A President and a Coach Talk Women’s Sports

UConn's women's basketball team has set an impressive example for female athletes.
UConn's women's basketball team has set an impressive example for female athletes.

For decades, women’s collegiate athletics took a back seat to men’s sports – and sometimes didn’t even get a seat at all. That has begun to change in recent years and, as we look toward the future, a key consideration for colleges and universities is examining what can be done to further showcase women’s athletics and build on the growing momentum behind them.

To that end, on May 8, the University of Connecticut announced the most expansive broadcasting deal in the nation for a women’s college basketball program – or, for that matter, any women’s collegiate sport: over the next four years, UConn women’s basketball games and related programming will be seen on the SNY network, reaching Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania. This will allow the team to reach nearly 14 million viewers – and more fans than ever before throughout the region and even the nation, thanks to satellite services.

Prior to this, the women’s games were broadcast on Connecticut’s public television station – a great venue run by great people, for sure – but UConn felt women’s basketball and women’s sports generally deserved as large an audience as we could provide. It is this kind of step that will help fuel the rise of women’s athletics, reach more fans and generate more interest in and exposure to women’s sports across the board. The same exact circumstances probably cannot be duplicated by colleges elsewhere, but identifying more avenues to promote women’s athletics – whatever the medium or partnership – can be.

Shortly before this was announced, I sat down for a conversation with one of the people who has helped to dramatically raise the profile of women’s sports across the nation: UConn women’s head basketball coach Geno Auriemma. There are few better sources on this issue; he has coached the team for 27 years and led them to seven national titles, and will be coaching the U.S. women’s basketball team in the Olympics this summer.

UConn's women's basketball team has set an impressive example for female athletes.
UConn's women's basketball team has set an impressive example for female athletes.

My first question was about how far women’s athletics have come in the more than 30 years he has been coaching. I had the impression that, in the 1970s, women playing sports was generally seen as a nice way for “the ladies” to get some exercise and fresh air – not taking their ability seriously – while for men, it was a true competition.

“Back then, there was definitely a low appreciation for women as athletes,” said Auriemma. “Sports weren’t looked upon as something women should really be doing, much less doing well. The rules in basketball were even such that women could only play half-court. There was a feeling that women were not worthy of, nor were they capable of, the kind of physical demands running up and down the floor might entail.”

This is clearly no longer the case.

“Then, a woman in high school or college might play basketball, but they would also maybe be playing softball or field hockey as well,” he said. “Whereas now, a lot of girls in high school may focus on only one sport, so they develop skills that didn’t exist before. It’s also much more inclusive now.”

Geno, by necessity, focuses on coaching players, building their skills and winning games. As an educator and university president, I focus on the larger picture of women’s athletics in the context of higher education. So something I devote a lot of thought to is the fact that female college basketball players are sometimes more academically successful than male players, nationwide. I asked Auriemma why he thinks this may be.

“I think a lot of guys, early in high school, are told that whatever sport they play is what is going to define them,” he said. “And time and effort is put into cultivating them as athletes – because of what their futures may hold – while academics become secondary. So some guys have the wrong model to begin with.”

“But if you’re a 9th-grade girl and you’re a pretty good basketball player, do you think that many people really care about what comes next for you as an athlete?” he asks. “Women in college have the mentality of, ‘If I don’t go to class, I’m in big trouble.’ There’s this conscientiousness because they see it as being their responsibility and they owe it to their teammates and their families to do well in school. They were probably like that in high school. For some young men, particularly those from a poor background, basketball can save them, to a certain extent. There isn’t really that same mentality for a young woman.”

With women’s sports on the rise – there are now nearly 200,000 female athletes on NCAA teams – colleges and universities have an opportunity to seek greater exposure for female athletics and place a new emphasis on bringing women’s sports to fans. Yet, one comment sometimes heard from fans is that they don’t find watching women’s college basketball games, for example, to be as interesting as watching the men’s games. Women can’t pull off some of the same feats that men can, like dunking the ball, for example. Auriemma’s response:

“If you see sports as just entertainment, then you want to watch a men’s game because they’re doing some incredible things most of us could never hope to do,” he said. “You aren’t going to get that on the women’s side so you need to look for other reasons to watch the game. The pure athleticism of the players is a good reason. There is a huge focus on skill and teamwork that can be very compelling to watch.

“Speaking as someone who remembers being an 18- or 19-year-old guy, the male ego can be driven by individual achievement, so a guy playing basketball can occasionally be restless and revved up to do his thing and might sometimes see the team as holding him back,” said Auriemma. “Whereas women generally are more team-oriented, and because of that, it can be a more fluid game to watch.”

Clues as to how those of us in higher education can increase support for burgeoning women’s sports may be found in the fans who attend the games already.

“The women’s games are in a way more family-oriented,” said Auriemma. “If you’re a guy and you have four tickets to a men’s game, the odds are you might call three of your buddies, grab dinner and go to the game. But if you’ve got four tickets to a women’s game, parents are more likely to bring their kids instead. It becomes a family day out. And if someone is the parent of young daughters, it’s a great way to expose them to athletics and successful young women competing with one another. The players can set a great example.”

I’ve also noticed that the overall atmosphere of the men’s and women’s games are different; with men’s games the feeling is more loud and intense, while women’s games tend to be more calm – but still fun – which may also suit a different fan base.

As a president, I’m incredibly proud of the achievements of our men’s basketball team and every men’s sport; they more than deserve the attention and accolades they receive. At the same time, it’s clear that women – and women’s collegiate athletics – have come a long way in recent decades, but have still not gained the same notice as their male counterparts.

Further emphasizing the abilities of female athletes and showcasing women’s sports is an excellent way for colleges and universities to give women the recognition they deserve and, in the process, gain additional perspectives about the intersection of athletics, academics and teamwork. The bottom line – and the driving force behind UConn’s decision to partner with the SNY network for women’s basketball – is that when people get to see women’s athletics, new fans can be created and more existing fans have a chance to enjoy it. Maybe for the first time.