By: Bry Woodard
There is no denying it. A new era of basketball has arrived. With increased coverage and a plethora of stars to choose from, the 2022-2023 women’s collegiate basketball season has been one that will go down in history.
Basketball has been around since the 1890s and the National Basketball Association was established in 1946. The NBA has grown in popularity year after year. It has always been easily accessible and widely broadcasted. In fact it averaged 1.6 million viewers this past regular season. Professional basketball has given children everywhere heroes to look up to. Just this summer when fourth graders were asked “What would you like to be when you grow up?” they responded with answers that included “Kevin Durant,” “Stephen Curry,” “Michael Jordan,” — and my personal favorite, “Shaq,” which came from the smallest fourth grader in the class. This generation and the next have been inspired by present and past players of the NBA.
Collegiate basketball has also contributed to the evolution of the game. Fans are able to watch their favorite players and find new favorites who are a mere 18 years old. They can follow them as they (hopefully) improve and eventually make it to the league, where they can continue to watch them progress even at the ancient age of 38 (we’re looking at you, Lebron).
But back to what we want to talk about: women. The wage gap between womens and mens players is staggering. The average WNBA player brings in a mere $130,000 a year while the average NBA player earns $5.3 million.
I’ll give you a second to read that sentence again.
To compensate for the lack of pay, WNBA players often go overseas after their season to continue playing, where they can earn up to 5 times their U.S. salaries. Because of this, the fan base looks a bit different. WNBA fans and viewers don’t get the same experience as with the men where we get to hear about their lifestyle off the court and what new house they just bought.
With most of the WNBA going abroad, it should make room for another group to shine: women collegiate basketball. Women’s Basketball was not apart of the NCAA until 1982, making this its 41st (minus one because of COVID) season. Star coaches like Pat Summit and Geno Auriemma have led their dynasties to multiple championships, and produced some of the most well known WNBA players such as Sue Bird, Candance Parker, and Breanna Stewart, my personal favorite. Stewart is still the only player to have led her team to four NCAA rings while she was at University of Connecticut.
My dad introduced me to her game when I was younger and we watched her on a back-channel streaming service that had to have been illegal. I loved her game, and her name. Seeing her win year after year made me want to grow up to do the same. However, you may not know any of these names because women’s collegiate basketball is not taken seriously by the media. They do not get the coverage that men do because of the drastic difference in revenue for the NCAA. The men generate about $933 million dollars while the women bring in only $266,183, so it makes sense in our capitalist society that they get less screen time. Or at least, that’s how broadcasting companies try to justify their sexism.
But the situation has changed in the past six years. A steady increase in coverage of women’s college basketball on television and social media has allowed people to watch young players from the recruiting stage. Take Fran Belibi for example. In 2017 when ESPN was ranking its top 10 sports moments, Belibi, who was just 15-years old at the time, stole the number one spot over the Golden State Warriors with a video of her dunking in her high school game. She was the first woman to dunk in-game in Colorado state history. Fun fact: she didn’t start playing basketball until the year before. If you want to make history, all it takes is two years! Belibi went on to play in college at Stanford University where she continued dunking and breaking records.
During the 2022-23 season fans watched Belibi play in her final season as women’s collegiate basketball upgraded from ESPN3 to ESPN+. Instead of joining the WNBA she has chosen to go to medical school — where she will eventually make more money than she would in the league. But Belibi wasn’t the only star going into the playoffs this season.
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina’s center from the Virgin Islands was last year’s Most Outstanding Player and the Women’s National Player of the Year as well as this and last year’s Defensive Player of the Year as well as the reigning national champion. She led her team through an undefeated season and was favored to win the championship.
Caitlyn Clark of Iowa, women’s college basketball’s own Stephen Curry, had been draining shots from the logo all season and was ready to take on whoever in the final four. More than 80% of brackets had South Carolina going all the way, yet when they met Iowa, their dynasty’s run came to a halt.
On the other side of the bracket, number three seed LSU and their star Angel Reese beat the number one seed Virginia Tech and then went on to defeat Iowa in the the first title game in school history, a heated event full of taunting, timeouts, and terrible refs.
It was the first time the championship game for women was aired on ESPN since 1995 and was the most streamed event ever on ESPN+. The game averaged a record breaking 9.92 million viewers and peaked at 12.6 million. Record. Breaking.
And it didn’t stop there. Twitter and other media outlets went on to discuss the taunting during that game. This opened up a much needed dialogue about the double standard for women athletes when it comes to showing emotion during competition and it opened up a conversation about how black athletes are viewed in comparison to white athletes, calling the sports community out for differing expectations. This season changed the conversation surrounding basketball entirely to the point where one cannot talk about great players without mentioning women.
We could thank twitter. We could thank ESPN. But we won’t because these women have been doing their thing since 1982. This is just the year that people decided to tune in. So instead we will thank the athletes who have worked hard all their lives to get to where they are now. Who have been ignored and overlooked for far too long. And who inspire younger people like me to give my best in whatever I do, no matter who is or isn’t paying attention.