The wider lens on televised women’s basketball

Those lamenting the supposed invisibility of women’s sports on television should read every word of this story in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star by Jeff Rabjohns about the wealth of women’s basketball games available on the Big Ten Network. The cable outlet has shown nearly 60 games this season, including the just-completed conference tournament, and this has spawned a number of followers, including the SEC:

“Over the past five years, television exposure for women’s basketball has surged. The number of games on national television is up 70 percent and the number of times Big Ten teams play on national TV has increased fivefold.

“The Big Ten Network has been the driving force in that. Five years ago, Big Ten teams played on national television 18 times; this year that number is a nation-leading 116.”

Coaches love it for the national, and not just regional, attention that helps with recruiting. I know women’s hoops coaches in other BCS conferences who have given up good home weekend attendance draws for weeknight television games for exposure reasons.

On the macro level, the Big Ten Network is also setting a new standard by devoting around half its programming to women’s sports. The BTN also has a half-hour weekly “Women’s Show” with highlights, interviews and features.

ESPN’s multi-sport contract with the SEC includes an ample amount of live women’s events, and not just basketball. College softball is a growing staple of the springtime programming on ESPNU. Next year ESPN begins a new contract with the ACC and is helping launch the Longhorn Network, which is devoted entirely to University of Texas athletics.

It’s hard to break down the financial component of women’s hoops packages since they don’t produce revenues and are enabled by the money generated by the men’s game and football.

But as Rabjohn writes, “television executives see [women's basketball] as one of the key sports on the next tier” of college sports programming.

I found this to be a rather remarkable statement, given the paucity of women’s games on television when I first began covering the sport in the early 1990s. By the end of that decade, I still could not have imagined the wide availability of games that now reach a couple of dozen every week.

But USC professor Michael Messner and other obsessed with media coverage of women’s sports by parsing down numbers and comparing them to more popular and established men’s sports continue to miss the larger, more encouraging picture of women athletes on the tube.

Viewing these matters through the very narrow prism of what’s on SportsCenter and the rapidly dwindling block of local television news is a prescription for misunderstanding.

While there are serious concerns about a lack of serious journalistic treatment of women’s sports — something I’ve encountered in my career — spouting indignance over a few snippets of highlights seems rather short-sighted. Especially when viewers with basic cable can watch whole women’s games in a multitude of sports, perhaps many more than they may ever care to see.

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