The WNBA begins to make its mark on college and high school basketball players.
When Gail Goestenkors played college basketball at Saginaw Valley State University in the early 1980s, she bought her own athletic shoes, and her coach drove the team to games in a van.
Goestenkors, now the head coach of women's basketball at Duke University, knows firsthand the extent to which women's basketball has changed in just 20 years. Today, Duke's women's team charters flights, arrives the day before the game and stays in posh hotels. Instead of buying their own athletic shoes, players are provided with the latest footwear. "There's more money put into women's basketball now," Goestenkors says. "Everything is provided for them, so they're reaping the benefits."
But along with that, she's quick to add, come added pressures that weren't there when she played. "There's more media coverage, and it's not always necessarily good coverage," she says. "They're expected to win now."
There's no doubt that the stakes are higher than ever for women's basketball. With the WNBA tipping off its fifth season next month, players have something to shoot for beyond college. Even though the professional league is still relatively new, players entering high-profile Division I universities already hope - and many plan-to be drafted into the pro ranks. As a result, college players are showing increased motivation and intensity. "I've struggled sometimes with seniors because they've had one foot out the door, meaning they're going on their job interviews, trying to prepare for the next step in their lives," Goestenkors says. "So sometimes I didn't see the focus and intensity I would like to see from a senior. But now, because so many seniors have hopes of playing in the WNBA, they're more focused than they've ever been before."
Although she likes the level of determination, Goestenkors is afraid that too much focus on basketball might take away from academics. "I would still like to see academics as a priority," she says. "In the past, the men all thought that they were going to the NBA, while the women wanted to get a great education because they knew that that's what they were going to rely upon for the rest of their lives. Now, we're starting to see a bit of a shift, which is a little scary." Kristy Curry, head women's basketball coach at Purdue University, agrees. "When recruiting, there aren't many homes that I go into now where young women don't ask the questions, 'How can I get to the next level?' and 'How can you help me get to the next level?' " she says.
However, both Goestenkors and Curry try to emphasize academics first, then basketball, when making their pitch to prospects. "My number-one priority is that they come to Purdue to get an education," Curry says. "Then we'll worry about playing at the next level."
Curry also feels that it is important for the women's team to develop a relationship with the community. At Purdue, the team members participate in local events and develop a rapport with kids. Jerseys worn by the Boilermakers during warmups even have their first names on the backs, rather than their last names, in hopes of creating a family-like environment for the crowd, which now averages about 9,000 spectators per game. "I think women's basketball has developed into a wonderful spectator sport," says Joan Cronan, women's athletics director at the University of Tennessee, whose Lady Vols draw an average of 16,000 fans each game. "We're seeing both men and women, young and old, enjoy the game."
The growing popularity of women's basketball is also evidenced by the fact that 31 WNBA games will be nationally televised this season, including 10 games on NBC, 11 on ESPN and 10 on ESPN2. With 16 teams (it began with eight) and the increased exposure, the WNBA seems to be moving forward with great strides.
Several league initiatives are also adding to the WNBA's exposure, including the Be Active program, a nationwide effort that teaches young people good health and fitness habits. Sponsored by the WNBA and Nike, the program is entering its fourth year and is presented in the form of clinics in each of the 16 WNBA cities. The clinics, which are held in conjunction with local organizations, such as Boys and Girls Clubs or schools, also include a basketball-skills aspect. Natalie Williams of the Utah Starzz, Katie Smith of the Minnesota Lynx, Tina Thompson of the Houston Comets and Wendy Palmer of the Detroit Shock are the 2001 program spokeswomen.
In addition, some WNBA teams also host their own community programs and clinics. The Detroit Shock, for example, hosts several kids' programs throughout the state of Michigan. The Shock's players, coaches and staff conduct basketball camps and clinics that teach children the fundamentals of the sport. The team has also partnered with Nike to offer the Aspire Higher youth basketball program, which specifically targets girls, ages nine through 17. Some teams also host programs in schools, such as the Charlotte Sting's Athlete-to-Athlete program, in which Sting forward Charlotte Smith speaks to middle school girls' and boys' basketball teams about being a student-athlete and the importance of education.
While the WNBA's exposure has spurred the women's college game, it is not clear whether it is having an effect on high school hoops. Some argue that it's too early in the WNBA's existence to see changes in younger players. "We've certainly seen a steady increase in the number of participants in high school girls' athletics across the board," says Mary Struckhoff, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). "I think the influence of the WNBA and of major college programs may be having an impact on high school players, but right now, it's just bolstering the game and creating more interest. Then everything else will have a domino effect. I think it takes so much time for the game to evolve."
Joe Vaughan, head coach of girls' basketball at Buena High School in Ventura, Calif., speaks even more bluntly. "I don't know that the WNBA has had any impact on high school girls' basketball," he says. "It's just like the NBA; there are very few kids who are going to have an opportunity to play in the WNBA. Our girls' basketball program is already very high-profile with a lot of expectations and a lot of community interest, so it's not like it's anything new to us, other than the WNBA is just another avenue for some kids." He admits, however, that the WNBA brings exposure to girls' and women's basketball and probably increases young girls' interest in the sport.
Other observers, however, contend that high school girls' basketball has changed a great deal since the advent of the WNBA. Debbie Weems, athletic director for the Mansfield (Texas) Independent School District, played basketball when she was in high school, and has worked in athletics for the past 20 years. Her vast experience has allowed her to see what she considers a rapid evolution of girls' basketball at the high school level. "Girls have opportunities to participate at an earlier age," she says. "This has enabled young women to develop their talents, and by doing that across the board, it's made the game so much more competitive." Since she played, she adds, the quality and ability of the players has skyrocketed. She points out that it's not just girls' physical abilities that have vastly improved, but also girls' facilities, girls' and women's coaching and coaches' salaries. She feels that the WNBA has been an important factor in speeding up these changes. "I hear parents say about a young girl, 'She has the ability to play in the WNBA,' just like we've heard for a hundred years people saying about a young boy, 'If this kid continues to develop, he's going to play in the NBA.' Now I probably hear it once a week about girls.
"As a former player, I can't even imagine how thrilled I would have been to have had the opportunity to make money just playing a game," Weems continues. "I mean, come on, what a great deal." There's no doubt that the WNBA offers an exciting new opportunity for hopeful, young players, but at the same time the league provokes concerns about behavior endemic to men's professional sports. "The WNBA is a wonderful thing," Weems says, "but what I hope never happens is some of the stuff that goes on in the NBA, where you see some of the people acting horribly. It's so important for coaches at all levels to not let our girls forget how we got here. Those of us in leadership roles should emphasize that there were a lot of women who sacrificed and fought for this kind of chance, who never got a reward other than to see today's young girls have this opportunity."
Although some observers fear that the WNBA will bring unwelcome changes to girls' and women's basketball, such as an increase in negative attitudes or a shift of emphasis from education to basketball, the consensus is that the positive changes will greatly outweigh the negative. Even though there's a limited number of women who will actually get to play in the WNBA, many feel that its existence alone is beneficial for young people.
"It gives a lot of little girls a chance to have role models to look up to and say, 'Hey, there's another level I can get to beyond college,' " says Curry. "I have season tickets to the Indiana Fever, and it's amazing to sit there and have a chance to see so many wide-eyed little ones." In addition to fostering young girls' dreams of being professional players, the WNBA offers other ways to get involved. "It opens up lots of other opportunities for women," says Cronan. "It gives women the chance to look into coaching, general managing and all the business aspects of the sport."
One thing is certain: Participation numbers for women's sports at both the high school and college levels have increased at a rapid pace over the past 10 years. According to the NFHS 1999-2000 Athletics Participation Survey, the number of participants in girls' high school sports was 817,215 more during the 1999-00 school year than it was in 1989-90. The boys' participation numbers increased by 463,557 in that same amount of time. High school basketball, which is the most popular high school girls' sport, had 451,600 participants during the 1999-00 school year-a 61,932 increase from 10 years earlier.
Meanwhile, a report from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in 2000 titled "Gaining Ground: A Progress Report on Women and Sports" found that the number of women competing on NCAA teams increased 48 percent between 1990 and 1998, compared to a 10 percent increase for men.
Of course, the passage of Title IX in 1972 has a lot to do with the increase in women's sports participation. According to a report from the Women's Sports Foundation, only one in 27 high school girls participated in varsity sports in 1971. By 1998, however, that ratio had changed to one in three. In addition, according to the NCAA, only 31,852 females participated in college sports during the 1971-72 school year. Five years later, that figure had more than doubled to 64,375, and today, there are more than 125,000 female athletes playing on NCAA teams.
Not only have the participation numbers increased, but so has the physical ability and strength of women in sports. According to "Gaining Ground," there was a dramatic increase in strength training by females in the late '90s. In 1999, 19.4 million females worked with free weights-an increase of 134 percent from 8.3 million in 1990.
"The players are much more skilled now," says Goestenkors. "They're stronger and more athletic. They're into weight training, whereas several years ago, they were afraid they would look like men. There was a stereotype associated with it. Now, strong female athletes are considered beautiful."
As female athletes become stronger and their physical ability increases, what will that do to the women's game? "A lot of people love to watch women play basketball because it's such a pure game," says Weems. "There's still a lot of finesse and a lot of teamwork. There's not oneon-one stuff all the time."
Many observers are hopeful that the women's game will stay this way despite the other changes to the sport. "We're following in the footsteps of the men," Goestenkors says. "I think it's good that we've had a model ahead of us so that we can take the good, but not necessarily all of what they have to offer. We don't want to see our players quitting college or not even going to college and just jumping to the WNBA. We still hope that education will always come first."