Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the Water"

There's a lot of talk on a message board - I'll not say which - regarding an idea to lower the rim in the WNBA to 9 1/2 feet. The current height of the rim in both men's and women's basketball is 10 feet. The argument is that dropping the rim six inches would be a benefit to women's basketball in terms of increased viewership. As Austin Burton put it in the link, "the premise (of the critics) is that if it’s easier for women to dunk, more of them would dunk, and all of a sudden a wave of guys and kids who stayed away from the WNBA would come running to the arena and the TV ratings would skyrocket."

The rest of the article is the argument from the opposition, so to speak. The first counter is that this isn't just a minor change; it changes the fundamental nature of women's basketball itself and changes it to a sport where one player's athleticism can simply dominate the field. The WNBA would suddenly become the Vertical Leap League, one of my long-standing criticisms of men's basketball. His best quote: "Dunking isn’t a main component of basketball. It’s a luxury, a singular move, kind of like a spin move in football. You don’t alter the field of play just to make one move happen more often."

However, women's basketball is already fundamentally a different sport than men's basketball, and the problem with critics is that they try to compare the two as if they were the same. Heavyweight boxing and bantamweight boxing aren't the same thing - they take place in a ring, they both follow the same general rules, but different things happen in each of those rings. One of William Haarlow's Five Rules of League Survival states:

"4. ...There must be an evaluation of alternative formats and rules to make the sport appealing to the widest range of potential patrons and viewers."

So the idea should not be discounted out of hand. The WNBA must be willing to try new things to appeal to people, even if purists - like myself - might find the change offensive. If people want to see dunking as an addition to basketball, we shouldn't discount their wishes out of hand.

However, if I were to go forward with such a plan - there should be a trial run. The WNBA should either get a small "winter league" of players together - some players on the periphery of the WNBA/European basketball would probably play for room and board - and experiment with lowering the rim to 9 1/2 feet to see what comes of it. There's one thing that the WNBA, however, should never do, and that is to just simply throw the new rim height into the mix without giving the players ample warning and without testing to see how the changes would affect field goal percentages.

What would be the effects of changing the rim? It's hard to say, and really hard to guess. Yes, a few more players would dunk - Michelle Snow would probably join Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker on the list of dunkers, and I'm sure those latter two players would probably dunk more frequently on the fastbreak. Shooting percentages would suffer, at least in the short term. One can't say what would happen over time because we don't know how quickly the players would adjust to the new rim height.

It would certainly put the WNBA out of sync with the rest of women's basketball. I doubt that Europe and Asia will move to a 9 1/2 foot basket - Euroball is less dependent on gate receipts. There might be some players in the United States who might just go to Europe and stay there - why change the way you play the game when you can get amply compensated in Europe for not changing at all, and players make more money overseas than they do in the US? Some European stars might decide not to ply their trade in the WNBA, for similar reasons - why go overseas where you don't speak the language, they don't pay you well and you have to play with a shorter rim?

But...what if the adjustments were easy to make, or what if the increase in gate justified it? Lowering the rim might be the start to a new era in women's basketball, and for all we know, the rest of the world would follow suit. ("Just like they play 12 minute quarters all over the world," goes the counter argument - only the NBA does this, and the world remains sold on 10 minute quarters.)

Burton's second argument, however, is hard to discount.

"So really, the only benefit of lowering the rim is that it’d become easier for players to dunk, to please one segment of fans — and yet those people who claim they’d start watching the women’s game if they dunked more often would most likely stop watching after the novelty wore off, anyway."

I'm in firm agreement with Burton on this one. I've been reading on-line essays, dissertations, and the like about men and their relationship to sports, and my conclusion is that if every player in the WNBA had supermodel looks and could dunk the ball like Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal, not only would their be no major increase in attendance - but there would be a large and vocal group of men who would still put down women's basketball.

To simplify a complex argument, some men like sports because it creates a world for themselves, a world where even as spectators they can affirm their own masculinity on a daily basis. The Male Sports Universe is a universe of all-male players, mostly male spectators, all-male announcers, a universe where Men Can Be Men, untouched by Title IX or women's liberation or the demands of women in any way - at least for a few hours out of the day where they can escape the complexities of the real world. These men have problems with women having a professional league and threatening to insert themselves into this Male Dominion. These guys see women's basketball as the first beachhead in an invasion. Dunking would simply be treated as a shot across the bow.

The more vocal detractors would claim that women's basketball wasn't "real" basketball - "they play with a girls' rim!" These guys are like the guys in Little Rascals who have hung the "No Girls Allowed" sign on their clubhouse. And dunking is supposed to get them take down the sign?

I've said it before - the WNBA doesn't need to try to appeal to this particular group of men. The best message the WNBA can send is to simply exist, because by existing it proves that there's more than one path in the world. "Woman" and "jock" no longer have to be mutually exclusive.

On the other hand, we shouldn't look at experiments with rules as attempts to appease one unreachable (and implacable) group of critics. We should look at these experiments on their own merits, and our minds should always be open to change. I'm not averse to lowering the rim if it actually puts more fannies in seats - but I don't want the rule change dumped on the league and I want some proof that lowering the rim will actually be a benefit for attendance. Maybe we could try it in an exhibition game? The Sky played a group of men in an exhibition game this year; why not have a "Lower The Rim" night for an exhibition game and just watch what the hell happens?

Who knows? We might start to get used to dunking. And who knows, maybe some of those residents of the Male Sports Kingdom might cross the border to see what they've been missing.

UPDATE: Q has an excellent article at Rethinking Basketball which touches on the same points.


Q McCall said...

petrel, this is a really fair and balanced analysis of that issue. I would certainly not be capable of writing about it with a level head.

If the WNBA lowered the rims, I actually think I'd *stop* watching. I am however one fan so if it puts other fans in the seats that makes sense... but to me it would just make a mockery of the league.

It reminds of those old MTV rock and jock games where they had 10 point shots and stuff -- a rule that has more to do with entertainment than competition.

I guess I'm narrow minded or a purist or something, but I think this idea is laughable...

pt said...

Q, I don't know if I'd *stop* watching, but if the league announced that it was going to lower rim, I would be very unhappy about it. I think it would, as you say, be a concession to entertainment over competition - as you wrote in your own excellent article about the subject.

However, I'd do this much - I'd at least give it a look. I'm willing to keep an open mind, particularly if the change brings in a lot of new fans who stay. Like I wrote at the end, who knows, I might like it...but I doubt that I would.

Q McCall said...

OK...stop watching might be extreme... ;)

I'm calming down...

I actually think your idea of a winter league is good in the event they are considering it...