Prior to the London Olympic Games I was told by a few British reporters and a few imports that their country wasn’t going to give much attention to the women’s basketball competition. “They’d rather watch beach volleyball with their tiny bikinis,” a random caller said in one conversation.
But it’s not proving to be true at the Games’ Basketball Arena. On television the facility appears full with loud, engaged fans, albeit the cheering is a little like a WNBA’s Kids Day game were the crowd cheers for a made bucket well after an obvious violation or foul before the shot was called.
Reports from London state the venue is actually averaging more than 8,500 fans in a 12,000-seat facility. And even though the Americans are drawing more than 9,000 fans, the arena is at about 89 percent capacity for all of the games.
“It’s been awesome to see every single game, the energy, not just that the place is filled, but there is a great appreciation for women’s basketball,” U.S. assistant coach Doug Bruno, who has seen the crowds while scouting the Americans’ future opponents, told The Associated Press reporter Doug Feinberg. “The crowd is really into it. Growing this game is a process we’re working on back home, it’s not a quick process but it’s something everyone needs to work on.”
It’s especially cool because commentators have reported Great Britain is contemplating nixing men’s and women’s basketball from its Olympic competition because it’s unsuccessful and the nation doesn’t want to take a spot from a more deserving country. The Briton women are 0-4 with one more preliminary game remaining on Sunday, not earning enough points to advance to the knock-out medal rounds.
But in their first Olympic appearance, the team has challenged powers Russia and France and was only blown out by Australia 74-58 in the opening game of the tournament. Great Britain, whose entire roster has college hoops experience stateside, lost 73-65 to Canada, 67-61 to Russia and 80-77 in overtime to the French on Friday.
“To compete with the teams that we are doing, getting so close, it’s disheartening, but we’ve come a very long way and we’re so close,” said captain Jo Leedham to London reporters. She starred at Franklin Pierce (New Hampshire) as a two-time Division II National Player of the Year and is the nation’s D-II all-time leading scorer (3,050).
On television, NBC is reporting it had 11.4 million viewers for the USA Women’s Basketball opener against Croatia on July 28, an increase of +96 percent when compared to the two game average on NBC in 2008. The game, which the Americans won 81-56, peaked with 12.3 million viewers during the first quarter. The Croatians only trailed 31-28 at that point.
Overall, the game had a 7.4 rating. For perspective, NBC’s overnight coverage featuring the team competition for women’s gymnastics and various swimming finals on tape delay had a rating of 24. The women’s basketball games are aired live on a special basketball channel beginning around 1 a.m. on the west coast, NBC sometimes replaying the American’s matchups on its main station in the afternoon.
On that NBC Sports Network, through two games USA women’s hoops averaged 1.5 million viewers per game, an increase of +52 percent versus the five game average on USA Network in 2008 for the Beijing Games.
Now whether that attendance and viewership carries over to a Tulsa (3-15) versus New York (6-12) matchup in the WNBA has yet to be seen. Australian C Liz Cambage’s historic dunk in a win against Russia on Friday certainly can’t hurt. The No. 2 overall draft pick to Tulsa in 2011, Cambage’s feat was the first by a woman in the Olympic Games and gave the 20-year-old the apt moniker “Slambage” by fans on Twitter.
The WNBA, regarded as the top women’s league in the world, resumes play Aug. 16.
*PHOTO CREDIT: Australian C Elizabeth Camgae’s dunks on Russia by The Associated Press