Nearly a century ago, a women's basketball game between Elizabeth and Presbyterian Colleges was considered so unsuitable for men's prying eyes that anyone with a Y-chromosome was forbidden to watch. Several binocular-toting men scaled a roof anyway, determined to catch a glimpse of women playing such an "unfeminine" sport.
Today, the Charlotte Sting is one of 13 professional women's basketball teams in the country and battles to fill seats each summer. It's a struggling team, to be sure: last week, the team traded star Dawn Staley and replaced its head coach. But its presence alone is progress.
Women's basketball has gained popular acceptance, yet still struggles to expand its base and compete with more popular, better-paid male counterparts for attention. More than three decades after federal law mandated equal resources for men's and women's athletics, colleges on average still spend only 36 percent of their sports budgets on women players. It's a puzzle for fans.
In the words of historian Pamela Grundy and journalist Susan Shackelford, "The court has become a place where what matters most is what a woman does with her abilities, not whether she is black or white, slender or stocky, married or single, lesbian or straight," yet the sport still finds a "dearth of broad-based cultural enthusiasm."
Grundy and Shackelford have chronicled the sport's progression since 1892, when a petite New England woman formed the first team, in a new book Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women's Basketball. Grundy for years taught sports history at Davidson College and UNC-Chapel Hill. Shackelford is a former Creative Loafing columnist and Charlotte Observer sportswriter.
In Charlotte, they say, women's basketball teams struggle with much the same issues their counterparts do nationwide: Finding the cultural support to fill the seats. "Charlotte is not historically a place where women's basketball has been important," Grundy said.
Before Title IX, the federal law requiring equitable school spending for athletic programs, the sport had all but died out in Charlotte, Grundy said. Since then, women have had to compete with the overwhelming popularity of men's basketball in North Carolina. Collegiate women's teams such as UNC-Charlotte haven't stirred the kind of excitement shown in places like Tennessee, where women's teams are often statewide heroines.
UNC-Charlotte athletic director Judy Rose explains, "The fan base has not progressed to the rate I hoped it would have. . .We have said, when we develop marketing plans, that 'A basketball fan is a sports fan.' That's not necessarily true. We've also tried to transfer men's basketball fans into also becoming women's basketball fans. Some of that has carried over, but I think it might be a distinct market all its own."
Shackelford doubts interest in women's basketball will match the popularity of men's teams until ideas about women evolve further. "The values that basketball brings out in young people and adults -- determination, courage, bravery, toughness, physicality -- all these things are still far more valued for men and boys than they are for women and girls," Shackelford said. "So there's a values issue that is the biggest hurdle for women's basketball and women's sports."
Shackelford predicts the base will broaden. While basketball's core audience now is the baby boomer generation, who grew up before Title IX rekindled interest in the sport, younger generations of women have been more likely to play and grow interested. "It's a question of whether that will translate into being spectators," Shackelford said.
The Sting, she said, have another hurdle. "Charlotte, as a sports market, has always been very fickle with both men and women's sports," Shackelford said. "If you're not a winner, you're not going to draw much of a crowd."