(This is the fifth in a series of commentaries on Val Ackerman’s report on the state of NCAA women’s basketball.)
From a purely business perspective, sales are directly tied to the quality and price of the product. Since women’s basketball is a relative bargain in person, and almost free when broadcast, any growth in market share must clearly come from consumers enjoying the product enough to pay for it and/or watch it.
Or, to put it another way, women’s basketball is in the entertainment business, and must compete with other forms of entertainment to grow and thrive.
Setting aside, for this article at least, the caliber and skill of the athletes who play the game, what then can be done to make the sport better, while at the same time making it more fun to watch?
First, it’s important to separate the ideas “making the sport better” and “making it more fun to watch.” Some could argue that women’s basketball would be a better game without a shot clock, say, or with nine-foot rims. The first might appeal to those who love patterned offenses, say, while the second might be a great idea but is simply not practical. (What would be the cost of changing every rim in every gym in America? After all, only five states have shot clocks in high school, in great part because of the cost of buying and installing shot clocks at every high school in the country.)
So from a business standpoint, making the game “better” must go hand-in-hand with the practical aspects of making it “more fun to watch” – which might upset purists and radical reformers but is the reality of collegiate sports in 2013.
To begin with, what’s more fun to watch? The ball going in the basket or great defense? Through the grumbles, the acknowledgement that scoring is more entertaining than defense is clear. A 40-minute game that winds up 84-80 is simply more entertaining than one that finishes 58-54 (except perhaps to purists, who do not exist in great enough numbers to give women’s basketball the attendance and ratings’ boost it needs).
So just like the NBA, which made some radical changes in rules and rules enforcement to encourage more offense, women’s basketball must do whatever it can to generate more scoring – and the first move is to protect the shooter.
In general, female players are about six inches shorter than male players, and don’t jump as well, which means that their shots, again in general, are taken from nine inches to a foot further away from the basket. (This is why some want to lower the rim.) If ten inches is the average number, and if distance can be correlated with shooting percentage, then women are going to shoot 8.3 percent lower than the men just because they are that much further away.
In addition, women are not as physically strong as men, so it takes less contact to affect their shots than it does with men. (It may seem that this would apply to defenders as well, but think about it: When a defender makes contact with a player, she very, very seldom is using all of her strength – in fact, she’s trying to minimize the force of her contact. In other words, an offensive player uses almost all of her available strength to power through contact at the rim, while the defensive player is using only a fraction of hers.) Unfortunately, officials tend to judge what contact is permissible from the men’s game, so they will allow contact that might not affect a male shooter but will definitely affect a female shooter, and thus fewer shots are made.
By the same token, officials will allow contact in traps that might not affect a male ballhandler but will put a female ballhandler at a significant disadvantage. This allows stronger athletes to dominate more skilled athletes, and that’s a problem as it tends to reward size and strength over skill and intelligence.
Take the SEC as a prime example of this. Over the years, the SEC has become a (very successful) league of tall, strong, fast athletes who don’t necessarily shoot that well. The league features tremendous defense, in great part because those tall and strong athletes are allowed to use their size and strength to the point that they overwhelm players who, say, are excellent three-point shooters or pinpoint passers.
If officials protected shooters more, and protected ballhandlers more, coaches and defenders would adjust, and the game would open up – just as it did in the NBA.
This change could take place with minimal changes in the wording of the rule book, and perhaps none. All that would be required would be instructions to officials to penalize defensive contact with shooters and ballhandlers more stringently, and make sure that any advantage gained through the application of sheer physicality would result in a whistle.
Of course, there would be whining, as there was in the NBA, but it wouldn’t take long for coaches (who want to win) and players (who don’t want to foul and wind up watching from the bench) to adjust. And the result would be a game with more offensive flow, more points and more spectacular plays that result in baskets – and that’s exactly how to improve the product.
- The Ackerman Report (1): The best teams, not the richest, should host NCAA tournament
- The Ackerman Report (2): Does the Final Four need fixing?
- The Ackerman Report (3): Attendance, even with a winning team, is not mandatory
- The Ackerman Report (4): The media that matter the most