The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, March 17, 2021

No, Shaq, don't lower the rims — Jamie Shea of DraftKings talks women's basketball betting — Must-click women's basketball links

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Sigh. Is there anyone with more patience, in public, than Candace Parker every time Shaquille O’Neal starts talking about women’s basketball?

Here, watch, and then let’s discuss.

So absolutely, we can just go with Candace Parker’s “No” and leave it at that. I do also believe, truly, that Shaq means well. He’s often willing to sound off, evidence-free, about the NBA, too!

But what’s important to consider here are a pair of aspects to what’s being discussed here. The idea is simply: More people who don’t watch the WNBA will start if the rim is lowered, since lowering the rim will lead to more above-the-rim play.

Both are remarkably shortsighted, in my opinion.

The first part: I simply do not buy the argument that there’s a fixed number of people who are eager to watch the WNBA, but don’t, purely for dunking reasons. I just don’t. Not when the defining phenomenon of the last decade in the NBA was Steph Curry. Not when there are too many people saying this who haven’t watched many WNBA games, period. Not when there’s a rich history of misogynistic men finding one fig leaf or another, and changing the game would mean altering it to cater to non-fans instead of focusing on keeping and growing the interest among fans. Not when doing things like this could easily alienate more of that group, those who have already bought in, than it could add newcomers.

But there’s the second part, too, something Candace Parker knows a little something about — the definitions are shifting. The level of athleticism in the WNBA keeps on growing dramatically. There’s the Brittney Griner dunks, sure, but there’ Jonquel Jones and others at the pro level who can do it as well. There’s Fran Belibi, doing it since high school. This can and will happen quickly. And we actually know this from the men’s game. Lisa Leslie, then Candace Parker, opened the door to it. But it’s going to be commonplace, and in short order.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but you can draw pretty reliable parallels in the women’s game at a macro level by just zooming in on the men’s game plus around 40-45 years. UConn under Geno Auriemma’s run mirrors John Wooden’s UCLA run, for instance. Griner’s rise was a lot like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s rise at UCLA, for that matter.

Remember, then Lew Alcindor’s ability to dunk led to widespread panic!

But in short order, folks like David Thompson followed, and by the 1980s, dunking in games was par for the course. If you don’t think that’s what’s coming for women’s basketball in the 2020s and 2030s, man, are you in for a surprise.

This is no accident, nor is it some real-time measurement of women as 40 years less than men. It is the simple, obvious result of opportunity gap. The NCAA men’s tournament debuted in 1939. The women’s tournament? 1982, ten years after Title IX was signed. The men’s game began growing in full force in the 1940s in college, the NBA really exists in modern form by the mid-1950s. The WNBA debuted in 1997. It’s about opportunity. That’s the whole ballgame.

And that’s what Candace Parker understands, because she lives it, and Shaq doesn’t, because he never did. I think Shaq is right in this sense: the women’s game, which I (bias alert) already love, will get even better as we see more players going up higher, another visual element, another way to create space on offense. It’s going to matter the same way seeing more women’s players pull up from 30 increases the spacing, so Caitlin Clark and Kelsey Mitchell are bringing this revolution forward, building on what Diana Taurasi has always done as well. I’m for bringing the three-point line back for just this reason.

Because the players keep getting better. Let’s make sure the approach reflects this growth. Lowering the rim isn’t just the wrong way to do it — it ignores what’s happening before our eyes.

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This week in women’s basketball

The Becky Hammon list is down to five.

For the Coffey lover in your house, Sabreena Merchant’s got you covered.

More Nia Coffey from Steve Galluzzo.

Tully Bevilaqua joined Renee Washington’s podcast.

Terrific Dorothy Gentry piece at The Undefeated about Tierra Ruffin-Pratt.

Natasha Howard matters a lot in New York.

Don’t sleep on Natalie Nakase as a candidate to break the NBA head coaching barrir.

Michelle Smith has your Pac 12 thank yous.

Aliyah Boston has some things to say about 2020.

Natalie Weiner is covering the NCAA women’s tournament for The New York Times, a win for us all.

Sherri Coale is one of the greats. May her next chapter be fulfilling.

Lisa Byington is getting a shot to call the men’s NCAA Tournament.

Strong tick-tock here on how Cathy Engelbert navigated the COVID year.

And I spoke to Cathy for this piece on the league’s 25th anniversary plans.

Last but so important: Ari Chambers talks to Kayla McBride.

Five at The IX: Jamie Shea, Vice President of Sportsbook Operations, DraftKings

1. Take me through the decision to add WNBA games, and how satisfied you are with the response to it in 2020.

DraftKings is always looking to increase and diversify Sportsbook offerings for our customers and the WNBA was at the top of the list.  We were extremely pleased with customer engagement for WNBA in 2020 and are optimistic that the interest will only increase this coming season. We are already seeing fan engagement for the 2021 WNBA Championship future bet currently being offered with the Seattle Storm the favorite at +175.

2. In an industry where there are odds on so many things, women’s sports has so often been left out. Why do you think that is, and how important is it to you to change that to avoid missing out on revenue from this underserved community?

I think the overall issue here is the lack of opportunity we have had to view and engage with female sports. Since we launched our mobile Sportsbook in 2018, we have seen consumption rates for female sports increase, popularity has risen due to the automation and technology that allows consumers to access much more content. Having a digital product makes it easier for all sports to be considered and integrated; streaming and coverage on women’s sports is only going to make it grow.  

Providing a variety of women’s sports offerings to our Sportsbook customers, along with content across our platforms, is a priority at DraftKings. We had incredible engagement with the USWNT during the 2019 Women’s World Cup Final, with that match standing as DraftKings Sportsbook’s second largest soccer match of all-time by handle. We are excited to offer betting on NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament starting from the Sweet 16 round to our Sportsbook customers and expect many more women’s sports offerings in the near future.

3. Geno Auriemma spoke a few years ago about how women’s basketball wouldn’t grow as much as it could until it was routinely easy for people to bet on it. Do you agree with that?

I believe our current women’s basketball Sportsbook offerings, including WNBA and NCAA Women’s Tournament, can help drive growth and viewership going forward. Only 4% of sports media content is dedicated to female athletes but we can help change that. We know that sports betting drives fan engagement, so the more action placed on women’s sports in the future, the more likely every facet of fan engagement will increase in parallel. It’s time to get more female athletes, leagues and teams in the conversation. Overall, female sports need to be more easily accessible and consumed and I think sports betting can help address these shortcomings.

4. What ways can you reach new communities who might not know they can bet on the NCAA Women’s Tournament at DraftKings, and how do you plan to deploy those plans this March?

As I mentioned, DraftKings customers will have the opportunity to bet on the Women’s NCAA tournament starting from the Sweet 16 round and we will also be running aggressive promotions for customers to further engage in these offerings.  This will help drive sports fans to our women’s basketball Sportsbook offerings and thus increase interest.

As part of our company initiatives and offerings during Women’s History Month, DraftKings will donate up to $350,000 to several U.S. and global nonprofit organizations focused on empowering and aiding women entrepreneurs and women-founded small businesses. This will be part of the company’s free Women’s History Month Sports Popularity Pool, which highlights the greatest athletes and moments in women’s sports. With an initial donation of $150,000, for every 25,000 entries into the pool, DraftKings will increase its donation total by $10,000, up to a combined total of $350,000.

5. You’ve spent more than two decades in this industry. Has there been any time more fertile for betting in women’s sports than right now, and if not, why do you think this is happening now?

There is a lot of positive momentum with females working and having a voice in the sports and gaming industries. As we have discussed, the quantity and quality of women’s sports Sportsbook offerings is also on the rise, which is very encouraging for our industry.

As a woman, I want to make sure we are leveling the playing field and for the last 25 years in the industry I have wanted to make sure women are represented everywhere. My goal is to take odds on more women’s sports, push out more promotions for customers to take part in, and further weave more female sports into the conversation.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By Jessica Taylor Price, @jesstaylorprice, Freelance Gymnastics Writer

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.