“They also became the most highly visible, heavily marketed team in the history of women’s sports. They have appeared on billboards, been featured on countless magazine covers and done runway modeling.”
The above quotation must describe describe the 2019 World Cup champion USA Socccer Women’s National Team, right?
Penned in the New York Times in 1996, the words actually concern the 1996 USA Basketball Women’s Olympic Team. And maybe, such statement again can capture the USA Basketball Women’s National Basketball Team.
This past weekend, Women’s National Team director Carol Callan, accompanied by WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, announced “a collaborative and expanded USA Women’s National Team program and training plan that will benefit the growth of women’s basketball across the nation.” From November 2019 to April 2020, USA Basketball will host five training segments and organize multiple exhibition games against NCAA teams to ensure proper preparation for Team USA to win a seventh-consecutive gold medal in Tokyo.
Headlining the list of eight announced participants are Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, the Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm legends who each will aim to earn a fifth gold medal next summer. Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx, Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray of the Los Angeles Sparks, A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces and Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Dallas Wings also have committed. Others from the 34-woman national team pool may participate depending on overseas obligations. University of South Carolina coach Dawn Staley remains coach of the team, assisted by Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes and Jennifer Rizzotti, coach at George Washington University.
It’s about time, USA Basketball
At first glance, this program represents a progressive, proactive investment in women’s basketball. Yet, it is important to recognize that it is a re-investment.
Before the 1996 Olympics, USA Basketball, for the first time, prepared its women to win gold, contracting and compensating a group of athletes to play forty exhibition games in the winter of 1995 and spring of 1996. As the opening quotation indicates, USA Basketball also cooperated with prominent sponsors to package and sell the nation’s best women’s basketball players to the American public. In large part, this intense investment emerged because a gold medal for the American women was imagined as spurring the establishment of women’s professional basketball in the U.S.
The project, of course, succeeded.
The 1996 USA Basketball Women’s Olympic Team, led by former University of Georgia Lady Bulldog Teresa Edwards, former University of Southern California Woman of Troy and future Los Angeles Spark Lisa Leslie and former University of Virginia Cavalier and soon-to-be ABL and WNBA star Dawn Staley, triumphed in Atlanta, besting Brazil in the gold medal game. Later that fall, the ABL launched, followed by the WNBA in June of 1997.
Even though the ABL did not survive and the WNBA’s sustainability was far from guaranteed, the professional leagues served as more than adequate incubators for women’s basketball. In turn, USA Basketball’s attention to its women’s program lapsed, with the organization appearing to take its women’s stars and their success for granted. For the past 20-plus years, Team USA has dominated in spite of a lack of concerted support. Teams put together without much training time still have managed to trounce their competition (with the exception of the 2006 World Championships, when the Opals of Australia, led by former Seattle Storm star Lauren Jackson, won the gold medal).
So, quite possibly, it should not be surprising that the establishment of this program is due to players. Specifically, two players women’s basketball fans know and love.
The program’s existence, and ultimate success, is a testament to player power
As she expressed in Saturday’s press conference, Sue Bird, along with Diana Taurasi, developed this plan. It was the fruit of one of their offseason smack-talking sessions.
This genesis is important.
First, as Bird further shares, it is a clear sign of her and Taurasi’s commitment to the national team, both its present and future. Their initial vision and intimate involvement legitimates the program, encouraging the six other WNBA stars similarly to devote their time and energy to prepare for Tokyo, while also likely inspiring the next generation of stars to appreciate national team opportunities. The current state of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team, which is struggling to maintain the commitments of top NBA stars for the upcoming World Cup, reinforces the importance of Bird’s and Taurasi’s stake-holding status. To her credit, Callan understands this, stating in the press conference:
There’s always been great investment by our athletes and, to be honest, the only way we can be successful is for our best players to want to play again and again and again.
The Bird-Taurasi plan also is evidence of the two’s confidence in their ownership of the national team. Rather than again making do with abridged and inadequate pre-Olympic training opportunities, Bird and Taurasi understand that it is their right to call on USA Basketball to provide support for the women who have been willing to compete, and win, for the country on the international stage. At the national and professional levels, women’s basketball has sustained and succeeded not because of institutions, whether USA Basketball or the WNBA, but because of women basketball players themselves, always ready to put on any jersey and advocate for the game they love.
By proposing their idea to USA Basketball, Bird and Taurasi are manifesting and modeling the ownership of the institutions of women’s basketball that American women players long have deserved. A similar such arrangement, hopefully, will emerge from the impending WNBA CBA negotiations. As both USA Basketball and the WNBA have endorsed the Bird-Taurasi plan, the realization of a collaborative, empowered culture of elite women’s basketball in the U.S. appears possible.
Will this program provide the platform needed for the USA Basketball Women’s National Team to capture the hearts of the nation, and some cash?
In the press conference, Callan emphasized that USA Basketball intends for the expanded program to “provide a good jolt and boost” to women’s basketball, at all levels. The ultimate impact of this “jolt” and “boost” will be determined, like it or not, by corporate support.
Mass media companies and other corporations can create interest in and demand for women’s sports; they have been particularly effective at doing so when sentiments of nationalism can be called upon. From the 99ers and 19ers on the soccer pitch to the Magnificent Seven and Fierce Five on the gymnastics mat, nationalistic feeling has made America (at least temporarily) fall in love with women athletes.
Since 1996, USA women’s basketball has failed to tap into nationalism’s persuasive power. If they aim successfully to harness it, however, in the words of Callan, “amplify our women’s national team program,” significant involvement from media outlets and corporate sponsors is necessary.
In addition to equitably paying national team stars to train, USA Basketball should be working to provide expanded sponsorship and publicity opportunities. Will games be televised? Or, more importantly, will games be televised and streamed on accessible channels and platforms? And will they be promoted, with high-production quality? Will the faces of players be plastered on the sides of buses, boxes of cereal or bottles of kombucha? Will gear be widely, and somewhat affordably, available? Adequately addressing such questions ensures that not just the hardcore women’s basketball fan but also the generic American sports fan is aware of, and even becomes invested in, the USA women’s national team’s training segments, exhibition games and, eventually, gold medal journey.
As is evident with the increased support gained by the USA Soccer Women’s National Team and NWSL, women’s sports currently stand as a ripe space for performing corporate progressivism. USA Basketball must take advantage of, and hopefully extend, this moment of promise. It would be encouraging Team USA again “became the most highly visible, heavily marketed team in the history of women’s sports.”
America’s sweet-shooting sweethearts?
Yes, this program ostensibly is about Olympic hardware, not cold hard cash or cultural cache. Yet, Team USA has not had a problem accumulating quite a bit of hardware. And even as the world continues to close the gap, the dominance of the American women still seems secure, as they demonstrated at last year’s World Cup.
Nonetheless, despite attaining international success that has exceeded that of their soccer and gymnastics sisters, the women of USA Basketball have not received a comparable amount of corporate support or cultural love. All the more, with players of a diversity of racial, socioeconomic and sexual identities, the USA Basketball Women’s National Team best represents the diversity and complexity of the American people. They should be America’s sweethearts! (Or, insert a less infantilizing term that still captures the affective attachment to American women athletes).
Callan asserts USA Basketball’s determination to “give women’s basketball its due.” Let’s hope the expanded training program represents only the first step in finally positioning members of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team to be recognized and celebrated as the icons that they are.