyball sometimes." Why do we watch women tennis players, gymnasts, swimmers and track athletes, but are mostly oblivious of the women who play our favorite team sports? I came up with two answers:

1. It's a structural issue--while tennis, gymnastics, swimming and track and field tournaments are mixed gender events, the team sports usually aren't. We see the women gymnasts and swimmers anyway, but to watch a women's ballgame, we have to get that extra ticket.

2. I just can't stop myself from thinking that there are also some old-school gender expectations at work. Something along these lines: Men in sports you better be tough. And ladies - you better be pretty, too.

Let's face it - somehow the general conception is that it's less fun to watch women pushing each other around to win a ballgame than it is to watch men doing just about the same. And if the "it's less athletic argument" doesn't have such a big effect on tennis and gymnastics - why does it in team sports?

Headcoach Semeka Randall speaks about the game and the crowd

We the viewers
I am generalizing here, but I'm doing it to draw some awareness to the women in sports. There are the aesthetic ones - the long-legged Swedish high jumper and the gymnast who flies across the floor in somersaults. There are the ones that put a net between themselves and their competitors - the tennis and volleyball players who wear short skirts and in the case of beach volleyball, shorts aren't supposed to be wider than 2 inches at the sides. And there are the team girls who are used to pushing each other around to sink the ball in the net. They don't care that being pushy is not the epitome of lady-likeness. But I think maybe we, the sports viewers - men and women alike - somehow still do, on a subconscious level.

So we go and watch the men's basketball game, while the women's team quietly joins the crowd that has been ignoring them for the last two hours. And we don't even notice, we have accepted the sports world as it is. Until we somehow end up at a women's basketball game, for instance as a reporter, and realize how much, in some places, our world is still a men's world.

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