There’s nothing like an all-time streak or record of any kind to rivet attention on a sport.
When Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s mark for consecutive baseball games played, millions of people turned on their televisions just to see an infielder jog to his position. When the Colts decided rest was more important than going after a 19-0 season, fans and critics reacted as if the team had blasphemed against the game.
It doesn’t the streak or the sport. People get excited when history’s on the line. They turn on the TV and watch. And then some of them keep on watching.
So what is it with women’s basketball?
Connecticut won its record 71st straight game on Monday. On Tuesday, the Huskies extended it to 72. No women’s team has ever won more consecutive games. Only UCLA’s 88-game winning streak that ran from 1971-74 is longer in D-I hoops.
And America greeted this extraordinary achievement by erupting into a coast-to-coast yawn.
The sports shows and Web sites did not ignore the achievement. It led sites, was on the front page in newspapers and the top-of-the-broadcast story on SportsCenter.
It didn’t matter. True sports fans knew what was going on, but these are people whose televisions are permanently tuned to ESPN. To everybody else, news of another UConn win was like hearing that it might rain in Seattle.
None of my friends mentioned it today, and I’m sure none hunkered down in front of the television to watch the Huskies extend the streak to 72 with a Tuesday night win over West Virginia and another Big East Championship. And you can bet ESPN didn’t break any ratings records with the broadcast.
On the UConn campus, the Huskies are heroes and their games are a tough ticket. But the fame doesn’t extend much beyond that. Go ahead and spend tomorrow asking people who Tina Charles is. Not one in 10 will know she’s the best player on the best women’s team in the nation.
Compare this to the only team to ever win more consecutive games than the UConn women: the legendary UCLA Bruins men’s teams led by Bill Walton.
Even casual sports fans have heard of the Bruins and know who Walton was. And in his day, Walton was as famous an athlete as any in the nation, and his coach, John Wooden, was celebrated as a genius.
There was a time when proponents of women’s sports argued that they didn’t get a lot of attention from fans because sports editors refused to cover them; if they couldn’t get their games in the newspapers, how would they ever get any fans to come watch? In response, the editors chewed on their cigars, grunted and said they weren’t going to cover games that nobody went to.
That’s not the case anymore. There are women sportswriters, play-by-play announcers, analysts, anchors, columnists and editors, and women’s sports have been getting decent coverage for years. ESPN heavily promoted Monday's game.
It didn’t matter. True fans watched and everybody else ignored it. They probably heard that UConn set the record, breaking the 70-game streak put up by an earlier UConn team, but that’s about it. Ask them in June how long the streak is and few will be able to tell you.
I’m not going to whine about it, or moan about how unfair it is and what sexists it shows us all to be. You can’t force people to like things. You can expose them to it, educate them about it and hope for the best. No matter how much you tell them they should love women’s hoops, it’s going to be a hard sell.
Actually, comparing women’s hoops to art is a good way to look at it. It’s subtle and the beauty of the game isn’t always readily apparent to people who have been fed a steady diet of slam dunks. Men who play the game above the rim are household names. Women who play below it aren’t.
I can’t give anyone a reason to watch as they watch men’s games. I don’t tune in that often myself, though I’m entertained and enlightened every time I do.
All I can say is that you should do yourself a favor and tune into this UConn team before their run to another Final Four is done. They’ve won more games in a row than any women’s team in history. They may take down UCLA’s record streak next season.
The Huskies are the best there is, maybe the best there ever was. It doesn’t matter what they play or who they are. Teams like that you have to watch at least once, just to say you saw the best.
It won’t translate into a golden era for women’s hoops, but it’s something.