The advent of the WNBA represented a breakthrough for professional female basketball players in the US. It gave them the chance to showcase their skills on US soil in front of their own fans. From that point of view, it has been a success. Stars such as Sheryl Swoopes, Tamika Catchings and Mya Moore have helped raise the profile of women’s basketball and inspired a new generation of young women players.
However, if the WNBA has been a huge boost for women players, it has been far less positive for women coaches. Of the 12 teams taking part in the 2021 season, seven were coached by men. Out of 86 head coaches in the history of the league, only 44 have been women.
Given that four out of the six teams in this year’s play-offs were coached by women, the argument cannot be made that women coaches can’t deliver success. So why aren’t there more women coaches?
One theory is that when the WNBA began back in 1997, there was very little interest in taking up coaching positions among the male-dominated coaching ranks. Of the eight teams who featured in that first competition, seven were coached by women. However, as the WNBA began to grow and grab national attention, more men began to get involved. This happened at all levels, including officials and general managers, but it has been particularly noticeable for coaches.
Some critics suggest that WNBA franchises have crudely associated success with the male gender, and have opted for male coaches, some of them with extensive NBA experience, in the hope that they would give the team a better chance of reaching the play-offs.
Others suggest that this has nothing to do with gender but is all about experience. Fans who want their teams to win and bettors looking for the best NBA bets today are focused solely on success and coaches who have played or coached in the NBA — a league in which there are no women head coaches — are seen as better able to guide a team to success.
This is an argument that has been made by some women in the NBA, including Carol Blazejowski, the basketball legend and former general manager of New York Liberty. She has suggested that women coaches who have experience in college basketball have faced difficulties in the WNBA, due to their lack of familiarity with the professional game.
Such concerns have also been played down by the WNBA leadership, including President Val Ackerman, who has pointed to the range of opportunities that have been given to women in official and executive positions. WNBA Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes has also said that she isn’t concerned with the number of women head coaches in the WNBA, arguing instead that women coaches should be given a chance in the NBA. That is a position that is hard to argue with, but it doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon. Given that the NBA remains an all-male affair, at least at the coaching level, isn’t there a case for more women coaches in the WNBA?
While the chance to see women performing at the top-level of professional sports is an important development in encouraging young women to play and watch the sport, seeing women running the game from the sidelines in positions of power and authority is just as important. The argument that women head coaches lack relevant competitive experience is a dubious one. The WNBA has existed for 25 years and women’s basketball has thrived for decades.
On a more positive note, the appointment of Noelle Quinn as head coach of the Seattle Storm could be a sign that things are changing in the WNBA. She is now the third former WNBA player to coach in the league, but by far the youngest. It is impossible to argue that she lacks the relevant professional experience, having led the Storm to the 2018 title. Quinn’s appointment could pave the way for many more former WNBA stars to take up positions as head coaches.
The WNBA has been an undoubted positive for women’s sports and has provided an opportunity to the most talented women players to fulfill their ability and to make a career out of the sport they love. However, those opportunities should not end when they stop playing. At a time when NBA coaching is an exclusively male concern, the WNBA should make a greater effort to maximize the coaching opportunities it offers to women.