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What makes small venues "perfect" for women’s college basketball?

As I sat down at Seattle University’s women’s basketball exhibition opener vs. Northwest University last Tuesday, Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans commented that it had been a while since she had been to a game in such a small gym and tweeted:

At final stop of day--SeattleU's exhibition opener vs. Northwest University. I take back KeyArena statement. Connolly perfect setting

After attending two games at Seattle University’s Connolly Center and two games at the University of Washington’s Bank of America Arena for women’s basketball games, the elements of Connolly that make it perfect for women’s basketball are becoming more and more clear.

As an alumnus of a Division I university with an undergraduate enrollment a bit smaller than Seattle University, I have to agree with Evans and confess a nostalgic bias toward Seattle University basketball, particularly for women’s basketball.

That’s not a knock on the University of Washington – the Bank of America Arena is a great place to watch basketball. However, it’s hard to avoid the simple fact that women’s college basketball simply does not draw big crowds (yet). We can debate about why that is or how that might change, but that’s the way things are right now.

In a larger arena, not only is the sight of thousands of empty seats hard on the eyes, but what little noise is made by a crowd can easily get lost in a cavernous arena. If the home crowd is deflated by the opponent – as UW fans were last Thursday when Seattle Pacific University jumped out to a 9-4 lead – a 10,000 seat arena can quickly feel eerie -- as described by UW Daily writer Taylor Soper.

Conversely, in a place like North Court in the Connolly Center, a few hundred committed fans sitting in the bleachers right on top of the action not only feel like a more significant part of the game, but even an exhibition game against a Division II opponent most of us have never heard of actually feels exciting.

North Court is one of two gyms in the student recreation center that seats about 1,050 fans for basketball and volleyball, which "creates an intimate and intimidating environment to watch the Redhawks’ home games", according to the SU website. Certainly the proximity of the fans to the court makes for a special basketball experience.

However, intimacy is not just created by bringing 1,050 people together in close quarters to share a basketball game with a 6 - 8 member band alongside fans in the bleachers that occasionally plays La Bamba and We Will Rock You. Even if a few hundred fans show up and are committed to cheering for their team, that small amount of energy takes on a significance that gets drowned out in the space of a larger venue. The nostalgia is brought on by the very nature of any major event on a small campus like Seattle University.

Institutional pride and engagement

In my undergraduate experience, I was comfortable with the court itself because it was the same place I came to play intramural or pick-up ball on campus. Occasionally, members of either the men’s or women’s team would show up and I would have the opportunity to play a few games with them. The level of familiarity with the team itself – people who I lived with, ate with and played with – just added a level of intimacy to the game that is difficult to recreate at a larger school.

In the small venue, we sincerely believed – and would often discuss – that every one of our sophomoric chants, cheers, and jeers had some lasting effect on the player’s psyche that would influence the outcome of the game. However, when we cheered it was for actual people that we knew, not an embodied collective of statistics. I never even recall critiquing players for their shortcomings, not only because they would take me out on the court and crush me, but also because they were friends sincerely invested in being successful at what they did.

Part of the argument for transitioning to Division I according to Seattle U’s original statement of interest in 2006 was, "the opportunity for "enhanced institutional pride and engagement, as well as institutional visibility." For me, pride and engagement as an undergrad at a school that rarely had any legitimate hope of making the tournament, simply meant the opportunity to watch the folks I knew compete for something.

However, coming to the game was just one more means of hanging out with my crew of friends. I had a friend playing in the band, two friends were cheerleaders, a few friend were working a facilities detail, and my roommate and I eventually got an opportunity to broadcast a few road games for the team, including the conference tournament. There was a feeling of connectedness with almost everything going on in the arena. It was a sense of community built around this basketball event.

Community building and "playfulness" make sports great

The community building capacity of sports is one of the thing that makes being a sports fan great. It was Reason #10 in writer Anna Clark’s excellent series Top Ten Reasons Why This Feminist is a Sports Fan.

Funny for an activity that is grounded in competition, but it's true. Cities cohere around their sports teams. You see this in the language: "We won on Sunday," or "We have to find a new second-basemen for next season." That "we" speaks of collective self-identification ... and it is something special and rare.

On a small campus, while winning is great, it’s also great to have something to "cohere around". Would I like people to cohere around a collective interest in the education and the development of our collective intellectual capacity? Of course. But there’s something special about that collective identification around anything that I find valuable to experience. 

Most of all, at a small school so far removed from the tournament, it’s unlikely the athletes are playing for fame or fortune, but simply because they love the game. Or better yet, because they are legitimately leveraging basketball as a means to fund their further education. It’s truly unselfconscious basketball and there’s something nice about that associated with such a modest yet intimate environment.

Seattle U in particular plays an exciting brand of basketball that is hard not to get engrossed in – aggressive defense, pouring out 110% on every play, and playing a disciplined offense led by a great point guard and an experienced coach. It’s hard to imagine a better basketball fit for the aesthetics of the venue. It’s no-frills joy around playing a game. It’s an experience that adults rarely engage in, as described again by Clark as Reason #8 she is a sports fan.

In the sports arena, playfulness is prioritized both on and off the field (or court, or rink, or mat, or track). It is an inverse of the day-to-day societal instructions to keep our emotions sedated and our movement, limited. In the bleachers, it's not weird to high-five strangers or to stomp your feet or to burst into song. Even in front of a television, watching a game at a bar or with friends in a living room, it's not weird to jump up and scream with joy. Under any other circumstances ... it is.

Sports normalize playfulness for adults, both athletes and fans. I, for one, can't imagine sitting the game out. It's too much fun.

It’s the sum total of nostalgia, intimacy, community-building, and "playfulness" that keeps me engaged in Seattle U basketball, even through the exhibition schedule. Watching them as they transition into Division I full-time just adds an extra wrinkle to the story that’s hard to ignore.

But again, I’m biased. I sort of want to end this with some self-righteously declarative statement about how "true fans" of the game have to love an environment like Seattle U if they truly love basketball. Yet I will neither say that one absolutely must see a Seattle U game for the Connolly Center experience, nor will I say that missing it is a stain on your record as a true fan. Just because I'm feelin' it doesn't mean anyone else should.

I know people who don’t care for it or sports at all – some people might step into North Court and mutter some derisive comment about the place before walking right back out the door, past the popcorn stand, student locker room, and the small closet the cheerleaders gather in after the game.

And for some reason, I will still find the whole thing refreshing and "perfect" for women’s basketball.

Related links:

Division I Basketball back at Seattle U.

Sports, Top Ten Lists, and Feminism

"Sports are a waste of human potential"

Transition Points:

  • While it’s usually not at the forefront of my mind when attending a basketball game, the Women’s Sports Blog also writes about college basketball as a crowning achievement in women’s sports.
  • After the Seattle University women’s game on Saturday afternoon, I stuck around to watch Cameron Dollar’s victorious coaching debut with the Seattle University men’s team later that evening. It really accentuated the differences between men’s and women’s basketball. There is no denying that the men’s game is faster, more physical, and is significantly shaped by the athleticism of the players while women’s basketball is more strongly predicated on precision passing, ball movement, and playing the angles with and without the ball. While players like women’s point guard Cassidy Murillo may be representative of what women’s basketball is about, men’s forward Charles Garcia most clearly represents why it’s problematic to compare men’s and women’s basketball at any level.

    Seth Kolloen wrote about Garcia previously at the Sun Break blog:

    The JC transfer, originally scheduled to attend Washington, went to Seattle U instead and will clearly be the focal point of this team. Garcia is 6-10, but fast and athletic. He can guard in the perimeter and in the post, and can score inside and out. He will be the most talented player on the floor in many of SU's games this year (especially against Harvard) -- a benefit the school rarely had last year.

    Garcia is fun to watch--as tall and athletic as he is, he can play above the rim to an extent not seen in Seattle U basketball this century.

    Barring some unexpected turn in the evolution of human beings, we probably won’t see a female version of Garcia in our lifetime. He embodies the reason why suggesting lowering the rims in women’s basketball is so misguided – even with lowered rims in women’s basketball, there still won’t be players with the athleticism of Garcia that can make the type of highlight reel dunks that we want to see. Even if we got one Garcia, there wouldn't be enough Garcias in the world to make it at all feasible that he would end up playing for the women's equivalent of Seattle U. Therefore, fans that are looking to be entertained by women’s basketball in the same way they are entertained by men’s basketball will not get what they want merely from lowering the rims.

    It’s impossible to make women’s basketball more appealing to people who judge it by the standards of the men’s game because there will still remain such a large disparity in athleticism. Yes, Garcia is fun to watch. He’s part of what makes basketball fun to watch. But so is Murillo. They just represent two very different dimensions of basketball that in some ways are equally captivating.

    It’s likely that thinking fans who love the game of basketball can find ways to appreciate both the men’s and women’s version of the game without trying to pit one against the other.