Why lowering the rims is a flawed strategy for women's basketball
The idea of lowering the rims in women's basketball is wildly tempting.
Picture it: Minnesota Lynx star Maya Moore at the mid-post, back to the basket, spinning off her defender's shoulder, taking one dribble along the baseline, then soaring for a left-handed jam over two opponents. The sold-out crowd at Target Center roars. Meanwhile, from the comfort of their own living rooms, hundreds of bloggers immediately send out the Vine on Twitter, and later that night, Moore's dunk leads SportsCenter.
Millions of new fans start flocking to the WNBA to witness the new high-flying game. Within a couple of years, we see female players on billboards and in marketing campaigns, gaining more and more media coverage. Because the women's game now mirrors the men's, a similar kind of popularity follows.
And jump-starting this kind of mainstream popularity for the WNBA requires just one small adjustment: lowering the rims.
What are we waiting for -- let's do this! Who has a wrench?
The "lowering the rims" conversation has returned after Chicago Sky forward Elena Delle Donne told USA Today Sports that she's in favor of dropping the hoop height. The WNBA star pointed out that she's in good company: UConn coach Geno Auriemma introduced the idea during a 2012 interview.
"I think [lowering the rims] would bring a whole different aspect to the game and bring viewership as well and show the athleticism of our women," Delle Donne said. "When you look at other sports like volleyball, their net's lower. Golf, their tees are closer. It goes on and on. Tennis, they play [fewer] sets. Why not lower our rim and let every single player in the league play above the rim like the NBA can?"
Then Phoenix Mercury guard Monique Currie wrote on her personal blog: "When you watch a men's basketball game there is usually a dunk almost every other play and fans love it! They want to see players defy gravity. Fans want to see athletes do the impossible, do something that they most likely cannot do themselves and that is dunk the ball!"
Delle Donne and Currie's arguments are decent ones. But this is an important decision. Lowering the rims would fundamentally change the game. So we should take a few minutes to think about what the repercussions might be. We should consider whether acrobatic dunks are actually what drives fan interest in men's basketball, and whether the lack of such dunking is actually what keeps more fans from watching women's basketball.
Once we fully unpack the concept of lowering the rims, the idea quickly morphs from wildly tempting to incredibly flawed.
Phoenix star guard Diana Taurasi didn't mince words when asked her opinion. The Olympic gold medalist, currently playing in Russia, said the following: "Might as well put us in skirts and back in the kitchen."
Translation: Lowering the rims is a step backward. Actually, it's curious that Taurasi's former coach, Auriemma, is on the record in favor of lowering the rims, considering his program perpetually faces this question: Is UConn's dominance bad for women's basketball?
Auriemma dismisses this idea, saying other teams should get better -- that the conversation is ridiculous and the Huskies shouldn't lower their standards to make the games closer and more exciting for everyone else.
If history is any indication, instead of jaws dropping over these slam dunks, jaws will start flapping -- about how anyone can dunk on a lowered rim, about how watching women dunk will never be as exciting as watching men dunk, about how men (or women) won't pay to watch someone dunk on a hoop that they themselves can dunk on. Remember when Brittney Griner dunked in her first WNBA game? Many people dismissed the feat as ordinary because Griner is 6-foot-8. A sample comment on a story about her first WNBA jam: "she's just tall as f---, women aren't the best jumpers like males, that was very unimpressive."
(The anonymity of this comment, and the thousands of others like it, provides additional insight: Too often, people in mixed company won't say their actual opinion about female athletes and women's sports.)
In other words, lowering the rims won't reverse years of social conditioning that leaves most sports fans believing that women's sports and female athletes are inferior.
Plus, lowering the rims is predicated on the idea that high-flying dunks are a top reason fans love the NBA.
But is it?
Take a look at who's driving almost all the conversation around the league this season: Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry. People don't tune in to see Curry soar above others for dunks. They watch to see his trickery with the ball, his ability to create his own shot and his eye-popping precision from long distance.
Curry is, in a way, the ultimate WNBA highlight: His appeal is driven by his skill with the ball and not by his otherworldly body and athleticism. (Granted, no current WNBA player could drop 3s from the same distance, and with the same consistency, as Curry. But the comparison reveals more about why fans watch basketball.)
Perhaps the aforementioned prediction about how most fans would react is incorrect. Perhaps everyday sports fans would surprise us. Perhaps instead of igniting more comparison to the men's game -- a matchup that female players consistently lose -- fans would embrace this new layer to the women's game.
It's unlikely, but it's possible.
So then, how would we go about lowering all the rims in the world? (Hint: We can't.) Instead, we'll skip to the next question: How might lower rims affect young players -- male and female?
This is where the argument really dies.
Most young players grow up playing in mixed company. The best women continue playing against guys their entire careers. In fact, the longer girls and boys play together, the better they become. The worst thing for the growth of women's basketball would be creating an additional logistical hurdle between boys and girls, one that forces young girls to take their ball and go find a different, lower hoop.
Lower rims would also dramatically affect the current game, as professional players, who've spent 10,000-plus hours on a 10-foot hoop, would struggle to adjust to the new height.
The idea of lowering the rims is undeniably appealing. It's a quick fix. Instead of waiting years for the game to continue growing and evolving, we take the shortcut. Lower the rims, create a visual trick for fans and hope they embrace it.
Of course, when it comes to sports, taking shortcuts almost always leaves you further from your destination.