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Wednesday, November 10, 1999
Updated: November 11, 6:16 PM ET
Past 10 years paved way for women's hoops

By Michelle Smith
Special to

Women have been playing basketball for 107 years, longer than they have been voting in this country. And yet the game of women's basketball has come farther in the last 10 years than it had in the previous 97.

The biggest questions facing women's basketball at the dawn of a new century aren't whether the world's top players will have opportunity or if the game itself is marketable, but how much farther can it all go. And that actually opens the door for many more questions.

Can this sport be a fifth major sport on par with Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NHL and the NBA? Will the top players earn millions for their talent on the court and their salesmanship in front of the camera? Will the dunk be the thing that takes the game to a new level, bring in the huge mainstream audience that sits out there as a source of untapped potential?

The answers aren't clear-cut, and some of them might even turn out to be no. But there's enough evidence over the last decade to suggest that women's basketball is viable as a sport and as entertainment into the future as far as the mind can see.

The NCAA Tournament is no longer a quaint little event with the stands filled only by those in the know. The concept of professional basketball no longer suggests the overseas trio of homesickness, huge telephone bills and language barriers. Players no longer take their positions in the halfcourt set and wait for the open set shot to materialize.

Athletes like Cynthia Cooper, Chamique Holdclaw and Lisa Leslie have become household names with at least as much recognition value as most of the NBA talent whose biggest claim at the moment is that they are not Michael Jordan.

Women's games have turned into exhibitions of quickness, physicality and fundemental skill. Six-figure crowds are no longer the exception with fans buying tickets as well as jerseys, basketballs, posters and whatever else the souvenir stand carries. National television regularly covers the biggest games at the college and pro levels. The world game remains very competitive, assuring that Olympic gold medals will be no gimme.

Things are clearly as good as they've ever been, and yet they are not perfect.

Along the way, the game has been faced with its limits. And sometimes, the lessons have been hard.

In some respects, the now-defunct Americal Basketball League failed because it was too ambitious. The league, nearing the first anniversary of its folding, paid players more than it could afford, and overestimated the game's ability to draw, sell and compete during the busiest sports season of the year.

There are many who felt that the ABL was good for the game because of its generous treatment of its players and the placement of the season during the traditional basketball season, but it's hard to argue now that the WNBA, with its corporate backing and its big-time TV deal -- both requisites for any major sports league -- isn't the plan that's best for the women's professional game. This may finally be the league, leaving more than a dozen others in its wake, that can stand the test of time.

Not that the WNBA hasn't been without its own lessons. The stagnation of the fan base and television ratings this season shows that perhaps the market isn't as unlimited as some would like to think and that the game may never be an easy sell to mainstream basketball fans. And the expansion from eight to 16 teams in just four seasons may turn out to be too much too fast not only in terms of the talent pool but the attention span of fickle fans who will want to see a top-level product.

Even the college game is learning, despite the fact that the Women's Final Four has become the biggest annual event in women's sports. Plans to incorporate neutral sites into the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament has been scrapped while it is "refined," according to NCAA officials. Given the empty seats at neutral regional sites around the country, it would seem the game is not ready to support neutral sites in the first two rounds, but the NCAA is feeling pressured by the fact that the current plan, which has the top seed hosting the first two rounds on their home court, resulted in 16 host teams reaching the Sweet 16 last season.

These are not easy issues. And they aren't necessarily bad things, just the realities of the American sports landscape. And isn't it nice to be included in that landscape?

That perhaps is the biggest achievement in 107 years.

Michelle Smith of the San Francisco Examiner is a regular contributor to