If You Dunk It, Will He Come?

After the Women’s World Basketball Championships earlier this year, FIBA Secretary General Patrick Baumann revealed that the organisation are considering two proposed changes to the sport in an attempt to raise interest levels amongst casual sporting fans:

1)    Lowering the height of the ring so that some women could dunk, or as Baumann would say, they could play “above the rim”; and

2)    More revealing uniforms could become mandatory.

Which leads to an obvious discussion surrounding an interesting take on the old “If you build it, he will come” Field of Dreams scenario.

Ask the kids – especially the boys – at school why women’s sport shouldn’t receive the same media coverage as men’s sport receives and they’re not backward in coming forward with what they regard to be completely legitimate reasons, starting with athleticism. Women’s cricketers can’t hit sixes, women’s basketballers can’t jump, women’s soccer players can’t score with the same style and athleticism. They broadly accept tennis as the one sport on the planet (that’s not a race of some kind) which women should be regarded as being as interesting to watch as men.

The Towards a Level Playing Field: Sport and Gender in Australian Media report showed recently that: “Women in sport made up just nine per cent of all sports coverage in Australian television news and current affairs and seven per cent of other sport programming. Television news reports on female sport had the lowest average duration of all the types of sport news analysed; with reports on male sport having an average duration of 30 seconds longer than reports on female sport.”

But we knew all of that already. Perhaps the most interesting way that the report looked at the differential between sports coverage received by the genders was by arguing that:

“Female athletes generally need to win in order to receive media coverage, whereas male athletes tend to receive coverage regardless of their success.”

The Federal Government have put in place a number of initiatives in an attempt to enhance women’s sport’s potential to be “seen, heard and supported in the media.” All of these appear to be laudable, and certainly don’t involve ludicrous quota laws requiring broadcasters to devote a certain percentage of their sports coverage to women’s sport – a proposal beautifully ridiculed by Greg Baum a few years ago.

However, the kids at school argue that none of these initiatives are at all likely to cause them to develop a greater interest in watching women’s sport. The sports themselves, they argue, have to change.

But if you dunk it, will he come?

The concept of women’s basketball being played on a lower rim immediately raises logistical nightmares in the minds of administrators worldwide: how would one ensure there was an even spread of men’s and women’s height rims across the world, and how expensive a change would it be?

However, an equally pertinent question is actually quite a different one: can women’s basketball ever actually enter the “mainstream” sporting discussion, no matter how the sport’s rules are changed?

The uninterested kids at school would certainly argue that lower rims would be a step in the right direction. However, they’d also question whether or not it’s the dunk itself that makes it such a spectacular play in men’s basketball, or if, like a spectacular mark in Australian Rules football, it’s more about the height players can jump rather than the dunk itself.

I’d argue that it’s usually more than that. It’s about power as well – throwing it down with force is a feature of pretty much every spectacular dunk that people remember – check out NBA.com’s top 10 dunks of 2010 as perfect examples. Which leads to another interesting facet to FIBA’s concept.

The potential change in uniforms implies that FIBA suspect that the women playing their sport have the potential to increase attendance and interest in women’s basketball through promoting the gorgeous bodies of the players. One wonders, though, whether or not this concept actually contradicts the idea of having women play above the rim. For if you reel off a list of names of famously sexy sportswomen who have earned themselves and their sport greater coverage thanks to their looks, how many of them are known for having an especially powerful game? Is Sharapova the only one? As such, does enhancing the ability for a woman to show how powerful she can be on the court actually mean that people are less likely to find her feminine and sexy at the same time?

Unsurprisingly, like many, I love watching women’s basketball just as it is. I love the fact that it’s a different game to the men’s game, and a fascinating one at that. Similarly, I find it ludicrous that anyone would think I’d be more likely to find Penny Taylor, Laura Summerton and co more attractive if they were wearing different uniforms.

But of course, it’s not me who FIBA are trying to attract to the game. It’s the kids at school.

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