UConn's Dominance Isn't Bad For Women's College Basketball
Dan Shaughnessy's contention that UConn's historical dominance is bad for women's basketball reflects a longstanding argument that sports need competitive balance in order to thrive. Historical evidence says otherwise.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.
Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe sent out the following Tweet about the University of Connecticut's world-destroying women's basketball team on Sunday, reflecting a longstanding suspicion about dominant sports performers and the need for competitive balance:
Shaughnessy was quickly pilloried on Twitter. Both UConn head coach Geno Auriemma and former UConn player-turned-ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo basically dismissed his thoughts as the out-of-touch ramblings of an old guy who doesn't know much about women's college basketball.
It's easy to follow their lead. But let's be fair, take a more measured approach, and see what available data and economics research says about Shaughnessy's contention. Dominant athletes and teams are great for sports record books, but are they actually bad for the bottom line, snuffing out suspense and leading fans to look elsewhere?
Let's start with the basics. UConn is the Death Star of women's college basketball. The Huskies are 35-0 this season and have an average victory margin of 40.8 points. They're the overwhelming favorites to win a fourth consecutive national championship. Their beatdown of No. 4 seed Mississippi State was historic, the worst Sweet Sixteen whooping in the history of the NCAA basketball tournament, men's or women's. On Monday, UConn reached the Final Four with a convincing 86-65 win against No. 2 seed Texas.
When you watch UConn, you're witnessing all-time greatness. But not a whole lot of drama.
Now, within the field of sports economics, there's a theoretical argument that goes back decades and postulates that competitive balance is the key to sport leagues and organizations both surviving and thriving as businesses. Way back in 1964, Walter Neale argued that a boxing champion (like Joe Louis) does best when he has a great contender to fight (like Max Schmeling). Conversely, when no contender has a chance against the champ, the champ will see less interest in his fights. Neale labeled this the "Louis-Schmeling Paradox," and insisted that pure monopoly in sports, unlike in business, is a disaster.
Shaughnessy's argument is essentially the same. But unfortunately for him—and Neale—all available evidence tells a different story.
First of all, ESPN's broadcast ratings for the first and second round of this year's NCAA women's tournament reportedly are 46 percent higher than they were last year. And that's despite the network using remote announcers to broadcast some games. In other words, ESPN has arguably lowered the production quality of its broadcasts, and still enjoyed a ratings rise.
Does that jive with the notion of a mass audience that's bored by watching UConn kick ass?
What we see in those goosed ratings echoes what we see in economics research. Empirical studies of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League all tell the same story: dominant pro sports teams do not see attendance declines. Likewise, dominant athletes don't drive fans away—see the recent interest in women's MMA due to Ronda Rousey, or the well-established Tiger Woods boom in golf during the early 2000s.
Take the NBA. Older fans fondly remember the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry of the mid-1980s. But Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dominated the league in the 1990s. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant's Lakers dominated after Jordan retired. The Miami Heat ruled the first half of the current decade. The defending champion Golden State Warriors are currently gunning for the most regular season wins in NBA history. In fact, a review of league history reveals that the NBA league has never had competitive balance.
Despite this, the league has grown into a thriving, worldwide brand, with record television revenue to boot.
What we see in college sports also indicates that competitive balance is highly overrated. Researcher Jim Peach has observed that just a few schools dominate campus football, baseball, women's softball, and men's and women's volleyball. None of those sports are dying, and football is thriving.
Similarly, just seven schools—out of more than 350—have won half of all NCAA men's basketball championships from 1939 to 2015. Consider:
She's right. No one thought John Wooden's UCLA dynasty was killing men's college basketball, or somehow bad for the sport; to the contrary, the Bruins were a celebrated draw, a team that helped build the sport into the multibillion-dollar television entertainment enterprise it has become. And yet: when the University of Tennessee and UConn combine to win 18 women's basketball titles from 1987 to 2015, that's somehow a snoozer?
There's simply no evidence to support that, and no reason to take Shaughnessy's thoughts seriously. Dominant teams have never been a problem in sports, and fans don't lose interest because a few transcendent teams or athletes are simply too good at what they do. (Of course, both pro sports leagues and the NCAA will sometimes make arguments to the contrary, but only when they want to limit player compensation).
If there's nothing concrete undergirding the idea that UConn is bad for women's basketball, then what's really going here? Asked about Shaugnessy's Tweet, Auriemma took a guess: "It's only in women's basketball. It's the only sport where that happens. The only sport. Day in, day out, year in, year out, we're faced with those questions and those comparisons."
Maybe Auriemma's right. Perhaps this has nothing to do with a game being played at the highest level, and everything to do with women playing it. As if that somehow makes things different. It doesn't, and both the numbers and common sense experience bear that out.