Why so few women coaches in WNBA?

A response to Christian Science Monitor’s Ross Atkin

Readers hardly accept every word inscribed in this space as the sports gospel, so their comments are always welcome, especially ones as insightful as those from Helen Wheelock of N.Y. Helen wrote in about a “We’re Just Fans” blog that carried the headline “WNBA reaches double digits, but where are the women coaches?

Ms. Wheelock calls herself a fan of and writer about women’s basketball. As such, she applauded the coverage of the women’s game, which she contributes greatly to by maintaining Women’s Basketball Online (“the most comprehensive women’s basketball site on the net”).

Still, she wished I’d dug deeper into why only three of this season’s 14 WNBA head coaches are women. She said that I’d touched on a “very complicated and rich issue.” I invited her to elaborate, and here’s her response:

In 1997, seven of the eight teams participating in the WNBA’s inaugural season had women head coaches, and all of the coaches were drawn from the women’s college basketball coaching ranks. But you didn’t have the elite of the elite – the Pat SummittsMarsha Sharps, or Jody Conradts – applying for jobs. No surprise, really. Why on earth would they leave the security and stability of their successful fiefdoms for the uncertainty of a pro league?

Even a decade later that question lingers. And as the merry-go-round that is the WNBA head coach position (for both men and women) continues, it is a reflection of the new frontier that is coaching women’s professional basketball.

Elite college coaches can get a hefty, long-term contract with snazzy perks (Kristy Curry, formerly of Purdue, will earn a base salary of $425,000 as Sharp’s successor at Texas Tech). The budget-conscious WNBA can’t come close to matching that. While winning is important to a school, the concept of “building a program for the future” is understood. Like its brother organization, the NBA, there’s little patience for that in the WNBA.

College teams travel across the country in first-class seats, while coaches have all but year-round access to their athletes. In the WNBA, it’s economy class all the way, and a coach is lucky to see all his or her players for the entire two-week preseason camps. The WNBA squeezes 34 games into three months, while the college coach guides teams though a 30-game regular seaon spread over five months. Conference championships and the NCAA provide opportunities for success, as opposed to the WNBA, where the 14-team league can make every game a “must win” situtation.

A college team might survive a player’s injury, but at the pro level, an injury can have seismic implications. Equally unsettling, a pro coach can find her once-promising lineup decimated because a player decides to stay in Europe to earn more money.

Add in all the differences between coaching the college athlete vs. the pro athlete and it becomes clearer why, even though opportunities exist for female coaches in the WNBA, those most suited to the job might be reluctant to step forward.

That being said, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport did give the WNBA top marks in its annual racial and gender diversity report card. Equally significant? The 14 female WNBA assistant coaches who are displaying a commitment to working at the pro level.

The pool of professional female coaches is expanding – too slowly for many tastes – but, as they say, good things come to those who wait. The WNBA doesn’t yet have the money or status of the NBA. But, to be fair, the NBA has a 40-year head start.

 Helen Wheelock

Helen Wheelock’s website can be found athttp://womensbasketballonline.com.

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