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Can Women's Professional Basketball Survive?

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A Quick History of Women's Basketball

Most basketball fans know that the game was invented in the late 1800s by Dr. James Naismith, a physical education instructor, who came up with the concept of the game along with its associated rules as a safer alternative to the more injury-prone and popular sports of hockey, rugby, soccer, and football.

Naismith's game quickly caught on among youth, especially with the help of the YMCA organization, which adopted the game among its programs throughout the United States during the late 1800s, and which had a well-established established network of young athletes who used the game for exercise and entertainment.

Although basketball was first introduced at the Springfield YMCA in Massachusetts as a sport that would serve as an "athletic distraction" for young men who were confined to indoor games during the harsh New England winters, the sport was quickly adopted by women as well. Sendra Berenson Abbott, taught basketball to her female students at Smith College not far from Springfield. Within the next few years, women's teams and leagues began to spring up as more interest in the sport grew among women. The first intercollegiate women's basketball game, a 1896 contest between Stanford and UC-Berkeley, ended in a soccer-like score of 2-1 in favor of Stanford.


The Struggle of Women's Professional Basketball

Similar to the history of many other popular sports in American history (e.g. hockeysoccer), women's basketball hasn't exactly flourished the way men's basketball has. Attempts to organize and maintain professional women's basketball leagues have often failed for financial reasons, which typically translate into lack of overall societal interest in the sport.  The American Basketball League (ABL), a woman's professional basketball league that was formed in 1996, lasted less than three years, shutting down through bankruptcy after only 15 games were played in its third season. The WNBA, a league that was started by the NBA the same year that the ABL came about, has survived somewhat impressively, with "survive" being the keyword. In fact, news abounds each season about the struggles for attendance, sponsorships, and revenue that the league faces each year. In 2014, it was predicted that the WNBA brand would disappear after David Stern, whose support buoyed the league for three decades of its existence, retired.

The Influence of International Basketball

FIBA, the major association that governs international basketball competitions, was founded in 1953, and hosts the women's world basketball championships annually. FIBA teams are normally comprised of professional female athletes who represent their respective countries. The modern worldwide economy and the international landscape for basketball creates an environment with more opportunities for success for women's professional leagues in the United States and elsewhere. In fact, the creations of the ABL and WNBA were both associated with the surge in popularity of women's basketball following a gold medal performance by the United States women's team.

Problems and Solutions Women's Professional Basketball

The stark reality for women's professional basketball is that unless organizers of the sport find a way to identify and engage a fan base (willing to spend money) in a way that is profitable for individual franchise owners, most of whom purchase teams as investments, the WNBA or any other league that might come later, will continue to struggle. Social movements focused on "gender equality" and political motivations for keeping women's professional basketball and other women's professional sports available as culmination opportunities for aspiring female athletes will certainly continue to inspire subsidies of the sport. Based upon trends and evidence, the subsidy funding track may have more to do with keeping the professional teams and leagues afloat in the future than pure business purposes.