Looks No Factor in Hoops-Soccer Split
Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird is a social-justice titan, but her latest hot take on why she thinks female soccer players get more recognition than women’s basketball players is way off the mark.
Bird, a professional basketball legend, said in a CNN interview over the weekend that WNBA players aren’t getting the same accolades as their soccer-playing counterparts on the United States Women’s National Team because they’re not “cute little white girls.” The problem with her argument, however, is she isn’t making an apples-to-apples comparison.
In sports, you can’t compare the media exposure of a domestic league to international competition, particularly when it pertains to soccer and basketball in the United States.
This is to take nothing away from the WNBA and their players. Bird and her professional colleagues went the extra mile this summer, going as far as openly campaigning against odious Georgia Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who co-owns the Atlanta Dream franchise, and taking part in the boycott that followed the horrific officer-involved shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
But to claim WNBA players aren’t getting favorable recognition comparable to the USWNT because basketball players are predominately Black, tall and homosexual -- as Bird did -- is just plain untrue. Yes, the women’s national soccer team does get more exposure, and it is treated differently, but that has nothing to do with demographics.
To make a fair comparison between the sports, we need to juxtapose the WNBA to domestic soccer’s equivalent, the National Women’s Soccer League. From that perspective, one could easily make the argument that the WNBA and its players get far more favorable attention and exposure.
Case in point, WNBA regular-season games averaged 246,000 viewers per telecast on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 in 2019. During the same summer, NWSL regular-season matches averaged 81,000 viewers on the ESPN networks, where the league got far less exposure and was never broadcast on national over-the-air television.
To take it one step further, the WNBA has been far more popular than its domestic women’s soccer counterparts for two decades. The WNBA has played uninterrupted since 1997, a run of 24 straight seasons. Meanwhile, professional women’s soccer leagues have failed twice in the last 20 years. The NWSL is women’s soccer’s third attempt at a professional circuit since the Women’s United Soccer Association played its first match in 2001.
Sue Bird’s romantic partner, international soccer sensation Megan Rapinoe, gets tons of exposure when she plays for the USWNT. However, Rapinoe is practically invisible to a national audience when she takes the field for the NWSL’s Seattle Reign.
So, if race, size and sexuality aren’t to blame, as Bird suggests, why does the USWNT get more attention? It’s because the United States’ sports fan base gets amped for big events, and the FIFA Women’s World Cup is a huge international event.
A more apt comparison between the sports would be the FIFA Women’s World Cup vs. the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup or the Olympics. And, yes, our international women’s soccer team gets far more attention than our international women’s basketball team. But, again, there is an easy explanation which has nothing to do with race, size or sexuality.
For one, the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup and Olympic women’s basketball tournament haven’t been competitive for years. At the FIBA World Cup, the United States has won the last three gold-medal games by 20, 13 and 17 points respectively, whereas the FIFA Women’s World Cup is extremely competitive once the knock-out rounds start.
At the Olympics, our women’s basketball team has won the last six gold-medal games by margins of 24, 22, 11, 27, 36 and 29 points. It is impossible to captivate an audience when all the games are blowouts.
Second, international soccer is more popular than international basketball in this country no matter the gender. In the United States, the men’s FIFA World Cup generates far higher ratings and interest than the FIBA World Cup. And soccer’s premier event crushes basketball’s premier event in this country, even though our basketball team frequently wins and our soccer team occasionally fails to qualify.
When the World Cup rolls around, LeBron James takes a back seat to Lionel Messi, just like Sue Bird takes a backseat to Megan Rapinoe. When it comes to international competition, male or female, soccer reigns supreme.
But, when it comes to domestic competition, the WNBA trounces the NWSL, just like the NBA runs roughshod over Major League Soccer in terms of popularity, ratings and favorable media exposure.
It has nothing to do with the size of the players. It has nothing to do with their sexuality.
And, thankfully, it has nothing to do with anybody’s skin color.