By: Nellie Purdy and Piper Winton
Riverside’s student body is made up of almost 2000 teens, yet less than one percent of them tried out for women’s basketball last fall.
The Pirates finished their season last week with a 3 and 22 record. While it looked rough on paper, players were grateful to finish the whole season with a full roster.
On October 31, the first day of winter tryouts, only eight players showed up, and it took weeks to gather enough players to have a scrimmage.
The men’s team began tryouts on the same day. This year about 45 Riverside students tried out for the JV team, and about 25 for varsity.
Men’s varsity basketball coach Bryan Strickland says that’s the usual number of players who try out. The JV team always has more players trying out, he said, because most people understand the skill required for varsity.
Riverside’s head women’s basketball coach DeEarnest McLemore doesn’t believe in cutting players unless he absolutely has to.
“If we were to have more girls, we would have a JV,” he said.
McLemore also said he doesn’t want to discourage anyone who wants to learn basketball by not giving them the chance.
Both teams have seen lulls in participation before. The coaches identified several reasons why.
“People are nervous to put themselves out there, to put themselves in a vulnerable situation,” said Strickland.
“Females don’t want to play basketball anymore,”D’Earnest McLemore
Strickland also acknowledged that, besides a fear of failing, some people can’t try out due to the required grades, recent physicals, and attendance.
McLemore put it much more bluntly.
“Females don’t want to play basketball anymore,” he said.
This is McLemore’s second year at Riverside. He says that he immediately noticed the lack of girls wanting to play sports in Durham but he just doesn’t know why.
“I would love for it to come back to where they have a JV and a varsity,” he said. “But the girls just have to believe in themselves and want to learn how to play basketball.”
Participation rates are just one of many glaring differences between Riverside’s men’s and women’s athletic programs.
Freshman Nehir Volkan, a player on the women’s basketball team, shared that the women’s teams didn’t get much attention.
“The program is really small, so not many people really knew about it,” she said.
Volkan thinks men’s basketball is a more prominent high school sport than women’s basketball in most people’s minds.
It’s presented that way in popular teen movies like 17 Again, High School Musical, and Teen Wolf, too.
“Its just more popular, like in general,” she said.
Still, Volkan said that although it’s overlooked, she knows that’s just the case with a lot of women’s sports.
“I think its easy in high school to get caught up in whatever’s the cool sport for the season,” he said. “I’d like to think that it’s nothing intentional by the students to overlook the women’s team.”
ONE GYM, TWO CROWDS
Both the men’s and women’s seasons began November 18 with home games against Cleveland High School. The women’s game began at 6 o’clock and the men’s at 7:30.
The women’s team had supporters arrive throughout the game, primarily parents and about a dozen students, but in the final minutes of quarter four, another crowd arrived.
The student section was filled with students ready for the men’s game, wearing purple in accordance to the theme set by Pirates Athletic Media, a student run club that focuses on athletic promotion and live in-game coverage. While most were sitting slouched, scattered across the bleachers, whispering with classmates closest to them while watching the women’s game, students were on their feet and loudly cheering for the men. People from various social circles, even from different schools, chanted and applauded with the upperclassmen leading the student section.
“YOUR CROWDS JUST AREN’T GOING TO BE THE SAME AS MENS”
The Pirates had their best season in school history 2014-2015. They finished 22-3 overall, 9-1 in the conference. The team’s top three players all signed division-I scholarships.
It was then-captain Mone Jones’s senior year. Jones was the conference player of the year, and all state selection and McDonald’s All-American nominee.
Even at its best, she said, the women’s team didn’t truly have the spotlight.
“[Students are] always going to support the guys, whether they’re good or bad,” said Jones. “They’re always going to show up for those games.”
And as more students recognized that the team was really good, more came to games and backed the team.
“It varied,” she said. “We did have a decent crowd, But for women’s basketball, if you’re good or not, your crowds are just not going to be the same as men’s,” she said.
The student section, The Pirates Cove, did expand this year for all sports following two years of COVID restrictions, but attendance was still significantly higher for football and men’s basketball games than for any other team.
“[Students are] always going to support the guys, whether they’re good or bad,”Mone Jones
THE PROBLEM RUNS DEEP
The issue isn’t exclusive to Riverside.
“[Theres] definitely low participation all across the state, all across the nation,” said McLemore.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) recorded that, in North Carolina, women’s basketball was at its most popular during the 2002/2003 season, when 9,451 players participated with 343 schools.
There has been a 20% drop in numbers over the past twenty years. Just over a decade after the highest-participating season, players had already decreased by more than 1,000.
The numbers for men’s high school basketball have been more consistent. The same NFHS data shows the average number of participants in NC from 2002/2003 to 2018/2019 is 10,495.
The sport reached an all-time low in NC last year. Only 7,264 participants for women’s basketball, but men’s participation stayed above the average.
Women’s basketball participation is shrinking in other parts of the country, too.
In ten years, participation decreased by more than 65,000. Basketball lost its spot as one of the top three most popular high school female sports in America. And girls’ participation in all sports is getting smaller altogether. The total number of participants has decreased 90% from the highest recorded season, which was just six years ago.
TV viewership data shows a similar gap between men’s and women’s basketball. Although viewership data shows women’s sports are trending up, according to a Sports Media Watch article, the WNBA’s highest viewership averaged at 872,000 viewers in game one of last year’s WBNA Finals between the Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Aces.
The NBA’s lowest viewership in the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics (game 3) averaged at 11.5 million.
The number of spectators isn’t the only inequality.
The average salary in the NBA is around $7.5 million. Star players like Stephen Curry and LeBron James are both being paid almost $50 million for the 2022-2023 season.
WNBA star Breanna Stewart, one of the highest-paid players this season, has a $228,094 salary, according to a Deseret article. The league average, as of 2022, is $102,751.
A BRIGHTER FUTURE
Despite the history and new trends, Jones doesn’t think women’s sports aren’t a lost cause.
“[Ten years ago], basketball was in and so everybody wanted to play, everybody wanted to be a part,” she said. “And it’s different now. But it phases, but I’m glad that I was in the phase where women’s basketball was really big.”
From 2010-2019, Riverside’s women’s basketball consistently finished with winning records, qualified and often advanced in the state tournament.
“[Ten years ago], basketball was in and so everybody wanted to play, everybody wanted to be a part. And it’s different now.”Mone Jones
“We weren’t like, scrapping for [players] to come out. It was just a matter of if you made the team or not,” said Jones.
As different sports move in and out of style, Strickland said it’s important to maintain interest for the teams.
“You’ve got to recruit the hallways and get interest going throughout the school,” said Strickland. “The athletes themselves are responsible for that too.”
Jones believes that exposing young girls to sports is key to providing them with opportunities as athletes.
“A young girl, she can play in college, on a women’s basketball team, she can play in the WNBA,” she said. “But if she’s never exposed to those things, she will never know what is out there, what she can possibly reach.”
She didn’t like basketball when she initially played as a kid. But as she played more and got older, she enjoyed it and developed her skills. She played basketball for the University of Virginia and now works with the NBA, all of which started with joining a team as an eight-year-old.
Jones sees another big factor for the lack of participation: The athletes.
“It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication put towards playing a sport, so the mentality has also changed now,” she said.
There’s so much potential for young women in the community to be exposed to sports, especially basketball.
“We are surrounded by really, really, really good women’s basketball programs in the triangle,” said Jones. “You have Duke, you have Carolina, you have NC State. I mean, if you want to drive a little further, you got Wake Forest.”
She also added that this year, all of those teams were ranked in the top 25.
The cycle of a sport catching everyone’s attention, then fading out of interest, then coming back is bound to repeat itself.
“[Basketball is] always going to come back into style,” she said. “We just have to figure out how to sustain it,” she said.