Women's Basketball in Europe: How it Thrives

(Hidden deep in the recesses of the jungle, I have an archive of unpublished articles. I don't believe that I've published this one before in any part of blogspace, and if I have I can't find it on Google search. So, if you've read this before, it's not a case of deja vu.)

While thinking about the WNBA, my thoughts turned to European women's basketball. One of the complaints among W supporters is that quality of play is poor because the players are exhausted from a year-round schedule. In the NBA, a player can take three months off between the end of the NBA Finals and the beginning of training camp. This time can be used to recuperate. If the player is not playing for an NBA contender he gets to go home even earlier. However, female basketball players can't retire on only the income of a WNBA salary - which barely crawls past six digits even if you're superelite. Going overseas is a financial necessity for WNBA players.

Which then led to a thought: the European women's basketball leagues have been around for a long time, much longer than the WNBA has been around. All of the great stars from the 80s and 90s in college women's basketball ended up in Europe, and it seems that they made a decent living there. So why does women's basketball seem to be thriving as a niche sport in Europe where it sometimes struggles in the United States?

As I found out, comparing the WNBA with European women's basketball is almost comparing apples to oranges: both are fruit, both have a similar shape, but the similarities end right there. Aside from an essential similarity in both organizations, the realities are very different.

1. The formal tier. One problem that any sports league has is "what do we do with the weakest members?" There are always going to be franchises in any professional American league that are struggling. Granted, "struggling" has a different meaning in the NBA versus the WNBA. In the NBA "struggling" means "build us a new arena or we'll relocate". In the WNBA "struggling" means "we might not be here next year, so renew your season tickets."

Each of the leagues has different strategies regarding the problem of struggling teams. Some leagues have instituted revenue sharing. Other leagues - including the WNBA - have instituted a salary cap to prevent the most financially successful teams from just buying out all of the good players. A bad team can always be moved somewhere else - this is true in the NFL, NHL, or even the WNBA.

Bad teams are just a drag on the legitimacy of a league. They have to be nursed along, and the history of professional sports in America - which is the history of men's sports, for the most part - means that these teams have to be propped up. It's considered anathema in America to let a team fall by the wayside.

Things are different in Europe. Europe has a promotion/relegation system. Take, for example, French women's basketball. There is the LFB, which would be what we consider "professional basketball". Then there are other sub-leagues below that league. Basketball is strictly organized with the LFB at the top of the pyramid and local city amateur teams forming its base.

In European basketball, teams have to fight for the right to play in the uppermost league. If a team finishes the season at the bottom of the uppermost league, the team faces the dreaded word relegation. The LFB simply dumps its least deserving members every year into NF1, which is the league below it. To replenish itself, the top teams from NF1 get promoted into the LFB. All across France, teams move up and down the ladder at the end of each season as necessary, depending on their successes or failures that year.

"You were in the LFB for 25 years? You won ten European championships? But this year you finished at the bottom of the league? Too bad, so sad! Maybe you'll do well next year in NF1 and get promoted back to play with the big girls. Till long losers!"

You'll never hear a sentence like that spoken in any major American sport. Can you imagine such a thing happening in Major League Baseball? The Yankees just built a billion dollar stadium. Do you think they're going to move to the International League in 2014 if they have a disastrous finish in 2013? Major American sports have investments in their arenas and playing quarters that preclude relegations to lesser leagues. A team is simply expected to have the cash to float out a bad season.

The Europeans have a nice method of getting rid of their under-performers. The Americans don't. No under-performing franchises are going to dilute the legitimacy of a European league.

2. The informal tier. In every American league, there are haves and there are have-nots. The NBA is probably the most guilty of this. (Look up "Noll-Scully Measure" on the internet and on this blog.)

At the beginning of every NBA season, you can probably pencil in between four and eight teams - maybe more - as automatically going to the post-season. Gotta put Boston in. And the Heat, now that LeBron is there. And the Lakers. You might not know where those teams will exactly finish, but you can guess they'll be good enough to make the post-season.

Furthermore, there are other teams which have...a suspicious pedigree. In MLB, you know the Royals will be watching the playoffs on TV. The Detroit Lions? If anyone needs a stadium for a January convention that takes place on the weekend, you can't go wrong contacting Detroit, because they have a stadium they can rent out to you - they probably won't be needing it in January.

It's the same story in Europe. You hear all about WNBA players making a cool six figures playing for Spanish League teams. Right, but there are only four Spanish league teams that are going to pay this outlay, and it's the same four or five teams every year. The top Spanish teams can afford the big WNBA stars. Other teams get the WNBA role players. Other teams get the College Players That Weren't Good Enough for the W. And some teams get crumbs and get to fight over who won't be relegated out of the top league next year.

European women's basketball is a bit - predictable. It tends to be dominated by the same teams year after year after year.

3. The government. America, being a capitalist society, is expected to "pay its own way". At the professional level, this is mostly true - although frankly, almost all professional men's teams are indirectly subsidized by their city governments. (Funny, we get all of these arguments about "it's wrong for the NBA to prop up the WNBA" but no arguments about "it's wrong for City Government X to prop up Local Team Y".) All kinds of tax and stadium breaks are granted, lest the team threaten the city by claiming that they will relocate if they don't get what they want.

Furthermore, sport is subsidized at the college level, and the colleges act as de facto minor leagues for every sport except baseball. Taxpayer money goes to support state colleges, and some of that money goes into the sports bucket. For private schools, it's student fees. There is the old argument that "if it weren't for the football team, there'd be no women's sport" that is wielded by Title IX detractors but in those rare cases where the public was allowed to look at the books, big-time football programs barely break even.

What is forbidden in America is to simply give a club money. If the US Congress decided it was going to give a grant of $200,000 - cash or check - to the Kansas City Royals to support baseball in Missouri, the cry would be "ruination" and "decadence"! "Why can't the Royals simply extort the Kansas City government, like any good American pro sports team would do?"

In Europe, things are different. In the United States, sports is a private affair. European governments, however, take a political interest in sport. Since teams end up competing not just within their country but against teams from other countries, successful sports teams mean national prestige. Furthermore, governments want to advocate sports at some level in the interest of gender equality, or in the interest of convincing citizens to get off their asses and lower health care costs.

Many European governments have something like a "Ministry of Sport" or "Ministry of Culture" or "Ministry of Health" or what have you as a cabinet level post. These cabinet offices are in charge of promoting sports and fitness, and they see nothing wrong with sliding the women's league a few hundred thousand dollars of taxpayer money. Hey, why the hell not? It promotes sport, promotes activity, promotes gender equality and promotes national prestige if the women do well in Euroleague or Eurocup.

The citizens of these countries don't see much wrong with it either. There are a lot of sports fans out there, and each one wants a piece of the budget pie for his or her particular sport. My understanding is that Vladimir Putin in Russia told the new oligarchs that he wanted to see sports promoted in Russia - and he didn't make it a request. The oligarchs opened their purses, which is how the Russia Superleague A became so powerful for a period.

4. Corporations. In America, the uniform is considered sacred territory. Remember the near-riot when it was suggested by Major League Baseball to put advertisements for a movie on the bases? In none of the three "big sports" does one see advertising on the uniform. A Coke advertisement on the Yankee crest? Outrageous. Any advertisements on a uniform will be those of trademarks, of the tasteful (?) Nike swoosh.

For proof, one can see that even though the uniform space is not for sale the "big three" will sell absolutely anything else they can think of. You want the Cincinnati Reds to play on Prell Shampoo Field? Open up your wallets, Prell Shampoo! You want Everready to be the Offical Battery of the Los Angeles Dodgers? Expect to see that damned rabbit wearing Dodger blue. The Grizzlies have something that hasn't been sold yet? Please park your car in the Chicken of the Sea Parking Lot C.

Another kernel of subjective proof is that the Phoenix Mercury/Los Angeles Sparks selling of uniform space wasn't met with the derision associated with anything involving women's sports from the sports press. The subjective impression I got from the fratboy sports writers was one of horror. They were trapped. They couldn't say "no one cares" because clearly, they did care - you know, today the Mercury, tomorrow the Diamondbacks maybe? But they couldn't let on as if they did care, because...well, that would prove that they cared about something going on in women's sports. All they could do was put their head between their hands and pretend that it wasn't happening.

Well, in Europe it's much worse (or possibly, better). In Europe they will sell anything, and I mean anything. Uniform, playing field, stadium, mascot of the Matsumata Fishworks, anything. Corporate support means not just money for the teams - and they need it - but it means increased recognition and sometimes reciprocal advertising. "While you're considering buying our cheap insurance, come and see our championship women's basketball team in Prague." Besides, it's a great way for a corporation to get its name in the sports page where you might not normally find it.

Sometimes, the team is actually named after the corporation. It would be like reading about the Mohegan Sun vs. the Foxwoods Liberty in the papers. Or the Farmers Insurance Sparks vs. the Lifelock Mercury.

5. Travel. One of the problems with American sport is that it takes place in America. Let me explain that. For a league to be considered successful, it had better have teams in New York and Los Angeles. If you don't have a team in either of America's two largest metropolitan areas, you're considered second class.

The problem is that New York and Los Angeles are a continent's distance away - about 3,000 miles, give or take. The only decent way to get from New York to Los Angeles is by plane. If you're going to be big league, you need to have money for plane tickets. Travel can really eat up a league's budget. The former commissioner of the old WBL stated that travel has the potential to make or break a league.

In Europe, distances are much more compact. The entire continent of Europe is about 3,000 miles long, but the majority of teams - the ones not playing in Euroleague or Eurocup, the teams that don't have money to burn - play within their national borders. For example, teams in France can just take the bus for the most part, or possibly the train. Furthermore, just about everywhere in Europe is linked by either train or by freeways where you're allowed to go 100 miles per hour. This means that a team has to pay much less money out of pocket for travel expenses. More money to pay players, more money saved, more league stability.

6. The no-frills element. And speaking of money saved...well, these leagues are run on razor-thin budgets. Furthermore, relegation means that you have no guarantee that your club will be playing high-class basketball in three years. So why spend the money renovating your arena?

...and come to think of it, why spend money renovating anything? It's always a shock for a pro player to enter a locker room that's smaller than the locker room of the junior high gym that she abandoned a decade ago. Plush seating? Try the wooden bench in the center of the locker room - one bench seats the entire team. Extra locker room space? Well, there's a nail up on the wall, you can hang your coat on it. Refreshments? We have a Soviet water cooler in the corner.

Some of those European arenas are...well, they're pieces of work. Some of them strongly resemble high school gyms. Many of them date back to the post-war era. Seating is limited. It's entirely touch-and-go, there's no consistency. One week you're playing in a nice gym which dates back about ten or twenty years; next week you're in Eurocup and you're playing under a crooked basket in Slovenia in a gym which was whittled by James Naismith. The facilities have to be believed....

..and if you're staying in club-provided housing, it can be a real adventure in some countries, particularly Russia. Europe might pay more, but they get that money out of you in other ways. It's a Spartan life in the European big leagues.

7. More rabid fandom. There is American sports fandom. And there is European sports fandom. Americans like to think of themselves as "superfans", and the American definition of a superfan is a fat guy who paints his body and owns an expensive collection of memorabilia. However, American superfans are poncey pikers compared to the being that is the European sports fan.

I've read about European sports fandom, which is too complex to capture in a paragraph. But I'll try. In Europe, being a sports fan is like joining the army. The level of passion is difficult to believe. Part of this comes from the transportation system in Europe, which makes it very easy to follow a team on the road. This means that close contact with enemy fans is much more likely in Europe than it is in the United States. When I said it was like joining the army, I wasn't kidding - you might get shot at while you're traveling in hostile territory. (/joke)

Like the army, each fandom has its lore. It has its chants, and it has its war paint. There are all sorts of identifiers, down to the way you dress. If you wear your scarf one way, it could mean "I'm here to enjoy the game" and if you wear it another way, it could mean "and if you cheer for the other team, we'll meet in the parking lot outside afterwards". Some teams are associated with political parties - if the cruel dictator known as El Presidente liked Team X in the 1930s, every right-wing reactionary will like Team X today and every left-wing rebel will like Team Y, Team X's traditional rival. In New York, saying 'I like the Yankees' vs. 'I like the Mets' doesn't say a quarter as much as saying 'I like Celtic' vs. 'I like the Rangers' in European football. Team identification can say something about your ethnicity, your religious background, your social status and your political affiliation. If your team is better, it means that you are better than those other people.

The concept of 'fair-weather fandom' or 'front-running' would be hard for a European to understand. What kind of louse abandons his team? That's like abandoning your family, abandoning your class, abandoning your country. (Then again, America is a nation of immigrants, most of whom had ancestors who abandoned something.) You don't pick a team because you like their success, you pick a team because your team is who you are and you don't just change your identity on a whim.

In America, fans who conspicuously follow whatever team is best are called frontrunners. Not that derisive, and being a frontrunner implies that you're a leader. Being on the bandwagon? That might be fun! In English football, those fans are called by the more derisive term of glory hunters, indicating a moral failing.

8. Greater scope for fan participation. A few years ago, I watched video of a Krakow-Brno Euroleague semifinal game which took place in Krakow. Watching the crowd was just as interesting as watching the game, and for multiple reasons.

Since most European venues are smaller, any group of dedicated fans takes up more of the accumulated space. Let's suppose there are 500 rabid Atlanta Dream fans that want to attend a Dream game. Most likely, this group would be diluted by the sheer cavernous space of Philips Arena or of a modern American arena. (Most special fan seating sections in American arenas are cast away in Section ZZ Plural Z Omega.) In a European venue, the crazy fans are all up front, up close, and all sitting together. They generally chant, make noise, bring their own musical instruments and generally make a nuisance of themselves. It's an amazing sight to watch.

I've wished several times that American fandom could emulate the crazy Europeans, but this won't happen for a number of reasons. First, the only noise in WNBA arenas is the "every-BODY-clap-YOUR-hands" canned chants that I can't stand. Part of the reason for this - at least in women's basketball - is historical. Schools like Immaculata and Delta State used to bang on buckets and generally raise a racket to intimidate the other teams. The forces in the NCAA (or maybe the AIAW) put an end to this, as it wasn't sporting. Second, the group chant never caught on in American sports - the closest thing American sports has to a group-based activity is the ridiculous "wave". Third, Americans tend to be a litigious people - God forbid John Doe or Jane Roe be perturbed by a noisemaker and sue to get their money back.

Anyway, back to the Krakow-Brno game. The game was held in Krakow, with Iziane Castro Marques's team needing the win at home. The Poles won, and after the game the crowd hung around to celebrate. Someone in the crowd pulled out a sparkler. As a matter of fact, there were several sparklers. Well, sparkler isn't the word for it. These were more like full-on flares, shooting up an angry red bevy of sparks, and with those old wooden gyms you'd think that one stray cinder would burn the place to the ground.

Did the police at the game charge the crowd? Were the lights turned off and the crowd ordered to disperse? Did a phalanx of angry ushers appear to pursue the malefactors? No. The only concern of the police was that the court be kept clear of fans. The police seemed uninterested otherwise, and the fans had a fine old time playing with deadly ammo.

My first thought was, "wow, I want to celebrate Atlanta Dream wins with fire!" This means either that I'm a crazy fan or I'm a repressed pyromaniac. (Still, Mary Brock? Kelly Loeffler? Atlanta City Council? It is something worth thinking about.)

So let's compare:

USA: Bad teams have to hang on or relocate, league has to prop them up
Europe: Bad teams get relegated and replaced, league lets them loose

USA and Europe: Certain teams remain dominant for long periods of time. The best European clubs buy the best WNBA players, and so on down the line.

USA: Sport expected to be self-supporting, must threaten relocation or otherwise extort city governments for breaks
Europe: Sport expected to be government-supporting, everyone gets slice of the pie

USA: Some part of the games are sacred from corporations
Europe: No parts of the game are sacred from corporations - teams named after corporations

USA: Travel is long-distance; fans can't travel with clubs
Europe: Travel is short-distance; fans can follow clubs

USA: Massive investment is required in facilities
Europe: Limited investment is required in facilities: why make the investment if relegation is a threat?

USA: One has "favorite teams", teams are affectations, "front-runner" phenomenon
Europe: Teams are who you are - your identity is reflected in your team

USA: Spectators are passive consumers
Europe: Spectators are active participants

In short, European sports don't do it better - they just do it differently. European clubs thrive despite the lack of money because the factors in American sports that imperil franchises are mitigated in Europe. A franchise can hang in intensive care in Europe for a long time, whereas in America the pressure for immediate success and black ink in the financial ledgers is much greater.

This is why European women's basketball has been able to not only survive, but to do well enough to offer WNBA stars six-figure salaries. Maybe we should figure out what Europe is doing right - and do it ourselves. It used to be a great characteristic of America - our assimilationist bent - but current thinking in sports, government and industry seems to be "(our) way or the highway". Maybe it's time for American sports to follow the examples of European women's basketball and take another path.

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