P.T. Barnum was a master promoter. In 1871, his circus was considered “the greatest show on earth”— a phrase he coined himself. It’s no secret that Barnum loved publicity and attention. That’s why he didn’t care whether people said good or bad things about him or his circus, as long as they were talking about both. And though it’s up for historical debate, the saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has often been attributed to Barnum.
Whether he said it or not doesn’t really matter. The question is: Is the saying true when it comes to women’s sports?
I don’t think so and here’s why.
Women’s sports and female athletes are still fighting for equal footing. That is where we are right now. It’s the reality. So every article that paints women’s sports leagues in a negative light hurts twice as much because it often reinforces the very stereotypes that we are trying to get away from.
When former WNBA star Candice Wiggins told the San Diego Tribune that the league was “toxic” and she was targeted for being heterosexual, the story got picked up by everyone from USA Today to Sports Illustrated. Mainstream media outlets that typically never cover women’s basketball ran some version of the story. It was everywhere. And the sports debate and radio talk shows? Oh yeah, they talked about it, too. That “lovable” old stereotype that all female basketball players are “gay” and “act like men” was effectively circulated back into the sports atmosphere, giving Twitter finger–happy pundits everywhere a reason to say, “See! Told you.”
[More from Excelle Sports: WNBA President Lisa Borders makes a statement on Wiggins’ comments]
That’s not the type of publicity the WNBA needs right now. What it needs, instead, is for sportswriters from all corners of the media to respect the athletes’ craft, analyze their play and offer sound commentary about the players and the league.
Trades. New contracts. New coaching hires. Winning streaks. Losing streaks. Team analysis. Game breakdowns. Individual accomplishments. All these things occur within both men’s and women’s sports. But only in men’s sports do they get discussed regularly. When it comes to women’s sports, these discussions seem to only happen when a negative story catches fire.
Of course, I’m not naïve. I live in the real world. There’s always going to be some bad press. There are always going to be some negative stories. They happen. It’s inevitable. That’s why men’s sports are often full of hot topics from each side of the aisle. Debate show fodder is good for television ratings. Turn on a.m. or satellite radio to any sports station and you’re bound to hear the hosts discussing all the good, bad and ugly in men’s sports. But for women’s sports, it seems as if only the “bad and ugly” is worth the effort or the time.
Brittney Griner, a perennial All-Star and one of the most recognizable faces of the WNBA, just signed a multi-year contract with the Phoenix Mercury. Aside from ESPNW, women’s sports sites and local Arizona media, where’s the coverage? Where’s the chatter on why this is not only good for Phoenix and Griner, but also the league?
— Dr. Kristin Keim (@thek2) February 15, 2017
[More from Excelle Sports: Brittney Griner signs extension with Mercury to become one of WNBA’s highest-paid players]
There’s also this little university in Connecticut that has a “pretty good” women’s basketball team, and that team is currently on a very historic winning streak. They have not lost a game since 2014. (2014!) They have won an incomprehensible 109 games in a row—a feat that’s only 22 wins away from beating another underpublicized, incomprehensible win streak (131 games) set by yet another women’s basketball team from the mid-1950’s, the Wayland Baptist University Flying Queens.
Where’s the discussion on this? Where’s the analysis, the comparison between then and now? The back and forth about Title IX and how that may have impacted each win streak differently?
It’s barely a blip on the national major media radar.
But let’s keep talking about the big-name U.S. players leaving the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) to play in Europe as if it’s a bad thing. Or let’s forget that there’s a women’s NCAA Tournament going on where UConn could very well extend their streak and win yet another national championship. And by all means, let’s only cover the WNBA when harmful stereotypes are brought up because of clicks and views, not during the 2016 playoffs when another Candace (Parker) finally won her first WNBA Championship after eight years in the league.
When it came to his circus, P.T. Barnum was right to say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But women’s sports is not a circus. That’s why we need the media to talk about women’s sports with the same respect, appreciation and—most importantly—value as men’s sports. Because then, bad publicity won’t matter. It will just be a part of a larger, overall conversation about women’s sports in general.
You know, like the way it is for men’s sports.