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The Broadside (Transcript): Women's basketball is having its moment

Anisa Khalifa: Americans are a basketball-loving people. Whether it's the NBA or the NCAA, the hoops are fantastic, the rivalries are bitter, and the characters are larger than life. And we love to see it. But the most fervent fandom has always been reserved for men's teams — until now. Female players are finally getting the hype their male peers have always taken for granted.

Unidentified Speaker: I live for it. I love it and especially when our girls are going crazy and the crowd get into it. Oh yeah, I'm about to turn em up.

Anisa Khalifa: Stadiums are packed. TV ratings are at an all-time high. Some of these match-ups are getting more viewership than men's games.


Unidentified Anchor: Nearly two and a half million people tuned in to watch Caitlin and the rest of the Iowa team take on Louisville Sunday. That's more viewers than any NBA game on ESPN this entire season. Women's basketball is on the rise.

Anisa Khalifa: But why did it take this long for us to pay attention? I'm Anisa Khalifa. This week on The Broadside, the story of women's basketball: How it started, and how it's going.

I grew up in the 90s, during the height of NBA mania. Michael Jordan was inescapable. I thought I knew the passion for the sport.. Then I moved to North Carolina, where college basketball is… almost a cult. But I felt kinda left out. I was a skinny, unathletic brown girl who always got picked last in gym class. The only female athletes I had to look up to were the Olympic figure skaters I watched breathlessly every four years. But little girls now have plenty of role models. And when it comes to hoops, the women's game is on fire.

It’s something I saw firsthand during a couple of recent college games. This may all seem like a new phenomenon, but women were there right from the start. That's a story journalist and author Kate Fagan tells in her recent book, Hoop Muses: An Insider's Guide to Pop Culture and the (Women's) Game. Kate grew up on the court.

Kate Fagan: my dad played professional basketball overseas. My cousins played, my aunts and uncles played. It's definitely the family game.

Anisa Khalifa: Kate was inspired to write Hoop Muses because her time playing at the collegiate level, and then later working at ESPN, showed her how we’ve undersold women's basketball in America.

Kate Fagan: That's what's happened with men's sports, is like, we exploit every single part of it to maximize profits, salaries, TV deals, media rights, and really looking at the women's sports world and realizing how few investment opportunities there were. And one piece of it was the storytelling as well as just the history of the game. Because it had never been told along the way, there was so much of it, that even people who would consider themselves women's basketball fans wouldn't know the stories of like, the deep history of women's basketball, like here, we're talking like 1890s, early 1900s.

Anisa Khalifa: Here's how the legend goes: James Naismith invented basket ball in 1891 in Massachusetts, and published the rules in a YMCA magazine. A few months later, that magazine found its way to Smith College, an all-women's college just down the road. And women began to play too.

Kate Fagan: And it makes sense, because basketball was invented as a solution for how to keep boys occupied during the winter months in a place like Massachusetts, when they couldn't be running into each other outside playing football. And so an indoor game was by necessity gonna have to be less physical, and that lends itself to women playing. Because back then, you know, you would never have had even had women attempting something like football.

Anisa Khalifa: Basket ball — it was two words when it was invented — had a built-in lack of contact. So it was perfect for women at a time when sports were seen as too physical, too immodest for them. Whatever would happen to a girl's uterus if she ran while throwing a ball?

All over the country, as it moved West, people created local versions of the new game specifically for women. The rules varied, but women's basket ball was always less active.

Kate Fagan: There are these soft barriers, where women have to play it a different way to limit the physical exertion and in our modern view, like the benefits of it, whether it's like, the teamwork, the stamina, the cardio, all of that.

Anisa Khalifa: But then, the hard barriers began to appear. Stanford University was the earliest adopter of the sport on the West Coast. Stanford and Cal played the first ever women’s intercollegiate game in 1896. It was a nail-biting spectacle, with a packed audience and wall-to-wall media coverage. But within a decade, they had canceled their women’s basketball program.

Kate Fagan: By 1910, Stanford has decided that women can only play like tennis, or solo sports. And then you don't see Stanford create an intercollegiate team again until the 60s. That repeats itself throughout the country, where both at the high school level and college level where depending on where you look, you'll see hundreds of colleges, not field women's basketball teams, because it's deemed unladylike.

Anisa Khalifa: Many colleges didn't have women's basketball programs again until 1972, when Title IX legislation outlawed sex-based discrimination in federally funded programs. Of course, we've stopped believing that physical activity is harmful for women, or that girls playing basketball in public is A Scandal. But Kate says that some really pernicious myths still linger around women's sports.The most prominent one is that it pales in comparison to the men’s game — you might support it as a moral good, but it isn't fun to watch.

Kate Fagan: Which all comes from this idea like the physicality of the game, and the athleticism displayed is the only reason we watch sports, which is just — anytime you kind of like interrogate that intellectually, it doesn't make a ton of sense, considering the popularity of say, the Little League World Series, or the pure adrenaline you might have while watching a child of yours play 11-and-under basketball. Another one is just simply that, like, women's basketball particularly doesn't make money, right? It's just like, Oh, it doesn't make money. Why should we care about it. We have decided women's sports isn't dynamic enough to invest in and care about.

Anisa Khalifa: But a few years ago, that narrow way of thinking was challenged by COVID. Ironically, the pandemic was something many were afraid would kill live sports altogether. But it gave professional women’s basketball the chance to finally prove that it could build an audience, if it was just given a fair chance.

Kate Fagan: ESPN has owned the rights to the WNBA. But historically, they may have put something like 20 games on air, and many of them on ESPN two, which has a dramatically lower viewership than ESPN.

Anisa Khalifa: However, due event cancellations throughout the sports world, the network was starved for content.

Unidentified Anchor: The rapid spread of the coronavirus has led to cancellations and rescheduling of sporting events here and around the world. The NBA was the first to suspend its season…

Kate Fagan: And so ESPN put something like 35 WNBA games on that year, ratings are going up, people are caring about the finals, because they've been seeing these games all year. So it was like this real Touchstone moment where everything that the WNBA players had been saying, which was like, kind of the Field of Dreams argument, right? Like if you build it, they will come. If you put us on air, people will watch. Now they had proof. That is true.

Anisa Khalifa: Women's basketball has had to overcome a lack of financial investment, poor media access and coverage, and the nagging perception that it's somehow less interesting to watch. But Kate says the biggest obstacle has been the shortage of good storytelling — which is why we watch sports in the first place. We all love characters. And we need stakes.

Kate Fagan: And that's really at the heart of sports, and women's sports has not been given that ever before.

Anisa Khalifa: That changed in a big way during the 2023 NCAA women’s college basketball tournament. This edition of March Madness was different — it had it all. Incredible games. Buzzer beaters. And a final that was nearly overshadowed by a controversy involving trash talking between two superstar players.


Unidentified Anchor: Yesterday afternoon, the game lived up to the hype. The NCAA women's finals were electric, ending with the LSU Tigers beating the Iowa Hawkeyes in a convincing fashion - 102-85. But LSU's dominating performance is now being overshadowed by a viral gesture that LSU champion Angel Reese made just as her team was about to clinch the title. People on Twitter went nuts, and the response to the gesture has sparked a heated debate about race and double standards in women's basketball.

Anisa Khalifa: Kate says this proved to be another watershed moment for the sport. A moment where the drama — the narrative — became just as important as the game. And fans finally got to have what every good story needs — heroes and villains.

Kate Fagan: I mean I had people who had never texted me about women's college basketball, like non-stop texting me during the NCAA Tournament, like obsessed with it. Just because they got the storylines, not because they were like, Whoa, didn't know they were this good at basketball. Like they always knew the basketball was good.

Anisa Khalifa: When we come back, we look at how players and institutions are capitalizing on this moment and building foundations for the future.

If you know anything about the state of North Carolina's love affair with college basketball, you know we love our rivalries. And the best way to experience that is to go to a game between nemeses. So I recently attended a matchup between NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill at a packed Carmichael Arena. That’s where I met Lauren, a UNC student who was cheering for the home team.

Lauren: I love it because they're amazing. And they deserve all the support and I'm so happy that they finally have big crowds coming out to see them.

Anisa Khalifa: Rivalries like this are an incredibly important part of the storylines in basketball. And Kayla Jones knows that better than almost anybody. She was on the sidelines that evening as part of the NC State coaching staff.

Kayla Jones: I mean, you wake up for every game you get up for em, but I don't know why those got a little extra oomph to em… Cause like you said, it's a rivalry, so the other one want to be on top by the end of the night. So we gotta be Wolfpack nation.

Anisa Khalifa: Kayla isn't far out from her own college career playing against, as she calls them, the blue around the corner and the blue down the street. That's a reference to nearby rivals UNC and Duke. As a player, she helped lead the Wolfpack to three straight ACC championships from 2020 to 2022. Along the way, Kayla’s had a front row seat to the recent growth of the game. She says it all boils down to one thing.

Kayla Jones: Shoot, the exposure. I mean, now they're getting the respect and the viewership that they need, and they deserve, you know?

Anisa Khalifa: According to her, technology has had a heavy hand in that.

Kayla Jones: Social media. That has been the biggest thing. I mean, think one night you can see somebody have a game and go off you go see they name on your feed the whole night. So that's big for the game. And that's something back in the day, they didn't have like the Dawn Staleys the Maya Moores. I feel like social media has played a huge part in giving girls the opportunity to be seen.

Anisa Khalifa: And that visibility is allowing players and teams to build deeper relationships directly with fans. It’s a crucial step in the creation of the game’s own set of legends.

Angel Reese: The one and only Angel Reese, the Bayou Barbie, the double double queen, and I won't be toning it down anytime soon.

Anisa Khalifa: Stephanie Menio is the Deputy Athletic Director and the sports supervisor for women's basketball at NC State… I know it's an exciting time for women's basketball.

Stephanie Menio: A hundred percent! I was like, wow, I get to talk about women's hoops today? That's cool.

Anisa Khalifa: She says another major outside influence is the recent influx of Name Image and Likeness money. Adopted by the NCAA in 2021, the NIL rule basically allows college players to profit from their own personal brands. And that's hit women's basketball in a big way.

Stephanie Menio: I mean, it's changed so much, and we're trying to adjust to a new style of college athletics. So you know, we've really built out our education for our students on NIL, and personal brand and financial literacy.. I mean, it's given them opportunities that they could only dream of.


Deja Kelly: This past year, I made a lot of big life moves. I held my own Deja Kelly empowerment camp, I traveled across the country for NIL endorsements, and I started my own podcast called Nilosophy.

Unidentified Player: Aren't you tired of losing the ball and missing your favorite games? Hulu Plus Live TV is the destination for sports and your favorite shows.

Anisa Khalifa: According to On3, a college sports outlet that tracks NIL stats, the top female players each have NIL deals worth over a million dollars.


Unidentified Actors: Shoot. Shoot.

Caitlin Clark: Okay I'll shoot…

Anisa Khalifa: While having stars like Iowa’s Caitlin Clark appear in national advertising campaigns is clearly a big win for the sport, Stephanie says that visibility also comes with challenges.

Stephanie Menio: There's just so many stresses and pressures, whereas we used to just go to school and play sports, you know, you got a scholarship, but now you've got an influx of money at 18 to 22 years old that you've never had before. And so it's trying to build support systems for these students so that they can make good decisions, and the right decisions for them, and then you add to that it's, you know, they're evolving as an adult, and what is their brand? How do they talk to the media, and public speaking and so there's so many facets to it. And, and that's what I think has changed the most.

Anisa Khalifa: While NIL endorsements have made a huge splash, behind the scenes support from college programs is just as important. And many schools have ramped up their support for the women's game — particularly with marketing. Stephanie calls it putting value in the women's ticket. And that's paid off at NC State.

Stephanie Menio: Since 2018-19, we've gone up 200% in revenue, we've gone up 141% in attendance.

Anisa Khalifa: That’s massive growth by any measure. To put those numbers into context — I remember when you could get a women's basketball ticket the night before a game. But when I looked for tickets in January so I could go to a game with my sister, NC State's home games were sold out for the rest of the season. Stephanie says that kind of growth is only possible with buy-in from everyone.

Stephanie Menio: Do they have everything they need from their equipment and our Adidas allotment and their budget? And we've increased women's basketball budget 55%, not including salaries, since we got here. Are they taking the same planes as the men? Do they feel important? Do we have the atmosphere and it is just really all coming together? So you can't just have one aspect of the program. It has to be multifaceted to have a successful program.

Anisa Khalifa: Together, these developments are transforming the college game — giving women a taste of the success they've long been denied. And Stephanie says they aren't settling for being an afterthought anymore.

Stephanie Menio: Women, a lot of times, are taught to be thankful for everything that they get. Our women deserve it, you know, they've won three ACC championships and brought so much to this university. And it's the right thing to do to invest in your women. Because if you're not investing in them, then it's never going to grow. And I think that's the exciting part, you know, to what we're doing.

Anisa Khalifa: Watching these players today, I think about the very first female college students to play basketball in the 1890s. Their glory was short-lived, but it was real. According to author Kate Fagan, the sport's history is full of stories about women who found ways to play the game they loved. Who refused to be told no.

Kate Fagan: Everywhere you look, you think, Oh, well, women were held back, and they were, but some women were like, it doesn't matter, you know, like, I just love playing, and they found the most interesting structures to play. And I just imagine that it must have been so fun to do something, at times scary, but so fun to be doing this thing that made you feel alive and free in a time when that was really hard to find for women.

Anisa Khalifa: And today, even in this new age for women’s hoops there are still obstacles. For many women, college basketball is the height of their career — and most will never make it to the WNBA, where spots are limited and salaries are a fraction of men's.

Kate Fagan: I do think this next generation of players has their own burden, right? The branding piece is, it's hard, right? It's not like every basketball player also wants to care about their brand, or have to worry about how they're seen on social media, but like, you can't avoid it now. But then, but to me, the key piece that they're kind of inheriting and the question they have to ask themselves is that like, what, now that they've been given this solid future, what do we want women's sports to look like? Because the only models we have are men's sports. And I think the whole point is that women could do things differently.

Anisa Khalifa: What are your hopes for the future?

Kate Fagan: If you look at the history of women's sports, women have never really been allowed to govern their own sports. You know, the NCAA has always been run by men. And I think we've always, you know, had this idea of like, Oh, if you give women power, the results will be different. But there's very few places where you can actually test that hypothesis. And I think women's sports is going to be one of them.

And my hopes are that it doesn't just follow the roadmap of men's sports. I think there's a chance for female athletes to create a space where, you know, childcare is preeminent, where investment in the local community, building infrastructures that help make the world that's directly around them better, is a distinct possibility. And I would love a future where women's sports not only helps make young women stronger, but helps take the money that they make and helps communities be stronger.

Anisa Khalifa: This episode of The Broadside was produced by me, Anisa Khalifa. Our editor is Jerad Walker. And Wilson Sayre is our executive producer. Special thanks to my colleague Mitch Northam, whose expertise was invaluable in the reporting of this story. Thanks also to Annabelle Myers and Matti Smith at NC State, and Dana Gelin at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The Broadside is a production of WUNC–North Carolina Public Radio. You can email us at If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or share it with a friend! Thanks for listening y'all. We'll be back next week.