"Got Recess?": Which Schools are Denying Youth Recess? And Why?

. Friday, August 7, 2009
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I am as passionate about youth development as I am about sports.

I even think that the two conceptual spaces intersect: participation in sports – even as the awkward lanky kid who gets picked last – has value for youth development.

So if you ever want to get me really fired up and angry, ask me about any of the following four things:

1. The fact that we live in a nation that seems almost indifferent to the education of our youth.

2. The arrogance of pre-service teachers who treat teaching like it’s day care with better benefits.

3. The semi-professionalization of youth sports, perpetuated by the ridiculous parents who curse and fight at their ten-year-old’s sporting events.

4. The ridiculous trend in our country to remove recess and physical education from schools.

Last night, Gretzky got me talking about trigger #4 by telling me about a July 28th article in USA Today about childhood obesity.

The article refers to comments by Kathleen Sebelius – Secretary of Health and Human Services and a former athlete – about the link between school activity and childhood obesity.

And there are too many schools that don't offer physical education or even recess, she said. "That's not only bad for their health, but bad for their minds."

While I acknowledge that PE definitely varies in its overall effectiveness and quality, I want to focus on schools that deny youth recess, which is a much lower bar: one period of outdoor play (weather permitting) for at least 20 minutes each day, as defined by the National Association for Sport and Physical Health.

20 minutes.

But how many schools is “too many”, as described by Sebelius? And why should we care about recess anyway?

As a former teacher, it's hard not to care.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that somewhere between 83-88 percent of public schools have a daily recess period. However, a study of 11,000 third graders released earlier this year found that 1 in 3 students receives fewer than 15 minutes of daily recess or none at all.

Yet the most troubling piece of this research for me is who loses recess:
Children exposed to none/minimal break (30%) were much more likely to be black, to be from families with lower incomes and lower levels of education, to live in large cities, to be from the Northeast or South, and to attend public school, compared with those with recess.
A graph of recess-lacking U.S. schools by region from the Barros study (via Cognitive Daily).

The educrats who endorse this sort of policy will argue that eliminating recess (20 minutes daily) somehow increases academic performance. They might even say something similar to what Benjamin O. Canada, former superintendent of schools in Atlanta, told the New York Times back in 1998:

"We are intent on improving academic performance. You don't do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars."

I suppose the logic works, if we start treating children like robots whose performance teachers are tuning.

Part of the reason I take this issue so personally is that I taught in a school that banned recess under the same obtuse logic. And I can absolutely promise you that under no circumstances can you make the argument Canada made if you’ve spent five eight-hour days a week with 5-12 year olds.

An anecdote

I taught in an urban, 100% black, Title I school that was a PreK-7th transitioning to a PreK-8th. I worked in the middle school area. Students had class periods of about 50 minutes each and one PE class a week (varying by semester, assuming our teacher had not yet quit). They went to lunch – arms folded in a single file line – in the cafeteria, which was also inside the building.

So from entering our dark windowless hallways at 7:45 until being freed sometime around 2:20 the students did not go outside at all and were under constant supervision.

And oh yeah, we cut nap time for the Pre-K and Kindergarten students as well.

Think that helped academic performance and allowed us to avoid being a “failing school” (for whatever value this arbitrary label holds for you)? Hardly.

But the reasoning was simple (and simplistic) – that 20 minutes daily that most research suggests is as valuable to student development as the 3 R’s was viewed as 20 minutes less of “time on task” preparing for those all-important achievement tests.

It's simply misguided logic.

Consider this statement from Dr. Romina M. Barros, the assistant professor and pediatrician who conducted the “School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior” study in Pediatrics:
“We need to understand that kids need a break,’’ Dr. Barros said. “Our brains can concentrate and pay attention for 45 to 60 minutes, and in kids it’s even less. For them to be able to acquire all the academic skills we want them to learn, they need a break to go out and release the energy and play and be social.’’
This is not rocket science, or perhaps more accurately, neuroscience. It’s common sense.

In fact, I want you to imagine for a moment what it would be like for a student to not leave a building and be under constant supervision for an entire day.

When you tell the students it’s time to go to lunch for 30 minutes in a gloomy colored cafeteria – complete with D grade food and sugar water – after being in class all morning, they’re going to take that opportunity to be social and release their energy. However, since they are forced to stay in their seats during that entire time -- aside from the time they are allowed to get up and get their food and return their trays – all they do is become more restless. Their capacity to focus declines.

The two hours after lunch were like an intellectual vacuum, especially for the older kids who thoroughly crave both their free time and challenging authority to begin with.

Would 20 minutes of recess really improve academic performance in this sort of panoptic environment? Probably not – there were obviously many problems with that particular “learning” environment.

The problem is that treating 5-12 year olds like this is utterly dehumanizing...unless we strive to create carefully prescribed automata who are programmed to withdraw from the world, as educator William Torrey Harris suggested in 1906.

I could throw endless anecdotal, qualitative, and quantitative data at you to further support the point, but it should be clear:

There simply is not a strong argument in favor of eliminating recess from any school.

And when we consider who is losing opportunities for recess, it becomes even more infuriating because it is yet another example of the deep educational disparities in this country that we are only half-heartedly trying to address.

As the Washington Post reported:
"The kids who are already disadvantaged in a number of different ways are getting further disadvantaged," said Ripperger-Suhler.

Almost two-thirds of this disadvantaged group had physical activity only twice a week or less, putting them at greater risk of becoming obese.
This isn't just a matter of academic performance, but the health of our children.

But you know, as some commentators have said, maybe all the commotion over the demise of recess is exaggerated. After all, it’s only our (disadvantaged) children’s future.

Really, no big deal.

Related Links:

Does recess really improve classroom behavior?

Diana Taurasi visits Phoenix school to promote fitness (and milk)

Just Say No to PE Cuts

Transition Points:

The original inspiration for this post
was actually a post on The Muslim Women in Sports blog two weeks ago about Saudi prince Khaled al-Faisal considering lifting the ban on physical education for girls in state-run schools:
Physical education classes are banned in state-run girls schools in conservative Saudi Arabia. Saudi female athletes are not allowed to participate in the Olympics.

Women's games and marathons have been cancelled when the powerful clergy get wind of them. And some clerics even argue that running and jumping can damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.
Prince Khaled is certainly to be commended for standing up against an entrenched institution on this issue. However, it's worth noting that we're going to need someone to stand up for the fitness of our urban boys and girls in the U.S.

This did not turn into a rant about the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation
, because in fact the reason for removing recess often includes multiple factors according to the International Play Association, many of which applied at the school I taught at:
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 created a focus on testing and scripted programs and further decreased recess, especially in high-poverty schools. Pressure is also on early childhood education programs to teach academic subjects at younger ages. The Kindergarten curriculum is now more like first grade used to be. Some kindergarten classrooms have no blocks, dramatic play area, or puppets; and some experienced kindergarten teachers have noted decreases in children's imagination and the ability to organize their own play. There has been a decrease in outdoor play due to many factors including the following: an emphasis on organized sports and other structured activities, fear of neighborhood crime in cities, lack of accessible open spaces in suburbia, working parents wishing their children to remain indoors after school, air conditioning that discourages children from playing outdoors in the summer, and the appeal of electronic media (TV, video games, and computers).
Can you even imagine Kindergarten without recess or blocks (or nap time)?

I did in fact bring up this issue during a faculty meeting
in my first year one time. It was brought up by another teacher and I suggested we try having recess. The assistant principal looked at me and said, "Well, who's going to supervise that? You?," alluding to my numerous behavior management problems in my first year.

That effectively killed the motion.

Nevertheless, it should not be ignored that things that tend to make people good humans – like art, music, and PE – are being increasingly cut as schools find ways to trim budgets and increase that cherished “time on task”.

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Storm + Mercury + Key Arena = The Perfect Way to Market the WNBA to NBA Fans

. Wednesday, August 5, 2009
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When Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko.com (a blog about the NBA, but not merely about basketball) asked me to recommend a Seattle Storm game for us to go to, the choice seemed obvious.

“The best game for a NBA fan to see will be the Mercury on Aug 4 or Aug 21,” I wrote back.

The Mercury feature two of the top candidates for WNBA MVP in Phoenix wing players Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, a high-octane offense that almost any NBA fan would recognize as reminiscent to Phoenix’s NBA counterpart, and as Mechelle Voepel wrote last month, Storm vs. Mercury just has that panache”.

And last night's game certainly did not disappoint. Nor did the Key Arena atmosphere.

Although the Storm lost to the Phoenix Mercury in overtime 101-90, the game featured heroics from Storm point guard Sue Bird (again) at the end of regulation, a Taurasi-like performance from Taurasi, and Storm guard Tanisha Wright torching the Mercury for 21 in the first half en route to a career-high 25 points.

And oh yeah, Bill Russell was there too…and even more importantly, a Storm Trooper tried to step onto the court after a particularly bad call from the ref in the second half.

However, I spent most of the game talking to Shoals and another male friend, who I shall call Rudy (yes, the basketball version). Neither of them had ever been to a Storm game and both had expressed interest in going at various times this summer.

All three of us fit that 18-35 year old male demographic and I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching both NBA and NCAA men’s basketball with them at various times. I would consider both informed NBA fans that appreciate professional basketball as a sport as much as for its entertainment value. Rudy is a New York Knicks fan who I’ve watched, played, and talked basketball with for about four years now. We have all attended graduate school and are overeducated to different degrees.

These guys aren’t the “average lunkhead male” – they appreciate the game of basketball and have the ability to formulate sentences without grunting and demeaning women.

So long story short – they both enjoyed the game (in different ways perhaps) and said they would like to come back.

During the game we had one of those running conversations full of tangents, non-sequiturs, and worm holes, talking about the league, making comparisons to the NBA, and talking about Bill Russell. And there were elements of our conversation during the game that I found interesting in the context of my ongoing interest in how the WNBA could market to male NBA fans.

So to help answer the question, how can the WNBA market the game to male fans?, I ask another question:

What sort of first impression(s) might the WNBA make on (over)educated male NBA fans?

The crossover worm hole

Shoals met Rudy and I on the east side of Key Arena and immediately tossed me into one of his warped worm holes. A tweet sums up the issue nicely:

"Talking with @kpelton about who has the best crossover-as-fake, not just handle, in the league. I vote Wade, he suggests Rose. Et toi?", he tweeted.

Good lord.

If you knew me, you would know that I was not actually annoyed at the question because it’s stupid or somehow insignificant. The question was annoying because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Shoals and I had been to the Adonai Hood Classic on Sunday as well and we talked about the issue there while watching Jamal Crawford. But as we started to come up with answers at the Storm game it became clear that the answer changed depending on any number of other variables that influence a player's decision to make a crossover.

Anyway...Pelton had apparently suggested that Cappie Pondexter had among the best crossovers in the WNBA and I agreed. So in addition to mentally running through every different variant of the “crossover” that I could imagine, I began the game paying close attention to Pondexter’s crossover. And of course, with Wright’s phenomenal first half performance, her ability to get to the basket with her crossover also became a part of the conversation.

But even though I’ve watched Pondexter play quite a bit, she never ceases to impress – as I told Shoals and Rudy, she is a triple-double threat almost every night. And her crossover is a major part of that.

She not only has arguably the best crossover in the WNBA, but also uses it extremely effectively in a number of different ways – on the fast break to get by whoever is standing in between her and the basket, in the half court to gain separation for whichever type of jumper she feels like punishing her defender with at the moment, or simply to penetrate to the basket to set up another player for a scoring opportunity.

Pondexter didn’t actually have a stellar game – going 6-19 from the field – but she also grabbed 8 boards and recorded 5 assists, at least backing up claim that she’s a triple-double threat.

Making NBA comparisons

At various points during the game we attempted to make comparisons to NBA players, since their frame of reference is the NBA. I normally hate doing that (because really it does a disservice to all sides), but since Rudy kept coming up with them, I rolled with it and it ends up being a good way to familiarize oneself with the game.

For example, we decided that Storm forward Lauren Jackson was like the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki with the heart to play inside, Storm forward Swin Cash like the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Jeff Green with a better perimeter game, and DeWanna Bonner like Golden State Warriors forward Brandan Wright (not necessarily in terms of style play, but skinniness). Rudy at one point suggested that Storm guard Tanisha Wright is like the Utah Jazz’s Deron Williams, but I rejected that.

However, what’s interesting is that Pondexter – and Taurasi – seemed to defy comparison. Which is actually an interesting insight because it suggests that the WNBA actually adds something to the basketball universe. Imagine that?

WNBA player versatility

Skills seem to be much more evenly distributed across positions in the WNBA than the NBA, meaning you don’t have post players who have no skill other than being tall and dunking. On the perimeter, multiple players are able to initiate the offense.

And as Shoals mentioned later via email, “a bunch of versatile skilled players is the NBA's wet dream.”

Shoals was alarmed by the fact that 6’5” forward Lauren Jackson was hovering around the three point line and that guards Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright seemed to be splitting the responsibility of initiating the offense. Part of the reason why Rudy made the comparison of Wright to Utah’s point guard Deron Williams is that Wright almost appeared to be the point guard at times because she had the ball in her hands so often.

Taurasi was leading fast breaks, shooting threes, aggressively trying to block shots, and occasionally running the offense. Mercury center Tangela Smith was 4-6 from three point range and Storm center Camille Little hit a three to tie the game at 81 with 44.7 seconds left in regulation. I mentioned that if they watched a team like the Detroit Shock – who really don’t have a traditional distributing point guard – they might have been even more confused.

Shoals is a fan of versatile players and the blurring of positions that seemed to be occurring on both teams actually seemed to be one of the more exciting elements of the game to him. It makes basketball much more fluid and actually makes offenses much more interesting to watch, if you know anything about x’s and o’s.

Yes, males of the lunkhead persuasion will complain about missed layups and lack of dunks, but as Shoals pointed out, overall, few missed shots are actually bad shot attempts. Because there are so many versatile players who can move the ball and find different ways to score, the scoring opportunities created are pretty solid.

This is basketball in which style does not take precedent over substance, but the substantive abilities of the players give the game a style that the NBA aspires to (a “wet dream”)…or once had.

The WNBA as throwback game

It was interesting that Bill Russell was in the crowd because at multiple times throughout the game, Shoals mentioned how the game reminded him of the type of basketball you see in old footage of NBA basketball in the sixties.

“Weird Russell was there, that game reminded me of sixties ball,” he tweeted at one point.

For the uninformed, that is not a slight of the WNBA game – for someone who appreciates the sport of basketball, it’s a complement. In fact, both he and Rudy commented that given the choice between the WNBA and men’s NCAA basketball, they would probably watch a WNBA game. Shoals was quite adamant about this and I’ll leave him to explain that at some other point.

When you have versatile players and offenses predicated on passing and cutting without dunking, you don’t get worse basketball, you get sixties NBA basketball. Shoals noted at one point that even the post players get their points by cutting and being in the right position rather than on the two man isolation game that tends to dominate the NBA. Personally, as someone who appreciates ball movement and fluidity in basketball, that makes the WNBA one of the most appealing syles of play.

Framed in that way, it’s no wonder that someone like Bill Russell “is on record as being a big fan of the WNBA's style of play” as Kevin Pelton noted during the game on his live blog. As Bob Ryan alluded to in his article, “The Game You’re Missing” last year, if you actually know anything about basketball, you almost have to appreciate WNBA basketball.

If you don’t appreciate basketball, just say it… but don’t disrespect a game you know nothing about.

Engrossed to the point of standing during timeouts

In between all of our meta-analysis of basketball as a phenomenon, we did actually pay attention to the game.

Key Arena – and other arenas around the league – have a ritual of standing until the home team makes its first basket.

Rudy liked this – it seemed to add to the collective atmosphere when everyone sat down at the same time after the first shot. Shoals, who nobody could describe as a “joiner”, was initially less enthusiastic, grumbling when I implored him to stand up at the beginning of the game.

However, in overtime, as Shoals and I were standing and chatting about something or other, he stopped mid-sentence and said, “Wait – do we have to stand during timeouts too?”

Why we were standing during a timeout like dunces is beyond me… but that’s beside the point.

The point here is that the game was engaging in a way that just sort of grabs you and forces you to get caught up. Part of that is a direct result of being in Key Arena – it’s just an amazing basketball venue and when the crowd gets going, it’s difficult not to find yourself caught up in a wave of Storm fanaticism.

But a major part of it is that this is just good basketball and true fans of the sport would find a hard time not getting swept up in it.

The other side of the 18-35 year old demographic

Petrel of the Pleasant Dreams blog emailed me yesterday in response to my post about WNBA marketing and reminded me that there really is no monolithic 18-35 year old male demographic. Within that demographic there are people who are non-sports fans or sports fans who are not moved by the idiocy of shock jock sports radio. But more importantly, there might also be a cross-section of that demographic who is able to appreciate the WNBA game simply because it’s good basketball.

The unfortunate reality is that precision ball movement, cutting, and versatility – the strengths of the WNBA game – are simply not conducive to the short attention span clips of Sportscenter that people have become so accustomed to. To appreciate the WNBA, you can’t expect to be wowed by a highlight reel dunk; to appreciate the WNBA, you have to learn to appreciate the nuance of basketball.

And the best way to do that is probably to show up to a game.

Transition Points:

Thanks to Patrick from the Chasing the Title blog for providing us with these tickets.

Part of Shoals’ infatuation with Bill Russell stems from his interest in having Russel write the intro to his next FreeDarko book, which he is currently doing research for. He’s spent quite a bit reading about the man. Rudy actually went over to Russell and shook his hand, but apparently got no real response from the legend. Just one of millions of hands shaken.

In an attempt to stop over-analyzing basketball, I missed most of the halftime show to go grab a beer. However, Shoals’ girlfriend who was with us, thought the dogs during the halftime show were among the best part of the Key Arena experience.

It’s hard not to admire Tanisha Wright’s game and Patrick Sheehy has a great article on SPMSportsPage profiling Wright. Definitely worth a read. Although I’ve often focused on her offensive abilities, Sheehy does a good job articulating her impact on the defensive end.

I also watched the Los Angeles Sparks’ loss to the San Antonio Silver Stars earlier in the day, a matchup between the Storm’s two previous opponents. Would those games – a triple-overtime win against the Sparks and an overtime win against the Silver Stars – be as effective in swaying NBA fans? I’m not sure… the Mercury’s high-octane style of play is really perfect to entice new fans…we’ll see what Shoals thinks of future games. By the way, down two with four Olympic caliber post players on the floor, why do you settle for a jumper from point guard Kristi Harrower and a three from a frigid cold Tina Thompson…I don’t get it.

Storm Troopers need to remain a prominent part of the Key Arena atmosphere. Here's why: Shoals commented at one point that the refereeing in the WNBA seems to be less invasive than that of the NBA game, making the point that there aren’t quite as many stoppages of play…but I think that was more a function of the Mercury’s style of play. For the most part, their calls were inexplicable. While I don’t complain about the refs often because they make consistently inexplicable calls against both teams, I thought it would have been plenty appropriate for a squad of Storm Troopers to rush the court, capture the refs, and detain them until further notice.

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“Getting Around Gender”: Would the WNBA Benefit From Getting “Out of the Ghetto of Being a Role Model for Girls?”

. Tuesday, August 4, 2009
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I follow women's basketball for one very simple reason:

I love basketball.

The cultural significance of supporting a women's professional sports league is icing on the cake for me.

Summer is the NBA off-season and the WNBA is a perfect counter-balance to keep me fully engaged in basketball for the entire calendar year, schedule permitting.

So I realize that marketing the WNBA to someone like me is simple -- the very idea of extra basketball was enough to get me interested in the WNBA in 1997. The combination of Candace Parker and gloomy Expect Great ads was enough to get me re-invested in the WNBA last summer after taking a long hiatus (moving to cities without WNBA teams).

However, I also realize that most people don't feel the same way about basketball as I do (they might actually have lives). In fact, some people seem to harbor resentment not only for women's basketball, but also that whole gender equity agenda thing that some people still believe is reserved for radical man-hating feminists.

So the very idea of a male women's sports fan is laughable to many people. Sadly, some individuals seem to enjoy going out of their way to demean female athletes and dismiss women's sports as irrelevant. And while I strongly believe that everybody is entitled to their own (defensible) opinion, openly disrespecting individuals who are performing at the top of their profession is just unnecessary.

So when I saw a link to an article on the Soccer Science blog entitled, “One Man’s Struggles With WPS Fandom: Does Liking Women’s Soccer Make You Gayer?” I was at once intrigued and wary of yet another insecure sexist rant.

Of course, I clicked.

Not that I’m afraid of becoming “gayer” by liking women’s basketball (because the very notion of that is ridiculous, as I believe the author intended to highlight). But I was very interested to see how the author – Cyrus Philbrick -- would go about developing his argument. He clearly was not dismissing women’s sports -- he was just trying to express why he’s struggling with it. That’s fair.

The premise of the article is as follows:

I love soccer. And I’m pretty sure I love women. So why don’t I love Women’s Professional Soccer? Or do I, secretly? These are questions I fear to answer because any serious soul-searching might uncover the misogynistic pig within. That, or I’ll end up stripping away a vestigial layer of macho-callous that has kept me straight and largely insensitive to the needs of women through the years. Oh well, here goes…
The article is actually a pretty fair description of some of the challenges that some men might have in making the transition from men’s sport to women’s sport.

However, Philbrick does not merely rehash standard critiques. In fact, he makes a critique that I normally take for granted in all my fervor about the cultural significance of women's sports.

His post ultimately arrives at the conclusion that WPS athletes are marketed as role models for girls, something that may alienate male fans. Which begs the question -- what about the WNBA?
“We need to get out of the ghetto of being a role model for girls,” Andy Crossley, the Boston Breakers’ director of business development, said in a recent New York Times article. “You can’t make dads feel like they’re visiting Chuck E. Cheese’s.”

The problem is I’m not sure if anyone knows how the league can change this. WPS works best as an inspiring example for young girl players. And as millions of them exist in this country, this isn’t a bad selling point. But to draw in the rest of us skeptics remains a challenge that will take a lot more than just innovative social media marketing.
I find this to be an interesting argument.

My knee jerk reaction is that perhaps these dads who feel apprehensive about doing things with their daughters because of how they feel need to get over themselves. But... you know... since I’m not a father…I’m going to suspend that judgment.

So beyond personal hang-ups, I suppose I don’t see being a role model for girls as a “ghetto” to begin with.

Isn’t being a role model for girls a good thing? Isn’t promoting fitness and sport for girls a good thing? And, most importantly, isn’t it somewhat inevitable that female athletes will be role models, given that women’s professional sports are a relatively new (and sometimes contentious) phenomenon?

But for a moment, let’s assume that getting out of the ghetto would indeed help the WNBA…then what? Where exactly would a league like the WNBA go from there?

“Marketing Women’s Sports to Men”

These questions led me to another article on a blog about marketing to women entitled, “Marketing Women’s Sports to Men”. The author – Andrea -- says the following, looking specifically at how NASCAR and figure skating have attempted to transcend gender in their marketing strategies:
Now, the sports realm, overall, has come full circle in the ways that previously pegged “women’s” sports must grow to reach more men.

And, how are they going to do that? By identifying what about the particular sport appeals to a men’s market and highlighting that. If the marketing decision-makers are smart, they’ll likely figure out a way to do so without alienating the women who already love said sport. Now, to clarify: It isn’t necessarily men that the more female-fan skewing sports should be worrying about. Instead, those marketing decision-makers should spend time learning to reach all of the human beings who appreciate the (traditionally) more masculine aspects of the sport.
The suggestion in this article is the de-genderfication of sport – finding the elements of a sport that appeal to all fans and highlight them.

However, given differences in the way men and women play basketball (see "Transition Points" below), “highlighting the masculine aspects” of basketball is almost impossible for the WNBA – at this moment, there is no female athletic equivalent of athletes like LeBron James or Dwight Howard. And part of what people like about the NBA is the almost surreal feats of athleticism. Women’s basketball can’t really provide those particular athletic aspects of the game, that have become prominent.

So if the WNBA is somewhat immune to de-genderfication, what else might a marketing expert suggest?

How about an awareness of third wave feminism, as Andrea suggests in another post?
I’m not saying that all is perfect between men and women now. I’m suggesting it might be a good time to accept that there is no easy answer but to study up on how the women in your market fit into this wave (or not). They might consider themselves feminists, but that could be VERY different from your mother’s feminism. And, today, there may well be a lot more men who consider themselves feminist or identify with the movement (whether they say so or not), and by making assumptions, you could potentially lose trust with them as well, Remember, too - parenthood tends to put most guys into a gender transcending role that changes their behavior in other ways. So, feminism can just creep up on you (in a good way)!

An awareness of third wave feminism is not for women’s studies majors only. Instead, it is a movement that may offer up the insights you need on how/why your consumers live and make decisions the way they do.
If we take Andrea’s posts together, then the challenge for a sport like the WNBA is finding a way to minimize the gendered elements of the sport (that may in fact define it) while simultaneously drawing upon insights from third wave feminism to understand what women might want beyond the antiquated narratives of equal opportunity and representation.


While I understand all these points about ghettoizing women’s sports, de-genderfication, and taking an expansive approach to feminism (that includes men rather than assuming it’s a “women’s only” domain), I also find the approach highly problematic.

Girls still need role models…just like boys have had for decades/centuries/The Big Bang or Genesis. And it's worth playing that up.

There are gender differences in athletics that we should probably learn to appreciate instead of disregarding or rejecting them outright. And it's worth helping people do that.

And while feminism is not only for women’s studies majors and should apply to men, it also seems dangerous for it to become a part of a marketing strategy. Not that the feminist principles would necessarily lose their edge if assimilated as part of a marketing strategy…but…things tend to lose their edge when they are assimilated as part of a marketing strategy.

Nevertheless, the sad fact is that these commentaries may be right – indeed, it may simply not be profitable to market women’s sports as “political”, whether it be in a role modeling capacity, the symbolic promotion of equal opportunity/representation, or a direct challenge to sexist attitudes.

So where does this leave us?

The tension here is that if men want to demean or dismiss women’s sports for being too “Chuck-E-Cheese”, “too feminine”, or “too feminist”, I firmly believe that is their problem, not the problem of women’s professional sports.

But realistically, the market for sports is traditionally the 18-35 male crowd, which is stereotypically proud of being against things labeled as “Chuck-E-Cheese”, feminine, or feminist. And there are certain women (that I’m sure we could all think of and name) who hold the same views.

However, what is most troubling to me is the assumption underlying all of these things: sexism exists and if women’s sports are to be marketable, they have to roll with it rather than going against the grain.

Realistically, most people can’t be bothered with political messages about role models, opportunity, or oppression/discrimination/prejudice while they’re being entertained. They merely want to be entertained.

So that leaves us with the question of where are the people who want to be entertained by women’s basketball? And how does the WNBA reach them?

Does the WNBA need to “Get Around Gender”?

Well, take this insight from another Andrea’s posts entitled, “Getting Around Gender”:
An article in the latest issue of Pink mentioned how the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan got creative in reaching out to women, specifically for their executive MBA programs. Because state law prohibited the school from offering gender-based scholarships, they did the research and realized that a lot of non-profit executives happened to be female. So, Ross focused its scholarship money there. Brilliant. The school figured out a commonality that had nothing to do with gender - and learned how to reach THAT group effectively… My point is that, in a lot of cases, the best marketing to women has gotten around the gender question by serving humans/individuals who may so happen to be women.
In other words, if somebody stepped in and told the WNBA they could not market exclusively to women, what might they do? How might they describe their consumers aside from gender (or sexuality) identifiers?

Does the target audience like particular elements of the in-game experience? Do they like certain player personalities? Is it a particular style of play that a change in rules could really accentuate?

The notion of gender-blindness is problematic, if not downright harmful to me. But that is essentially what this blog is suggesting: gender-blind marketing. And yet, if gender is toxic to sports profit as all these people are suggesting, then maybe that is the strategy… but would a gender blind marketing approach even work for a league that is absolutely gendered?


I must fully acknowledge that Andrea is not talking about the WNBA -- she made a reference to NASCAR and figure skating and I'm trying to make a link to the WNBA....

Ultimately, I don't think such an approach would actually draw the fans who have blatantly sexist and dehumanizing reasons for not watching women's sports to begin with. So hiding from such an obvious aspect of the league -- that the women are role models -- just seems counterproductive.

It is important that women's sports leagues exist, if for no other reason "to get females to play" as Mechelle Voepel wrote about on Sunday. But while that is great advocacy for a women's non-profit organization, is it viable for a professional sports league striving to make profit?

But is it so difficult to imagine a world in which people stop judging women by men’s standards and are actually genuinely entertained by female athletes? Is there no way to appreciate women for their athletic feats just as we appreciate men? Why can’t we strive for a higher human standard rather than striving for the lowest consumer denominator?

Naïve, idealistic questions…that I find worth wondering about…

Relevant Links:

When it’s ‘her’ turn to just dive right in (Mechelle Voepel)

Marketing Women's Sports to Men

Getting Around Gender in Marketing

Transition Points:

The argument that first stuck out to me in Philbrick's piece
was the one about the speed of women’s soccer – that “It’s inarguably, frustratingly, heart-murmeringly slow.” Ouch. However, one could certainly make the same argument about the WNBA in comparison to men’s basketball…and that of course led me down a much longer path…

This past weekend I probably spent way too much time watching basketball. On Saturday I went to see the Seattle Storm defeat the San Antonio Silver Stars in overtime. Then on Sunday I went to see NBA players with Seattle ties play in the Adonai Hood Tournament, a four-team tournament of local high school alumni. And as I probably need not tell you, the differences between the women’s and men’s game were quite stark.

The men’s game is just faster, more physical, and yes, field goal percentages are typically higher. And for a game that is predicated on putting a ball into a ten foot high hole, the fact that men are taller on average is significant.

The fact is that the women’s game simply does not have athletes like the 5’9” Nate Robinson (NBA player from Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School and University of Washington) – an ultra-quick former NCAA Division I football defensive back who has won two NBA Dunk Contests, including this year’s in which he jumped over the 6’11” Dwight Howard for a dunk (in 2006 he jumped over another diminutive dunk champion, former NBA player Spud Webb).

Taking Robinson as one example of the type of athleticism in the NBA, these games are just different. And as I’ve said before, if you are going to support women’s sports, you first have to accept that they are different from men’s sports (duh…right?) and just appreciate each on their own terms, loving the sport as a sport as well as another form of entertainment.

Tonight: Storm game with a NBA fan who has never been. Should be fun...

(Note: I’m still not entirely sure how watching women’s sports – or anything for that matter -- might make one “gayer”, though many men seem to feel their sexuality is at stake when watching women’s sports. If I was hypothetically operating on such lunkhead male “logic”, it would seem that the opposite would be true – that spending hours watching sweaty men post each other up and pat each other on their firm behinds would make me “gayer”)

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The Sixth Adonai Hood Classic: Seattle Welcomes Home NBA Stars

. Monday, August 3, 2009
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There is nothing quite like watching NBA players represent their high school teams in a humid high school gym.

In fact, Shoals estimated about 500% humidity…and we must have sat there for five hours taking in a high school alumni game complete with music and a hype man, which at times made the basketball on the court teeter on the edge of irrelevance.

But we suffered through the difficult conditions simply for the star power.

Although the Sonics have left the city, there is still a surprisingly strong NBA presence in Seattle as evidenced by the impressive list of alumni that have come from a handful of schools from a relatively small radius.

The Adonai Hood Classic is a two-day tournament established in 2000 to bring together two rival neighborhoods in Seattle – the Central District and South Seattle – in a peaceful venue to help ease long-standing tensions. The tournament has now expanded to feature NBA alumni from four schools - Franklin, Garfield, O’Dea, and Rainier Beach.

This year’s tournament was played at the recently renovated Garfield High School gym. In addition to the high schools squaring off, the event features a three point and dunk contest.

On Sunday, current NBA players Aaron Brooks (left; Houston Rockets/Franklin), Jamal Crawford (right; Atlanta Hawks/Rainier Beach), and Nate Robinson (free agent/Rainier Beach) played for their respective teams.

Brandon Roy (Portland Trail Blazers/Garfield) made an appearance but did not play.

Robinson also participated in and won the three point contest, which was of course not the contest we were hoping Robinson would participate in...

Franklin pretty much dominated O’Dea, with or without Brooks, and Roy looked on from the bench as Crawford and Robinson led Rainier Beach to a victory in the championship game.

Watching these NBA players going up against players with a range of professional basketball experience -- from college to NBA summer league to Europe – it was striking to see just what separates the NBA-caliber talent from the rest. The NBA guys were just a bit more decisive in their actions, a tad quicker on their first step, their passes just a bit more precise, and their jump shots a bit sweeter.

But perhaps the best part of watching an event like this is players like Robinson who just seem as happy to play basketball in a humid gym as he does on the grand stage of Madison Square Garden. It’s hard not to appreciate someone who plays the game with such passion, has a thirst for victory even in an alumni game with people making millions less than him, and yet doesn’t really take himself too seriously, despite craving the spotlight.

Events like this with personalities like Robinson are a nice reminder that basketball is after all just a game made a bit sweeter when attached to good cause. Definitely worth the ten dollar admission fee and sweat therapy.

Transition Points:

Former University of Washington point guard - Justin Dentmon - was present as well and won the dunk contest.

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The Storm’s All-Decade Team Ceremony: Are Storm Fans Really the Best in the WNBA?

. Sunday, August 2, 2009
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At the end of the Seattle Storm’s 10th anniversary All-Decade Team ceremony at halftime of their 85-82 overtime victory last night, an oversized #6 Storm jersey was raised to the rafters of Key Arena in honor of the Storm’s dedicated fans, complete with a triumphant score that seemed to accentuate the significance of the moment.

As the jersey was halfway to its permanent place above the court, the woman next to me – tears streaming down her face – looked over and said in a pleasantly derisive tone, “Well, the music is a bit much.”

However, it’s hard to do too much for a group of fans who seem to put 110% of their energy into the Storm every night they show up. And that dedication, exuberance, and passion for their team has led people in Key Arena to claim repeatedly that Seattle’s fans are the best in the WNBA.

“Raising the banner there for the fans, I mean, that’s very worthy,” said Storm coach Brian Agler after the game. “You know, because we have probably the best fans in the league. I’ve been to all of the arenas, I’ve coached in four or five different places and there’s no comparison. No comparison.”
“No comparison”? Whoa – dem’s fightin’ words!

And therein lies a challenge to the WNBA fans in the other 12 cities across the U.S.:

Where you at?

I mean, seriously…are you gonna take that?

If you believe what people in Key Arena say, the fans in the rest of the league are straight-up slackin’.

But the thing is, I don’t think this is just a matter of a coach, owner, players, past-players, and announcers laying platitudes on the fans who pay the bills. I haven’t been to every arena in the league as Agler has, but I have to say that Storm games are by far one of the best sporting events I’ve ever been to in the U.S. (see Transition Points for my top 5). And the fans are a big part of it.

I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not a “Storm fan” per se in that I'm not particularly emotionally invested in whether they win or lose... but it’s hard to be in that building and not get caught up in the exciting narrative they’re putting together this year. And it doesn’t hurt to have someone next to you to bring you into the rich historical narrative that’s being celebrated this season.

As an “outsider”, I can appreciate good basketball. I can appreciate that Storm forward Lauren Jackson and Storm guard Sue Bird are among the best in the world at their respective positions. And yes, I can appreciate the statistics during the game.

However, during both the ceremony and the presentation of the 4th installment of the Storm history documentary, the woman next to me (we’ll call her “D”) tried to help me appreciate Storm basketball on a level of depth that goes beyond individual performance, statistics, and an exuberant crowd. And having someone there to contextualize where the Storm are now within a longer historical trajectory helped me gain a deeper appreciation for the entire 10th anniversary celebration.

During the presentation of the documentary on Storm Vision at the end of the first quarter, she described what it was like to be at the games in Key Arena as every game came down to the wire. “Every single game almost made my heart stop,” she commented. “So in the end, when we won, it was just a huge relief.”

During the halftime ceremony, as tears started rolling down her face, she talked a little about Simone Edwards’ shimmy shake and how much she loved Kamila Vodichkova.

I guess even as I’m writing this I’m realizing that my words aren’t really capturing the magic of the moment and the excitement in her voice that seemed just oozed with passion for her Seattle Storm. This was a woman that I’ve only met 2-3 times previously and there she was in tears as she relived her experience as a Storm fan over the last ten years. On a human level, there was something special happening for her at that moment and it was quite moving, even for someone who really hadn’t had the same set of experiences to draw upon.

There are plenty of devout fans in sports across the U.S. but there’s something different about the way Seattle fans engage their Storm. In Key Arena, the passion for their team rarely manifests itself in the form of hostility for the opposing team. Rarely do I hear people deriding their own players. Perhaps it’s just that people direct so much hostility toward the referees that there just isn’t any leftover to direct at players.

But the atmosphere in Key Arena seems to be more of a “love-will-never-do-without-you” relationship than “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately”. Perhaps not unconditional love, but definitely a supportive and inspired relationship in which the fans are willing to take the risk of putting their all into the team, even at the risk of disappointment in the end. Storm fans just care about their team in a different way than any other pro sports environment I’ve been around.

What’s ironic about the whole thing is that Seattle is known among "outsiders" for the Seattle Freeze phenomenon – a social atmosphere in which people are warm on the surface, but ultimately never get beyond surface level politeness, which can create a sense of isolation among outsiders. But maybe that isn’t really that ironic – nobody really gets “close” to the professional athletes they root for; they know them from a distance and don’t necessarily have to engage the human flaws that might emerge during the course of a real relationship. Maybe the fervor for the Storm is yet another manifestation of this broader phenomenon rather than a diversion from it.

Either way, basketball in Key Arena is something special. And if you live anywhere near Seattle and haven’t yet been, it’s worth it… just because it is among the most unique sporting experiences in the country.

Perhaps my reaction to the whole thing is “a bit much.”

But it’s hard to believe that when you see the stranger next to you tearing up and expressing something she’s passionate about.

Relevant Links:

Storm’s Fans Invaluable the Last 10 Years

Storm marks 10th anniversary

Transition Points:

Here are my top 5 favorite U.S. sporting events/venues (no event can match even the lowest levels of “soccer”/football elsewhere in the world):

1. University of Michigan men’s ice hockey @ Yost Arena
2. Seattle Sounders FC soccer at Quest Field
3. University of Michigan football @ “The Big House
4. Seattle Storm basketball @ Key Arena
5. American University women’s basketball @ Bender Arena (ok, this is a sentimental pick, but I saw Ticha Penicheiro play there in 1997-98 and that was great)

Other candidates: Detroit Pistons basketball, DC United soccer, Oakland A's baseball, San Francisco Giants baseball (at "Pac Bell", not necessarily Candlestick).

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