Changes in how the game is officiated could increase entertainment value. (File photo by Kelly Kline)
Changes in how the game is officiated could increase entertainment value. (File photo by Kelly Kline)

The Ackerman Report (5): Competing for the entertainment dollar

August 23, 2013 - 12:18pm

(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.



Lee Michaelson's picture
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I've tried the Facebook commenting below twice now to no avail, so let me try this the old way. Clay, I've been really enjoying this series, but you've got me on this one. Wasn't it you who, less than a year ago, argued that Auriemma's and Bruno's (read FIBA's) proposal to lower the nets was unnecessary because "If you strip away the names and compare statistics for men's and women's basketball, really the only difference is assist/turnover ratio. Both genders shoot right around 63 percent from close to the basket, and shoot the pretty much the same everywhere else as well." (<a href="">Geno's Idea Is No Slam Dunk</a>) Now you posit that because women on average are shorter than men, "then women are going to shoot 8.3 percent lower than the men just because they are that much further away." Which is it? Or did women's basketball shooting percentages suffer a catastrophic drop in the 2012-13 season? What's more, generalizations about men, as a class, being taller, more muscular, and thus stronger, than women, as a class, might be relevant if we were discussing how to officiate a co-ed game. But why should the presumably weaker female defender's contact with the similarly weaker female ball-handler or shooter have any greater or lesser effect than the ostensibly stronger male defender's contact has on his male counterpart? Beyond that, while it might be nice to assume that athletes will simply adapt to the rules changes so that games will regain some offensive flow, experience has shown this not always to be the case. Constant whistles take players out of rhythm, and I, for one, doubt anyone would find a constant parade to the foul line particularly entertaining. Finally, one thing almost everyone agrees on is that inconsistent officiating hurts the game of basketball for everyone -- players and fans alike. But asking refs to now put an inherently subjective anti-defensive gloss on the existing rules is apt to increase that inconsistency, not mitigate it. While many of the Ackerman proposals make sense from a pragmatic standpoint, this one cries out for some real quantitative analysis, testing and measurement, rather than mere conjecture. It should not be that difficult an exercise to determine whether or not women shoot the ball any worse than men and the degree to which height differences influence shooting percentages -- at least within the middle hump of the bell curve. It would be more difficult, but far from impossible, to assess the degree, if any, to which contact between female athletes affects shooting percentages any differently from contact between male athletes. Until someone undertakes that analysis, the jury is out on this proposal to my mind.