Legitimizing the WNBA through Highlight Culture

By: Arjun Naganathan and Madi Davis

Women have been fighting for the opportunity to play and be seen as equals in sports for decades. In an attempt to get closer to this goal, this essay will examine this fight in the context of women’s basketball, specifically the WNBA. Stereotypes, discrimination, and limited representation (we will label this the “cultural side”) have all impacted the WNBA. This essay will not only analyze those factors and weigh solutions to mitigate them as they are a major barrier to the widespread acceptance of women’s sports, but it will also focus on the business factors that could lead to greater commercial success of women’s sports (we will label this the “business side”). We believe that the intersection of the cultural and business problems of the WNBA can be seen in the flaws of the WNBA’s highlight culture; improving the highlight culture in the WNBA would thus address both issues and provide a framework for other women’s sports leagues. In assessing the various ways in which we can improve the highlight culture in the WNBA, we will cover concepts including media representation, hegemonic masculinity & emphasized femininity, stereotypes, and sexism.

But hold on. Why do women’s sports even matter? If the market tells us that men’s sports are far more popular, why not embrace the more profitable opportunity? Well it’s because representation matters. Representation in media means seeing oneself in media objects and being able to create associations that directly correspond to one’s identity. Representation in the right hands can have profound effects. Take the following examples, for instance:

Image: 9to5Mac 
Image: dezeen

Tim Cook’s public announcement coming out as gay enabled him to use the billions of dollars of resources at his disposal to fund inclusive efforts at Apple. As one of the largest companies in the world, Apple’s influence surely affected the entire corporate culture around acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. Similarly, Barack Obama’s ascension to a two-term presidency as the first Black president symbolized hope for Black Americans who may not have ever envisioned themselves as leaders. 

So why the WNBA and not a different women’s league? There are several reasons. First, we decided to focus on addressing an American league as international leagues are highly fragmented with the obstacle of having to appease various countries’ cultures, customs and regulations. Within the US, basketball is the third-most popular sport. The other two sports – football and baseball – do not have women’s leagues backed by their respective professional leagues (NFL and MLB). Basketball does, in the form of the WNBA as a subsidiary of the NBA.

We will compare the WNBA to its parent company – the NBA – as there are many similarities to note and synergies to take advantage of. The NBA has of course been heavily involved in the development of this league, which implies a major opportunity to migrate the NBA fan base over to the WNBA. This opportunity has been pursued with some success, but there is major room for improvement.

Enter highlight culture.

As stated previously, highlight culture represents the intersection of the cultural and business sides of sports. But what does that mean? The following image can illustrate the effect of highlight culture:

Image: CBC News 

The above image shows fans celebrating the Toronto Raptors’ NBA championship in 2019 outside of the Toronto arena. Notice anything odd? The Raptors weren’t even in Toronto; they were thousands of miles away in Oakland, CA. 

The passion of fans to assemble outside of an NBA arena when their team isn’t even in town is driven by their excitement for the game. A key way that excitement is generated is through highlights. 

Highlights are extremely effective in generating a fanbase because they are exciting and don’t require an understanding of the finer nuances of the game. They are quick, simple exhibitions of enormous strength and skill that can be marketed exceptionally.

To begin the process of addressing the barriers to the WNBA’s cultural and business success, it can be helpful to compare the WNBA to its natural measuring stick – the NBA. The WNBA is a subsidiary of the NBA, and while the ultimate goal of this essay is to provide solutions that could help the WNBA exist on a standalone basis, assessing the factors that make the NBA successful will lead to insights that can ultimately better the WNBA. 

Image: Sports Illustrated 
Video link: Youtube

A good place to start would be with a textual analysis of a popular clip from the NBA. Above is an image featuring a highlight in which LeBron James dunks on Jason Terry (click to see the full highlight). 

The highlight can be described as a fast-paced 3-on-1 transition play in which three Miami Heat players work together to score on a helpless Celtics defender. The defender, Terry, falls on the floor as an alley-oop pass is thrown to James, who emphatically dunks it over the body of Terry. As Terry falls to the floor, James stares at him emotionlessly, drawing a technical foul from the referee. From the noise in the arena, it’s clear that the play stunned the thousands watching in the packed TD Garden. 

We can infer that this particular highlight has been broadcast and distributed countless times over the eight years of its existence because of its spectacularity. The sheer aggression and physical force exerted by James’ body on Terry is anything but commonplace and it aligns with expectations of hegemonic masculinity. That masculinity has likely resonated with the mostly male NBA fanbase, generating revenue for the NBA.

We can evaluate this highlight as being representative of the overwhelming presence of hegemonic masculinity in sports. Hegemonic masculinity is associated with strength, and strength is a valuable asset in sports. Because of this, men tend to follow and play sports more than women because of the societal norms that deem sports “manly”. 

Image: news.com.au
Video: Youtube

Now let’s apply the same textual analysis to the image and video of the highlight above. The highlight can be described as a half-court buzzer-beating game winner by Dearica Hamby. Her shot advanced her team to the semi-finals. Furthermore, this highlight was listed as number 3 on a list of the Top 10 WNBA plays of all time by SportsCenter. The other highlights mostly featured jumpshots and other non-physical highlights.

Given the nature of this highlight and the other highlights published by SportsCenter, I can infer that the WNBA’s format doesn’t emphasize physical aggression as much as the men’s league. However, I can also infer that women are capable of being adept sharpshooters and hitting big shots when they count, which is a valuable and marketable skill.

I can evaluate this highlight as follows. Many claim that the WNBA can’t be exciting, but the WNBA is capable of producing exciting highlights. The problem is generating them at a higher rate. Furthermore, even though the WNBA is criticized by many for not being physical enough, WNBA players face sexist and stereotypical comments regarding their appearance as overly masculine. These stereotypes are rooted in how they mostly don’t fit into expectations of either emphasized femininity or hegemonic masculinity. 

Image:Twitter

The WNBA has yet to make a breakthrough separate from the NBA because gender stereotypes still exist. A specific stereotype for women in sports is that it takes away their femininity. There are a number of claims that show “sport as a predominantly masculine domain” (Leaper and Brown, 2008). These claims are supported by themes related to hegemonic masculinity. Men can be muscular and be idolized as athletes, whereas these characteristics are scrutinized on women who have them. Women in the WNBA are still held to the limitations within emphasized femininity. The image above shows comments on an Instagram post from a WNBA player. The ideas shown from the comments express the dislike for women in the sports world and a very simplistic and traditional view of what a woman’s duties are. Although they may come off as jokes, these ideas are deeply rooted in the sports culture. It shows that women are not respected in the sports world because some people still believe a woman has no role in sports. 

Image: Knox News

From the start of women being introduced to sports, there were fears that women were too delicate to participate. In “Sport and Society”, James Frey and Stanley Eitzen reflect on the false impression that “sport is harmful to the female reproductive system and thus a threat to child bearing” (Frey and Eitzen, 1991). Although these myths have been disproved, there are still lingering ideas that women should not be playing sports. This is a stigma that male players in the NBA never faced. There is no way to give women a fair shot at being as successful in participating in sports if we cannot remove these preconceived notions about women in sports.  The Sports Illustrated article featuring Sherly Swoops on the cover defies these notions. It shows that women can play professional sports and have families simultaneously. More images like this need to be circulated to defeat the stigma that women cannot and should not play sports. 

Of course, a huge factor facing and bringing down the WNBA is the limited representation they experience. But that problem is exacerbated by the sports media. There is a limited number of female athletes being shown off in sports media. In a Sports Illustrated for Kids issue, a study showed there were far fewer images of female athletes than male athletes included, to the extent that there was a “more than two to one ratio (62% to 28%)” (Kane, 1996). This goes to show how many times we are not seeing WNBA representation in the media, and it is a staggering amount. This statistic was from right before the WNBA launched, meaning that they were founded in a time period that saw marginalized female athlete representation. Without representation in sports media, there is no way to grow a fanbase. There is hardly an audience to reach with such few images and other media sources of the WNBA circulating. Jewell Loyd was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article with her feelings about the limited TV broadcasting of WNBA games. This quote was from the 25th season of the WNBA, meaning there were twenty-five years of women’s basketball not being represented. This is an injustice to women who worked hard to build careers at the professional level, with little to no recognition. 

Another issue facing female athletes in a male dominated sports world is the pay scale. In America, there already exists a pay gap between men and women, but for the WNBA, it is a much larger gap. On average, women are paid “89% of what a man makes”, and in professional basketball, “female athletes are making about 1% of the salaries of their male counterparts” (Strupp, 2021). This statistic is mindblowing. In the image of the compared statistics of Sue Bird and LeBron James, almost identical career success was tarnished with the wage gap. Some argue that the pay for sports is largely based on revenue; however, this proves to be untrue for the USWNT, who generate a significantly more amount of revenue than the mens national team. So, is pay for sports really based on revenue? Or, is that just an excuse to pay WNBA players the bare minimum?

Well, from what we know, it could be a little bit of both. It’s no doubt that athletes such as LeBron James make millions of dollars due to their widespread popularity. But elite female basketball players don’t have the same opportunity because there aren’t enough resources dedicated to marketing women’s basketball in the same highlight-generating way as the men’s stars.

All of this analysis boils down to a central flaw in the sports business model: it’s dominated by men. The game of basketball was invented by a man and played by men almost exclusively for several decades. The representation battle being fought to see more WNBA games cannot be successful unless there are women designing their game to be exciting in their own unique ways, which means catering the women’s game to the unique athletic qualities of female athletes. Forcing women to adapt to a men’s game is going to place them at an inherent disadvantage. Instead, the game needs to adapt to women.

Luckily, there are several ways the women’s game can be adapted to generate more highlights. Female basketball players may not be as physically aggressive as male players, but they are skilled and excellent sharpshooters. With that in mind, perhaps the court they play on could be scaled down so as to increase the amount of contact between players and their relative speed on the court. An idea that was floated to Candace Parker by Shaquille O’Neal ( link Candace Parker SHUTS DOWN Shaq Suggestion Of The WNBA Lowering The Rim So Players Can Dunk #NbaOnTNT) was to lower the rim so that WNBA players could dunk just like their male counterparts. While Parker didn’t take too kindly to the comment, it might be worth considering as there is no shame in adapting the game to the unique skill sets of women. A final idea we’ll leave you with is to introduce a four-point line in the WNBA game, which would make deeper-than-three shots worth four points. The added diversity to the scoring structure could make very interesting plays.

Ultimately, the exact changes of the game can’t come from us but must come from the women who play the game. With better representation from them, the WNBA can position itself as a highlight-driven league that can attract female and male viewers alike. 

Works Cited

Frey, J., & Eitzen, D. (1991). Sport and Society. Annual Review of Sociology, 17, 503-522. Retrieved July 1, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2083352 

Kane, M. J. (1996). Media Coverage of the Post Title IX Female Athlete: A Feminist Analysis of Sport, Gender, and Power. Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, 3(95). https://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/djglp3&div=7&id=&page=

Leaper, C., & Brown, C. (2008). Perceived Experiences with Sexism among Adolescent Girls. Child Development, 79(3), 685-704. Retrieved July 1, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27563511 


Strupp, J. (2021, March 10). Visualizing the Gap. Medium. https://medium.com/nightingale/visualizing-the-gap-eccb912d75e2.

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