Participation in girls' basketball declined by 3 percent over the last four years, while other sports grew as much as 23 percent. (File photo by Kelly Kline)
Participation in girls' basketball declined by 3 percent over the last four years, while other sports grew as much as 23 percent. (File photo by Kelly Kline)

The Ackerman Report (7): The decline of girls' high school basketball?

September 4, 2013 - 1:50pm

(This is the seventh in a series of commentaries on Val Ackerman’s report on the state of NCAA women’s basketball.)

There are only so many elite athletes.

Val Ackerman touched on this aspect of women’s basketball only briefly in her report, but it should be obvious that the quality of play in any sport is directly proportional to the number of elite athletes who play it. And though the following numbers are somewhat misleading, consider what happened in high school girls’ participation in the four years from 2008 to 2012:

Volleyball: +5 percent (418,903 participants)

Soccer: +7 percent (370,975 participants)

Lacrosse: +23 percent (74,993 participants)

Water polo: +5 percent (18,749 participants)

Clearly, growth is at best solid and in the case of lacrosse, a contact sport that much resembles basketball, phenomenal, according to the National Federation of High Schools.

Now consider girls’ basketball:

-3 percent (435,885 participants)

So even though more girls play basketball in high school than any of the other sports, basketball is the only sport in which participation is declining. This broad portrait is borne out in my area of Northern California, the San Francisco Bay Area. Schools with enrollments of 1,500 or so almost always used to have three levels of girls’ basketball: varsity, junior varsity and frosh. Now, freshman girls’ basketball teams have all but disappeared (in one very strong eight-team league that used to have a competitive frosh league, only two teams had freshman teams last year). In the small schools’ league in which I now coach, with enrollments generally below 500, JV teams have pretty much disappeared, and league athletic directors have begun to feel that girls’ basketball is a sport on the wane.

This does not mean girls’ basketball is about to disappear from American high schools. The sport actually generates revenue for high schools at the gate, and is the most attended, in most cases, of all girls’ sports. The game itself will remain – but will it ever grow again? And, looking at the bigger picture, are other sports dipping deeper into that limited pool of elite athletes?

Another local angle: Back in the day, I was coaching against Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, a very strong basketball program that has sent many girls on to Division I colleges. We lost, and got torched by a tall, slender center named Kerri Walsh. A couple years later, a girl from a diffrerent school scored 34 against a team that went on to win the state title – her name was Nicole Branagh.

Even casual sports fans recognize the name of Kerri Walsh, but Branagh was also a standout in beach volleyball, and obviously both would have been very successful had they stuck with basketball instead.

But they didn’t, and the participation numbers show that more and more girls are following the path that Walsh and Branagh decided to take. The natural question is why, and here are some thoughts:

  1. Volleyball is a non-contact sport. One of the most difficult things to get girls to do in basketball is to embrace the idea of initiating contact. They are not as fond of contact sports as boys (for whatever reasons), so volleyball is an appealing alternative for a tall, slender girl who jumps well and has excellent hand-eye coordination.
  1. Appearance counts. As one who raised two daughters (with middling success) and one who has coached teen-age girls for longer than I care to recall, I still make no claims to expert status. I am confident in saying this, though: Girls care deeply about how they look to others.

Basketball styles are driven by the men’s game, which in turn is driven by the hip-hop subculture. The fashion there, for many years, has been baggy pants and loose-fitting tops, and so that’s what top girls’ players tend to wear. Baggy pants and loose-fitting tops do not necessarily make up the most attractive outfits a tall, slender, fit young woman can wear – but if she plays volleyball, she wears tight shorts and form-fitting tops.

In addition, basketball is a sweaty sport, and glamor is not part of the equation. Volleyball, though a demanding sport that requires exceptional athleticism, is much less demanding physically, in fact to the point that a girl can wear her makeup while playing and not worry about her mascara running.

  1. Volleyball is a much more communal sport. Women and girls, for whatever reason, are more interested in popularity within a group and consensus than boys. Volleyball plays into that cultural role because even though the setter almost always touches the ball, the rotation rule and serves aimed at the weakest players guarantee that there’s much more involvement from everyone. In basketball, the top players will handle the ball a much greater percentage of the time than in volleyball – especially because basketball defense doesn’t involve the ball at all, while volleyball defense requires someone to touch the ball.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that volleyball is booming in popularity compared to basketball, but luckily for college basketball, volleyball’s scoring methods mean that the length of matches is wildly variable – which in turn means it’s not that good for TV. A best-three-out-of-five match could last an hour, or more than twice that time, which makes is very difficult to schedule. Basketball’s two-and-a-half-hour window is much easier for ESPN, say, to deal with.

But even so, TV exposure isn’t going to make much difference to the vast majority of young female athletes who must choose between volleyball and basketball. They’re going to do what their friends do, for the most part, and more and more of their friends are playing volleyball.

Soccer’s growth is even greater, however, and that’s more troubling because many of volleyball’s advantages just aren’t there on the pitch. Soccer is a contact sport and just as sweaty as basketball, though the better players do handle the ball more than they do in volleyball.

Again, though, one reason is the community feel of soccer, which starts at a young age. And since there are more players on a soccer roster, it follows that more girls can play – and in that decision about which sport to specialize in, many girls will follow the majority of their friends. And though pretty much every young child in America, boy or girl, plays soccer, that is not true of basketball.

Water polo and lacrosse are both expanding as well, but may not be as big a threat as they appear. The reason, oddly, is the increased competition to get into particular colleges. College admissions’ departments like well-rounded students, and being a varsity athlete as well as having a good GPA will help. But if a girl isn’t good enough to be varsity in soccer or basketball or volleyball, the path to a spot on a team is much easier in the less competitive (in many cases) sports of water polo and lacrosse.

That said, lacrosse is a growing sport around the country, and offers much of the charm of basketball, except with twice as many players, and thus twice as much playing time.

At this point, the columnist is supposed to wave the magic wand and come up with the solution – but I confess that I don’t have one. I don’t expect basketball to remain the top sport for high school girls for very long – a year or two more at most – and I expect it to be passed by soccer shortly thereafter.

There’s nothing wrong with third place, and 400,000 girls a year playing high school basketball, but this is troubling for the future of the game at the elite level. There are only so many elite athletes to go around, and more and more of them are playing sports other than basketball.

If Kerri Walsh and Nicole Branagh had chosen basketball instead of volleyball, what would they have brought to the national stage? And if Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne had chosen volleyball, what would they have subtracted from women’s basketball?