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Rantz: Sue Bird implies you’re a bigot for not watching women’s basketball

Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart (30) hugs teammate Sue Bird (10) on the court after winning Game 3 of the WNBA basketball finals, Wednesday, Sept. 18 2018, in Fairfax, Va. The Seattle Storm defeated the Washington Mystics 98-82. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WNBA star Sue Bird implies you’re a bigot if you don’t watch women’s basketball. It’s not just a lazy argument, it’s a quick way to push people away from your league. What’s worse, Bird suggests a whopper of a factually inaccurate point that undermines the very argument she makes.

Every year, we have the same conversation around the popularity (or lack thereof) of women’s basketball. This time there’s the questionable decision to compare it to women’s soccer.

There’s a harsh reality that too many refuse to acknowledge: The marketplace isn’t as interested as WNBA stars and fans would like it to be. There’s ways to address this and grow the league, to a point, but insulting the vast majority of the population is probably a bad strategy.

These problems have existed since the league started in 1997. It’s not the fans that are the problem.

Sue Bird thinks you’re a bigot

Bird’s Seattle Storm just won a fourth championship title. Good for them!

The more winning teams in the area, the better sports city we become. There are also positive economic impacts of having a winning and popular team. But the vast majority of Americans — and Seattleites — didn’t watch the finals.

Bird has a theory she shared on CNN as to why that is:

“To be blunt it’s the demographic of who’s playing,” Bird explained. “Women’s soccer players generally are cute little white girls while WNBA players, we’re all shapes and sizes: a lot of Black, gay, tall women. There’s maybe an intimidation factor and people are quick to judge it and put it down.”

She obviously doesn’t think it’s purely an issue of gender since she implies women’s soccer is more popular than it would be if viewers had issue with gender alone. And we can’t fairly judge her argument that sexual orientation comes into play because there’s no other league with so many openly gay players.

But the claim about racism is bizarre. NFL and NBA are wildly popular. The NFL is about 70% Black and NBA is about 80% Black. Viewers are racist — except when they’re not?

The bad soccer comparison

But maybe it’s the combo that leads to the bigotry.

“It’s how society and how the outside world is willing to accept the cute girl next door, but not willing to accept, or embrace, or not judge these basketball players who are tall, Black, gay,” Bird said. “That is where the issue is. Where I feel like I’ve learned throughout that process is you have to be who you are. You have to be to be true to who you are and authentic.”

So it’s really about being tall, Black, gay and female? It’s the total package that the public won’t accept? Black and gay would be fine, but throw in female and tall, and suddenly it’s too much?

The soccer mention is a reference to similar comments by Bird’s girlfriend and U.S. Women’s National Team star Megan Rapinoe.

Women’s national soccer is growing in popularity for two reasons, which have nothing to do with race, identity, or even gender.

Soccer, in general, is growing in the United States and it makes sense that women’s soccer would grow with it. But the USWNT won two back-to-back World Cups. Sports fans like big competitions and they like being number one. Throw in some healthy nationalism and you have a winning recipe.

But let’s not pretend that the “cute girl next door” soccer players within the National Women’s Soccer League are more popular than the WNBA. They’re not. WNBA games pull in better numbers than the NWSL, which quickly disposes of Bird’s argument.

Is everyone a bigot?

The WNBA finals had an average of 440,000 viewers, despite airing on ESPN. While it’s an increase year-over-year, it’s not nearly as high as male sports.

Black, female, and LGBTQ Americans aren’t even watching in big numbers. Are they self-loathing? What about the other 381,760,000 Americans? Are they bigoted for not watching? What about the woke, cis-gendered, straight, Progressive, white men that got mad at me the last time I wrote about the Storm? Haven’t seen them celebrate the Storm much this season.

There’s no doubt that there will be some people who won’t watch female sports because of sexism, but let’s safely assume that’s not hundreds of millions of people.

The viewership numbers likely have to do with the gameplay. Thanks to the athleticism of NBA players, I imagine the expectations for basketball are higher than what the WNBA can currently deliver.

I know there are some that want to pretend that both leagues offer the same level of play. It doesn’t. Pretending otherwise doesn’t make you a feminist hero; it makes you dishonest.

Only seven players have dunked during WNBA games since it was founded. Compare that to your average NBA game, let alone season. The WNBA league average score is 84. For the NBA? It’s 111. This doesn’t necessarily mean the NBA is “better” than the WNBA since that’s subjective. But if you’re judging entertainment value by flashy skills and high scoring games, WNBA is clearly lacking.

And no, this isn’t offensive to point out. We do the same with men’s soccer leagues. MLS gameplay isn’t as good as EPL or Bundesliga. USL isn’t as good as MLS. Consequently, I watch almost every EPL match, I watch Sounders exclusively, and watch zero USL. I’m a consumer who watches the best products.

Shame + politics = turn off

In addition to issues of gameplay, WNBA players and fans are also hurting themselves with shaming and politicking.

Shaming won’t turn people onto their sport. Believe me, I’ve tried to shame people into watching Manchester City matches. Do you know what you’re missing? How can you NOT watch? What is wrong with you?

I gave people a hard time for not understanding the unmatched brilliance of Kevin de Bruyne. What do you mean you don’t know who he is!? What kind of fool are you!? 

It never worked. I won no converts by annoyingly shaming those who don’t watch. I didn’t try to claim the person was Europhobic, I suppose, but I doubt that would work.

The WNBA should also look at what happened with the NBA and NFL. After a hard left turn into politics, both leagues suffered from lower than normal (and lower than expected) ratings. Polling also shows the leagues are less respected.

WNBA doesn’t shy from politics. It’s not just the identity politics of Bird’s bad argument. They partnered to raise money for Planned Parenthood, they openly campaigned against Atlanta Dream’s co-owner Senator Kelly Loeffler, and they adopted Black Lives Matter activism. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal noted, the WNBA built the 2020 season on activism.

How noble the cause to the players or pre-existing fan base doesn’t matter. When you take on politics, either liberal or conservative, you run a significant risk of alienating everyone who doesn’t share your views. Surely the WNBA as a league realizes this — so should the players.

Adopting a political agenda was a business decision that can limit the interest of potential fans. I assume they’ll say the bigger political goals are worth the potential loss of revenue and long-term popularity. Perhaps so. Just stop complaining about it.

Here’s where we agree

Bird told CNN that she doesn’t think the WNBA has a marketing problem. She’s correct. But perhaps there’s a perception problem on her part.

“And people are drawn, especially in today’s world, when you’re authentic. I think people are drawn to that. And right now, we’re a league that is being authentic to who we are,” Bird said.

The public is certainly drawn to authentic people if they like the authenticity. But if the WNBA doesn’t have a marketing problem and the league is authentic to who the players are, then why aren’t more people watching? Maybe the problem isn’t the public here?

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz on Twitter and Instagram or like me on Facebook.

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