Weekend Olympic Numbers: Team USA Dynamics

. Saturday, August 16, 2008
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I've put together the “team dynamics ratings” for Team USA and their opponents through Friday to keep you busy over the weekend (I've described those ratings at length previously).

The ratings are similar to Dean Oliver's four factors so I have added Oliver’s fourth factor, free throw rate (FTM/FGA). I’ll describe more about this as we get closer to the WNBA resuming, but I can say that it helped greatly in correcting a few odd results from WNBA games. Since I’m now using free throw rate, I have also changed my measure of shooting from true shooting percentage to effective field goal percentage. The difference is that effective field goal percentage does not take into account free throw shooting.

I’ve also decided not to use synergy differential (the difference in each team’s offensive efficiency) and just compare each team’s synergy. In other words, I’ve decided to stick to describing each team’s performance rather than explaining the outcome. I’ll describe more about that rationale later as well.

A few interesting points about these numbers:

1. Against Spain, Team USA had the problems that they had in the Diamond Ball tournament – low assisted field goal percentage, a high turnover percentage and a lot of offensive rebounds allowed.

2. Although they are playing excellent defense – take a look at their opponents’ effective field goal percentage -- the Spain game was close at half-time and it looks as though the rebounding continues to be a weakness although they are generally out-rebounding opponents.

3. It’s worth noting that Spain got 30% of the available offensive rebounds…in the Diamond Ball championship, Australia got 33% and lost by 4.

Here are the full numbers through Friday’s match against Spain.

The team dynamics rating is the total of the following: Synergy + FTM/FGA + Oreb% - Tov% (Synergy is simply eFG% + A/FG%). The average team dynamics rating in the WNBA for this year is 106.86.

You can think of this rating as looking at the team’s ability to manage possessions (ball movement, shot selection, extending possessions with offensive rebounds and wasting possessions with turnovers) and their ability to draw fouls and make the opponent pay from the free throw line. Most of this has been explained in more depth in a previous post.

The Numbers

 TeamAst/FG%eFG%SynergyFTM/FGAOreb%Tov%Team rating

 TeamAst/FG%eFG%SynergyFTM/FGAOreb%Tov%Team rating

 TeamAst/FG%eFG%SynergyFTM/FGAOreb%Tov%Team rating

 TeamAst/FG%eFG%SynergyFTM/FGAOreb%Tov%Team rating

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Candace Parker and the Marketability of Female Olympic Athletes

. Friday, August 15, 2008
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A week ago, SI.com writer Selena Roberts wrote an article about the declining marketability of female Olympic athletes, highlighted by the disheartening Marion Jones controversy.

Although female Olympic athletes experienced a brief period of popularity after the 1996 Olympics, according to Roberts, female athletes' performance on the court or field of play is no longer enough to attain stardom.

What's in Vogue? Fewer female Olympians, more LeBron James. What's a gal gotta do to get a little attention? Play a man, be a novelty. That's how Michelle Wie has flexed her endorsement power despite never winning on the LPGA Tour. That's how Danica Patrick has landed on the SI cover twice in three years. And in between Patrick? No solo act has appeared on the cover of SI without wearing a swimsuit.
But one person Roberts didn't mention is Candace Parker, who is participating in her first Olympics as a reserve on the U.S. women’s basketball team and has gotten more national media attention over the past few days. Some people have already anointed her as the star, but can she overcome the barriers that Roberts laid out?

It might seem at first that Parker doesn’t quite fit Roberts’ “criteria” for sustainable stardom. Parker did first gain mainstream attention for winning the 2004 Slam Dunk contest at the McDonald’s High School All-American Game, but that’s not exactly an example of playing men head-to-head. And although she is a WNBA rookie and the first WNBA player to dunk twice, she is not the same type of “pioneering” novelty as Patrick, who is unique as a woman in the male dominated world of auto racing.

However, Parker has something that the other athletes mentioned in Roberts' article don’t: she’s already won on a big stage once this year (the NCAA championship at the University of Tennessee under the legendary Pat Summit) and now has the unprecedented opportunity to win a NCAA title, a gold medal and a WNBA championship in one calendar year. In other words, Parker is a star in her own right with or without a strong Olympic performance.

So what can Parker gain from the Olympics? It seems as though Parker might be an exception to the recent trend observed by Roberts among Olympic athletes – it’s conceivable that even one significant performance as a reserve in Beijing combined with her pre-Olympic stardom could catapult Parker into a level of superstardom not previously inhabited by any female athlete.

The sexualization of female athletes

Roberts’ observation that no female “solo act has appeared on the cover of SI without wearing a swimsuit” highlights the sexualization of female athletes at the Olympics, which is a barrier to stardom that all female athletes must deal with. From Kayla at Feministing.com:
Why is it that women cannot simply be strong, powerful, and athletic? Why must they be sexualized and forced in to evening gowns? And why is it that similar articles featuring men are never published? Oh, right. It's the Olympics. Of course the big, strong men will be going. But these muscular, toned women? Let's just cover up all of that masculine power with a sexy dress so we aren't too afraid to ogle their tits.
As a result of the Western beauty ideal, there is often an attempt to portray female athletes in their most “feminine” light. Women’s basketball in particular does not traditionally lend itself well to the sexualization of athletes, primarily because basketball has been considered as a “man’s sport” due to its physicality and premium on height. Therefore, women who play basketball often unfairly have their femininity, sexuality, and attitude questioned under the assumption that they are trying to be like men.

However, that has not stopped people from trying to mold basketball players to fit some elusive ideal – the much talked about make-up classes for WNBA rookies and Australia’s provocative photo shoots are examples of that. The photo shoots are particularly relevant to this topic: Australia’s Lauren Jackson and Erin Phillips participated in them prior to the Olympics as a means to draw attention to their women's basketball team. An excerpt from a Daily Telegraph about Phillips:
While basketball has traditionally struggled to create a profile on Australia’s sporting landscape, Phillips’ lingerie shoot is set to help put the Opals on the map.
So can Parker become popular without a lingerie (or nude) shoot? I think so.

As Lisa Leslie has said multiple times, Parker is attractive but she also has a college degree, she’s smart and she can play ball. Plus, she's confident without being excessively cocky. And in the words of China’s coach Tom Maher:
"She's the whole package," Maher says. "She's smart. She's bloody gorgeous. It's just not fair. God picks and chooses."
Parker is attractive enough to fit most people's beauty ideal, but she's also so exceptional as a person and a player that she's hard to dismiss.

Where are the black female athlete role models?

Not only is Parker a perfect marketing icon, but she's also a role model, which sounds like pretty standard rhetoric for a WNBA player. From Parker, via the Boston Globe:
"I'm playing so my daughter and my son would have the same opportunity. If she wants to play basketball, then she can have a career playing basketball and all the doors will be open. I think it's just about making steps."
Unfortunately, the black female basketball player role model is a rarity in the mainstream, despite the success of Parker's teammate Lisa Leslie and a number of other upstanding WNBA citizens.

Think back to Roberts’ claim about the rarity of female “solo acts” appearing on Sports Illustrated covers. Well, that track record is even worse for black female athletes, according to the Women in Mass Communication blog.
I was surprised to find when conducting research on sports magazine covers that black female basketball players were rarely present. In its 10 years of existence, ESPN magazine has never had a black female basketball player on the cover. There have however been other black female athletes on covers, mainly from tennis (Venus and Serena.) Furthermore there have been white female basketball players. Thus it seems that the problem is not necessarily with black female athletes, or with women’s basketball players, but it arises when the two combine. This suggests that the message a black female basketball player sends is thought too controversial.
With this and Roberts’ account, it’s fair to say that the two major sports magazines have a poor track record when it comes to black female athletes. So how will Candace Parker avoid the same fate?

It's hard to imagine anything that would liberate Parker (or others) from the racialized assumptions about black femininity. But Parker might have something else that mitigates the effects of racism on her star potential. An admittedly decontextualized excerpt from a 2000 Village Voice article written by Alisa Solomon (still relevant and worth a read):
...our culture's abiding racialized definitions of femininity make it that much harder to tame African American athletes as sex kittens and girls-next-door...So out come the boyfriends and body-masking flouncy skirts in a desperate effort to assure a male-dominated culture that just because a woman is strong doesn't mean that her body doesn't still belong to guys. But this is an old story. Hyper-hetero femininity has been saturating our media culture for ages. What's different now is that it's not the only body ideal out there.
The Candace Parker image right now has been crafted as the "girl-next-door" and seems to persist despite her involvement in the Shock-Sparks melee. But sadly, following Solomon's logic, the fact that Parker is so often associated with her fiancee -- NBA player Shelden Williams -- only makes her more palatable to mainstream society.

The ironic thing is that Williams doesn’t have quite the basketball resume that Parker has. And in fact, if it’s true that Parker makes more endorsement money than the majority of her NBA counterparts, Williams is very likely part of that under-endorsed majority, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the image constructed about Parker thus far comes off as "friendly" in a society that has been decidedly unfriendly toward black female basketball players.

It's certainly debatable as to whether the visibility of her spouse actually helps Parker's mainstream appeal. But the visibility of a spouse combined with extended mainstream exposure as a basketball player might just make Parker more palatable to the "unfriendly majority". In other words, it will be difficult to just dismiss Parker as less-than-feminine, homosexual, or angry when we’ve known her to be otherwise since age 18.

Beijing is just preparation for a bright Olympic future

It's hard to pinpoint one thing that will help Parker rise above the trend among female athletes that Roberts' lays out -- it really is the combination of multiple things. However, that doesn't mean Parker is transcendent or that the barriers for women are less than they were a decade ago. It means that Parker is so exceptional and likable that she is able to succeed despite the barriers. And really, it's hard not to like Parker on some level. A quote from Lisa Leslie via the Boston Globe summarizes what makes the "Parker package" so marketable:
"I think she's built to be in the spotlight. She's a pretty girl with a sweet heart and personality and a natural love for people. On the court, her skills are great and they speak for themselves."
Nevertheless, as the Boston Globe’s Marc J. Spears writes, “Candace Parker’s got next” – Team USA is not yet “her team”. So the greatest value of the 2008 Olympics to Parker’s marketability may be as preparation for future Olympic stardom built upon increased WNBA visibility.

Similar to LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Kobe Bryant on the U.S. men’s basketball team, even a bad performance (2004) could set the stage for wider stardom in subsequent performances (2008). So perhaps if we exercise some patience Parker will be an even bigger star before the 2012 Olympics – she’ll have four more years of professional experience, probably a few more accolades and records broken, and still have the winning personality that makes her so marketable to the mainstream.

Imagine the headlines for the U.S. women's basketball team for the 2012 Olympics: “Can Candace Parker establish herself as the leader of Team USA and usher in a new era in U.S. women’s basketball?” Sound cheesy? Of course. But no cheesier than the “Redeem Team” that will inevitably enhance the already astronomical marketability of NBA stars Bryant, James, and Wade.

The fact that Parker is getting experience now and formally “introducing” herself to the world seems to make her marketability in subsequent Olympics even greater than some might imagine. Moreover, as unbelievable as it sounds, the potential "triple crown" that Parker could win in 2008 might not even scratch the surface of her stardom -- by the end of her career, it might even be an after-thought.

I’ll close with a dose of hyperbole from Maher (via USA Today) that rivals Michael Cooper’s hyperbolic proclamations about Parker:
"I always say Einstein was probably the smartest person in the world when he was 20," Maher says. "But he was smarter at 30. Give her time. She's going to be great."
Transition points:

More on the issue of sports magazine representation
from the Women’s Sports Foundation:
In the U.S. sports media, women of color receive considerably less coverage than their white female counterparts and are often depicted in a racially stereotypical manner. For example, of the 151 CN/WS&F magazine covers published between 1975 and 1989, only 12 pictured women of color, all Black women, and only 8% of the featured articles were written about Black women with nearly 70% of these articles focused on track athletes or basketball players (Leath and Lumpkin, 1992). In reviewing 13 editions of CN/WS&F published between 1997 and 1999, I found no women of color on the cover and only 21% shown in the photographs accompanying sport articles.
It might be interesting to pay closer attention to Williams’ games with the Sacramento Kings this year to see if Parker is mentioned as often to determine whether there is an imbalance. However, I have never heard an NBA spouse mentioned for any reason other than being attractive (and coincidentally, it’s the spouse of an unrelated Parker – Tony).

Relevant Links:

Gender and the selection of public athletic role models.

Must-read posts about Olympic uniforms and photography

Reviews mixed for Olympic gender equity

The XY Games: The Olympics and Gender.

(Dis)Empowering Images? Media Representations of Women in Sport

Recent sports articles remind us that female athletes are (sexual and maternal) women first

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Looking Past Olympic Prelims, Team USA Needs To Improve Rebounding

. Thursday, August 14, 2008
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It can be difficult to critique U.S. women's basketball team given that they have blown out their opponents by an average of 47 points in three preliminary games.

Yet despite their dominance, a number of players have pointed out that rebounding – particularly preventing their opponents from getting offensive rebounds – is a key area to work on. DeLisha Milton-Jones addressed the issue and why it’s important after the China game:

You can always get better. One thing that we stressed at half-time was that China had a lot of offensive rebounds. They were able to get put-backs and that put us in trouble because normally in that situation you end up fouling.
Although they ended up beating China on the offensive boards 16-10, Mali managed to get nearly 40% of the available offensive rebounds and totaled 15 offensive rebounds to Team USA’s 7.

It might seem like nitpicking considering they beat Mali by 56 points, however it was a problem that hurt them against Australia in the championship game of the Diamond Ball tournament. And if it leads to increased fouls as Milton-Jones said, then Australia is a team that can beat them from the free throw line – Australia went 17 for 19 from the free throw line in that game.

In Team USA’s defense, Mali is apparently a good offensive rebounding team and Lisa Leslie commented that they’re still trying out different defensive schemes.
I thought playing against Mali would be tough because they offensive board so well. We really wanted to try and put a lot of pressure on them and we got a chance to work on a lot of different defenses and that really helped us. We’re looking forward to (playing) Spain, you just never know what defense you’re going to need so we got a good chance to review them all.
So it’s possible that in experimenting with different defenses, they missed an occasional rebounding assignment that led to an inflated number of offensive rebounds. It’s also possible that Mali got more offensive rebounds because they only made 25% of their shots – with more missed shots, it makes sense that there would be more offensive rebounds.

But offensive rebounding is generally about effort so the fact that it’s cropping up as a problem despite the fact that they have such talented interior players is reason for concern. Hopefully, it’s something that they can work out as they play more games before they play Australia again.

Transition Points:

One thing Team USA has improved upon since the Diamond Ball tournament is their ball control, increasing their ball movement and decreasing their turnovers. Against Mali, their assisted field goal percentage was almost 44% and they only had 10 turnovers. Conversely, Mali’s assisted field goal percentage was only 12.5% and they had 29 turnovers, 12 of which were steals by Team USA.

Relevant Links:

Additional Quotes: USA 97, Mali 41

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The Shock-Mystics Trade Analysis: Who Wins the Exchange of Experience for Potential?

. Wednesday, August 13, 2008
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I have to confess that watching U.S. basketball players blow out Olympic competition in the preliminary rounds has only left me more impatient for the return of the WNBA.

So the Mystics-Shock trade of Taj McWilliams-Franklin for Tasha Humphrey, Eshaya Murphy, and a 2009 second-round draft pick is a welcome WNBA diversion and gives us something else to look forward to after the Olympic break.

But is there a clear cut winner in this trade?

What makes the trade hard to evaluate is that it is obviously an exchange of experience for potential, which just leads to further questions.

Clearly Detroit was looking for a replacement for Cheryl Ford as they try to make another playoff run, but was it worth giving up the enormous potential of Tasha Humphrey?

Clearly Washington has decided that this is not their year to make the playoffs, but was it worth giving up their only all-star caliber player?

In my estimation, the answer to both questions is “yes”. But to get a sense of the degree to which each team stands to benefit takes a bit more analysis and the statistics might help.

Was it worth giving up the enormous potential of Humphrey?

If the Shock want to challenge for the championship, they absolutely had to replace Ford’s rebounding, particularly her offensive rebounding. Ford is first among qualified players in the WNBA in offensive rebounding.

Tough offensive rebounding has been the foundation of Detroit’s success over the last few years, so it is an urgent need if they want to perform well in the playoffs. As an example of the importance of offensive rebounding, in the last five games before the break – three of which were played with Ford and Pierson -- they went 1-4 and their offensive rebounding percentage during that time was below their league-leading season average (32.9% to their normal 36.7%).

So for a team whose success is predicated on strong offensive rebounding, trading Humphrey makes sense: Humphrey does not even rank in the top 50 in the WNBA in offensive rebounding. Enter McWilliams-Franklin.

While McWilliams-Franklin doesn’t entirely replace Ford’s offensive rebounding (2.3/game to Ford’s 3.1/game), she does add a rugged post scorer to the Shock’s roster as well as a strong help defender, as evidenced by her strong block and steal percentage numbers.

Although Detroit fans may lament losing Humphrey’s enormous potential, that potential is not quite as valuable to the Shock's championship run as McWilliams-Franklin’s rebounding and defense. However, Humphrey’s potential might be perfect for a rebuilding team.

Was it worth giving up a six-time all-star in McWilliams-Franklin?

The Mystics are two games out of the playoffs with 8 games left after the break, four of which are on the road. Given that they have gone 4-9 on the road this season, it’s possible they decided that the playoffs are out of reach (though of course, they will deny that). And even if they did make the playoffs, the reality is that they were not going to go very far.

So this was a move for the future – keeping McWilliams-Franklin might have gotten them to the playoffs, but it would not have lifted them out of mediocrity. And as noted by the DC BasketCases blog, keeping McWilliams-Franklin actually came with some measure of risk.

… Taj only signed a one-year contract with the Mystics, and given that she is nearly 38 years old, there is no guarantee that Taj would be back next summer (would you re-up if you were Taj?). This means that by trading Taj now, the Mystics manage to get some value for her, rather than nothing.
Although they lose the post presence and veteran leadership that McWilliams-Franklin provided (and according to the Arbitrarian’s Boxscores, their most valuable player), they add value that they can continue building on in the future so that they can move forward. And there are plenty of reasons for a forward-thinking franchise to move forward with Humphrey.

The reasons why Humphrey is a good piece to move forward with are the same reasons I believe she is a worthy candidate for the 2008 All-Rookie team: she’s one of the most efficient, versatile, and promising rookies in the WNBA this year. Put her next to Alana Beard, Monique Currie and Crystal Langhorne and I think you have an offensive team that has the potential to develop into something pretty solid.

But they still have some major deficiencies. They still need a point guard who can penetrate and make things happen off the dribble and they will have to find a way to replace McWilliams-Franklin’s toughness down low. In fact, one thing that jumps out to me as I look at the Arbitrarian's SPI player styles spectrum is that adding Humphrey is adds another perimeter oriented scorer to their lineup, meaning that their foundation for the future is somewhat imbalanced. It will be interesting to see how they address this imbalance as they move forward and adding another strong "utility player" like Nakia Sanford may be part of the answer.

Which leads to another point -- defensively, this is not a team that stands to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. It’s worth noting that even pre-trade, no matter what means you use to measure defense, the Mystics are one of the worst in the league…and defensively, neither Humphrey nor Langhorne are outstanding. So whomever they add along the front line will absolutely have to be a good defender. Fortunately, they're in position to address multiple needs through the draft.

So who got the better of this trade?

Overall, I think the best way to evaluate this trade is by looking at how much closer it brings these two teams to their goals – the Shock are looking for another championship and the Mystics looking to build for the future. Given what we know about the players, I’d have to say that Detroit’s prospects for winning a championship are greatly improved, whereas the Mystics’ future is still uncertain because they still have major defensive deficiencies. So I’ll give the edge to Detroit for now, even if they don’t win the championship, which is never a guarantee anyway.

Nevertheless, there are a number of questions with regard to evaluating Washington's future: how well will Humphrey fit in the Mystics system? Will Humphrey and Langhorne develop and reach their potential to make this a potential playoff team? Can the Mystics find some defensive players to put beside Humphrey and Langhorne to strengthen their defense?

Those questions put a lot of pressure on Washington to develop their young talent and make some shrewd moves during the upcoming off-season.

Transition Points:

The Mystics claim that, "Shay (Murphy) is a high-energy second year player who works hard on the defensive end." This is Murphy's 3rd team in her short two year career, so could her defense help her earn more playing time with the Mystics? They have a crowded back court so it's tough to say...

Relevant Links:

Trade Analysis: Taj for Tasha

McWilliams-Franklin Traded to Shock: Rookie Humphrey, Murphy and Draft Pick Swapped for Mystics’ Forward.

Mystics go young in deal with Shock

A Win-Now Move

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Fowles Making Big Contribution to Team USA Off the Bench

. Tuesday, August 12, 2008
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It has to be hard for a bench player to get the media’s attention on the star-studded U.S. women’s basketball team, possibly the most talented U.S. team at the Olympics.

This is probably Lisa Leslie’s last Olympics. Diana Taurasi had a big game against the Czech Republic. And Tina Thompson flirted with a record number of points against China yesterday. Not to mention Candace Parker, whose instant superstar status inevitably attracts attention.

But who has been the biggest contributor for the team thus far in the preliminary rounds? Sylvia Fowles.

Using a strategy that the Arbitrarian blog used for the U.S. men’s team to assign credit for games to individual players, I tried to figure out who was the biggest contributor on the women’s side. The goal is to assign each person a percentage of the credit for every game. The methodology is explained both at his blog and at Hardwood Paroxysm. Here’s how the credit looks for the first two games:

USA vs. Czech Repub.

China vs. USA

As you can see, Fowles is the only player to be among the top players in both games. And she’s doing it primarily with her strength – she’s getting high percentage shots and a lot of offensive rebounds.

Good news for the Sky

Chicago Sky fans have to be encouraged not only by her play as she continues to recover from injury, but also by the positive comments from teammates regarding her willingness to learn and her growth as a player, even in this short period of time. A quote from Diana Taurasi from USA Basketball via the Women’s Hoops blog:

She’s incredible really. We can talk about her physical attributes, we can talk about how amazing foot work she has, but more than anything she is a great person and I think that’s what’s going to make her one of the best centers to play in the United States and in the world. She’s willing to learn; she’s willing to take criticism and apply it to her game and a lot people that are as good as her don’t want to hear it, she’s open ears which is going to make her unstoppable.
As the Sky try to make a playoff push in the final weeks of the season, the mentoring Fowles is getting from veteran players and coaches should be invaluable for her and her team. As I've described in the past, a lot will depend upon how the Sky use her. They were playing well before the Olympic break and a healthy Fowles coming off a strong Olympics performance will be valuable. I think she can be more productive offensively than the Sky make use of her.

What don’t the numbers capture?

However, there are a few things these numbers don’t capture, but really, the discrepancies may not matter much.

First, these numbers don’t take into account when Fowles is playing. What percentage of her minutes come when the game is already out of reach? Who is in the game when the lead is built?

Second, is the match up question – is Fowles getting big numbers against second string players?

Third, is that this method – like any other statistic – doesn’t take intangibles into account, and specifically that of point guards. Assists are counted a bit differently the NBA-based equation may not be fully accounting for the impact of a player like Sue Bird.

Nevertheless, this is a helpful tool for judging how productive each player is as well as how valuable each player is to the team. And even if you do not agree that Fowles deserves this much credit, it seems that you have to agree that she has a bright future ahead of her.

Transition Points:

These credit numbers are an interesting complement to plus/minus numbers. While plus/minus measures the positive or negative impact a player had on the score while on the court (not based on box score statistics), credit provides a snap shot of what the player contributed to the team's win/loss while on the court (based on box score statistics). It would be interesting to see how well using these two statistics together would approximate adjusted plus/minus.

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“Raising the Bar”: Basketball, Gender, and “Intellectual Journalism”

. Monday, August 11, 2008
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Even though the WNBA is on hiatus for the Olympic games, the growing league still has a lot riding on what happens in Beijing.

It seems like a safe assumption that a strong performance by the U.S. women’s basketball team could translate into increased attendance and/or ratings after the Olympic break…if managed correctly. And strong media coverage seems like a major determinant of that.

It should come as no surprise that the Women’s Hoops blog has done an excellent job of highlighting the best articles written about women’s basketball in the early stages of the Olympics.

One of my personal favorites was an article written by George Vescey in the New York Times. An excerpt regarding a hard foul by Tina Thomson on Penny Taylor:

Thompson denied any ill intent, at least beyond making sure that Taylor did not have free access to the basket. Two decades ago, the women were making crisp little passes and tossing up nice little layups off the backboard. Now, an intruder pays for the incursion, the way teams paid for trying to get around Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason of the Knicks back in Pat Riley’s day.

“In basketball, we are attuned to touching one another,” Thompson said, citing her American teammate Diana Taurasi as a player who must be checked before she gets a step on anybody.
There are a few things about that paragraph that embody what makes the article as a whole great: it gives us a sense of the emotion of the Olympic games without sacrificing good basketball insight. And it gives us more than what many people might infer from common sense, which makes the article worth reading.

Most importantly, Vescey gives us some sense of the importance of this game to women's sports without trivializing the fact that these are passionate athletes, not just “me too” sports charity cases looking for athletic attention traditionally given to men. Articles like Vescey’s are just the type of publicity the WNBA needs because it draws people into the drama of sports without just being sensational.

There are entire blogs dedicated to what’s wrong with sports journalism, but I wonder what the ideal might be? And how might that ideal apply to women’s basketball? Reading Vescey’s article reminded me of an article I read at the Pop and Politics blog a few weeks ago about “intellectual journalism” and I think sports journalism stands to gain a lot from hose principles.

What is "intellectual journalism"?

The biggest challenge of journalism is clearly objectivity – a journalism professor once told me that nobody can be objective and anybody that tells you they are is lying. Shazia haq from the Pop and Politics blog writes:
What is now become run-of the mill, conflict journalism is the result of journalists’ inability to relate with foreign cultures, according to Hedges, former New York Times foreign correspondent and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on global terrorism. “Journalists look around and see things that they can’t comprehend, and that is reported as incomprehensible,” he said.
Conflict journalism works because conflict sells papers and boosts TV ratings. However, when newspapers are dominated by ambition and greed, integrity and truth are suddenly lost in an attempt to make reality as provocative and sensational as possible.

Intellectual journalism
is the exact opposite of conflict journalism. Rather than oversimplifying the complexity of a given situation, it serves as a guide to make sense of a situation for those that have neither the time nor ability to sift through all the facts. It challenges people to expand their horizons rather than see everything in dichotomies. That’s exactly what women’s basketball needs…and exactly what sports journalism is not.

How does that intellectual journalism apply to sports…or the WNBA?

To understand sports journalism, we have to understand who consumes it: predominately 18-35 year old male sports fans (myself included). There is generally a very simple formula to appease that demographic: biased, black and white, conflict journalism.

In fact, part of the fun of being a sports fan is indeed conflict: from celebrating with others when your team wins to arguing about who’s the best player. In fact, since most professional sports games are played publicly, most sports fans don’t need information about what happened as much as the behind-the-scenes “fantasy news”: potential changes in the rotation, rumors about potential transactions, or injury updates. That’s the stuff that gives people something to talk about and helps you enjoy the experience.

And that’s fine for an 8 hour news cycle. But for a 24 hour news cycle, it’s insufficient – there’s not enough behind-the-scenes news to fill the cycle. So it begins to makes sense that more and more news outlets are hiring the loudest, most obnoxious professional fans as “sports reporters”, instead of true journalists that write out of love for the game.

All of this is of little consequence for an established sport, but niche sports like the WNBA suffer in this climate. We need look no further than the coverage of the recent Shock-Sparks melee for evidence – in the race to be the most provocative, there is little concern for respecting the athletes or actually helping people understand the state of the WNBA with actual facts.

However, it would seem that the way to confront the blatant homophobia, racism, and sexism that abound in people’s commentary about the WNBA is to help people challenge narrow perspectives by expanding their understanding of the game. It would seem that journalists could do that by appreciating the work the athletes put into their craft, promoting an understanding of the women’s game, and providing balanced coverage (especially in the absence of television coverage).

To represent the game well doesn’t necessarily mean that newspapers need to hire WNBA public relations representatives as beat writers; but journalists (and editors) should be accountable for respecting the game and appreciating it for what it is: a form of professional competition. I’m not saying the whole world has to like it, but there’s no reason to publicly disrespect it.

The type of coverage that the WNBA needs seems to fit well within the spirit of intellectual journalism.

Appreciating the craft

A major obstacle to the popularity of women’s basketball is that people find it so easy to demean the female athletes…and some of your “average lunkhead male” seems to even take pride in it, often dismissing it before having watched it.

However, I read a statistic some time ago that has stuck with me throughout the season – WNBA vice president of marketing Hilary Shaev described the positive effect of just seeing game footage:
“We took a controlled group of men and women and showed them game footage and, with the men,” she said, “the positive perception of the game increased by 25%.”
The take away lesson from this focus group seems to be that people do develop an appreciation of the game the more they see it. If we accept that premise, then it’s reasonable to say that increased exposure would lead to increased attendance and ratings.

Extending that reasoning to journalism, the goal should be to present as much insight into the game – through player interviews, vivid descriptions of key plays, or even statistics – as possible. This is especially true when considering the fact that so much of the WNBA goes un-televised.

The only way to appreciate the craft is to see it, and the only way to help others appreciate it is to present it as fully as possible. If the only thing we get is a recap with the score and the leading scorers, it’s difficult to appreciate what actually happened in the game; in fact, that’s hardly journalism.

Promoting understanding

Part of appreciating the WNBA is also about appreciating the fundamentals of basketball. Since the WNBA fan base includes many fans who are new to professional sports, there is an additional need to represent the game well so that people can understand it fully and stick with it.

I think that’s a simple task and goes right back to the need for papers to do more than just report a terse recap and box score. At some point, they have to present basketball insight so fans new to professional sports can participate in those arguments that make fandom great.


But the biggest obstacle to the WNBA is balanced reporting. Really, it’s not only a WNBA problem, but a much larger problem in professional sports.

It always surprises me when major media outlets talk about the WNBA being unpopular as though media exposure has nothing to do with that -- people can’t like a game they don’t see.

So the biggest obstacle for the WNBA is not bad coverage, but a lack of coverage. And unfortunately, it’s a problem in professional sports broadly. From Le Ann Shreiber:
We have gotten used to the narrow world of sports. In its news coverage, the world of sports is often shrunk to the North American big three -- baseball, football, basketball. And within those sports to a handful of dominant, usually big-market teams. And within those teams, to a few dominant positions -- pitchers, power hitters, quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs. The result is a predictable surfeit of certain stories, a force-feeding of portions so large that it makes one feel queasy, like after a big Thanksgiving meal. The disproportion also creates a dizzying lack of perspective -- so that a managerial change, if the team is the Yankees, is treated like the toppling of a nuclear power's head of state.
Women’s basketball writer Milton Kent described how he left his job essentially because the editors decided to narrow the scope in favor of ambition and greed.

This might present an interesting chicken and egg dilemma for the WNBA – it’s not currently lucrative so it doesn’t get much coverage, but if it doesn’t get more coverage, it cannot grow.

But this is also where principles of intellectual journalism apply to editor-level decisions – a decision needs to be made to allow writers to learn a game that may seem “foreign” in order to help it grow. If media outlets help the game grow, they stand to profit from it long-term once people like it. So in the end, balanced coverage of all sports – including the WNBA – greatly benefits the media. But that doesn’t mean tossing in an arbitrary two cents about the fight – it means taking an interest and constructing a narrative about the local team that people want to follow.

Conclusion: "Talk is cheap and reporting is expensive"

Due to the magnitude of the Olympics, we see journalists applying these principles to U.S. women’s basketball team now. Journalists are spending time to construct narratives about the most obscure teams and helping people to appreciate even the most obscure sports mostly because of the spirit of the games. But what if that same ethic were applied to the WNBA?

Clearly blogging provides a novel way for the average sports fan to serve as a conduit for quality journalism about the WNBA in what could be seen as an otherwise toxic sports journalism climate. Through blogging, we have the opportunity to present the sports world with balanced perspectives, fresh thinking, and a media free of corporate interests that have led many people to abandon mainstream media sources altogether. It can help the game grow.

However, what if ambition and greed were to affect bloggers as well? Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter describes some of the pitfalls that the “netroots” movement has fallen into:
Today, of course, we’re all press lords, or can be. But the “crowd-sourcing” of news cuts both ways. Like democracy itself, it can cleanse, correct, and ennoble. Or it can coarsen, spread lies, and degrade the national conversation.
The problem with blogging is the lack of the press credentials that provide access to behind-the-scenes news compounded by a dependence upon the very mainstream media sources that they are supposedly a corrective for. When ambition and greed turns information-starved bloggers into nothing more than eGossip columns or rumor mills without accountability, then there’s not really much of a benefit to anyone.

In other words, due to limitations of bloggers, the highest function of the WNBA blogosphere is probably to keep the mainstream media honest and push them to pursue an ideal of intellectual journalism by filling in the blanks when necessary. The hope would be that as appreciation and understanding are supported by bloggers, the mainstream media would pay attention and add balance to their reporting.

However there’s a critical weak link in that logic: will the “real” journalists be forced to pay attention? And if they don’t, how can the WNBA grow? (More on that later this week…)

Transition points:

However, this brings to mind a scene from one of my favorite movies – Citizen Kane – which was loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, who was mentioned in Haq’s article. The composition of the entire movie was outstanding, but this scene stands out to me as one that subtly (or maybe not so) captured the essence of the movie.

Of course we know what happened to Kane’s principles: as he got more and more invested in building his image as a champion of the people, his original principles were lost. The newspaper became an extension of his own vanity rather than a source of information to benefit the people.

Relevant Links:

What's Happening to The Atlantic?

Newsies (The Challenge of Intellectual Journalism)

The Double Edged Sword of the Web

ESPN-ing Blackness

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