Without Numbers, You Can’t Tell the Story: Understanding the Gender Stats Gap in Sports
Why this matters
Data is a fundamental part of how sports fans consume their favorite leagues and teams today. But women's sports outlets, from broadcasts to online content, lack the resources to create informed coverage, educate fans, and make the best sports product.
Gender gaps seem to be everywhere you look in sports. There is the obvious gender wage gap. There is also an investment gap, a sponsorship gap, and a media coverage gap. All of these gaps have been discussed extensively before. There is another gap, though, that seems to fly under the radar: the stats gap.
Legendary point guard Sue Bird noted this issue in The Players’ Tribune in 2016. As she told the story, Diana Taurasi and Bird – while playing basketball in Russia – were sitting around a bar arguing about basketball when one asked the other this simple question:
“Who do you think led the [National Basketball Association] in charges drawn last season?”
A quick search on their phones answered the question. The Women’s National Basketball Association stars then began debating the same question for the WNBA. After some discussion, they decided to search for the WNBA answer – and got nothing. There was no record of it, no leaderboard, nothing. As Bird noted in her 2016 essay – written months after that debate at the bar: “We still don’t know who won that debate.”
This was six years ago.
Today, the NBA’s website makes it easy to see that in 2021-22, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love tied for the league lead in drawn charges. The numbers are right there, aptly labeled under “Hustle Stats.” And that’s not all. The NBA also tracks and shares data for deflections, pull-up shooting efficiency, and even how much distance a player covers per game. Basically, if an NBA player is doing something on the court, there is a good chance the league is tracking it.
As for the WNBA’s website? There’s still no way to settle the Bird-Taurasi debate about charges. Even though the NBA owns about half of the WNBA, the two entities are partners, and the NBA has about $10 billion in annual revenues – which means the money and technology are there to track and freely disseminate such information.
This is a problem. And it’s bigger than just an argument between two friends over beers or any one given stat in a particular league. In our analytic era, numbers are crucial to telling deeper, richer stories about sports. Storytelling is crucial to building awareness and energy around athletes. Awareness and energy are crucial if women’s sports leagues like the WNBA hope to find broader fan bases and become legitimate career pathways for young women athletes around the world.
The lack of data on the WNBA website doesn’t mean no one knows it. Synergy Sports – a site that will give you data you can’t see elsewhere for a price – does have the answer. In 2021, Danielle Robinson led the league in charges taken, with 26 for the Indiana Fever. Synergy Sports will also tell you that Plenette Pierson led the league in charges taken in 2016, with 26 for the Dallas Wings. Yes, Bird and Taurasi could have found their answer. All they had to do was pay for it!
When it comes to free stats, however, the WNBA website is still living in the past – the distant past.
Consider the history of the traditional box score. When the NBA began in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America, box scores tracked points, field goals made, field goals attempted, free throws made, free throws attempted, assists, and personal fouls. In 1950, the NBA added rebounds. The American Basketball Association began tracking turnovers its first season in 1967 and began to distinguish between offensive and defensive rebounds the next season. In 1973-74, the NBA and ABA both started tracking steals and blocks, and the NBA also added all the other stats the ABA first started recording.
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If you go to the WNBA site today, you will find all the statistics the ABA and NBA were tracking in 1973. But beyond some "clutch time" box score stats, some lineup analysis, and some scoring differential data (found in a PDF!), traditional box score data is about all you will find. From a publicly-available number perspective, the WNBA is still essentially living in the disco era.
And the “stats gap” goes beyond what is being tracked today. There is also an issue with historical data. Diana Taurasi attended the University of Connecticut and was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury in 2004. Today, she is the leading scorer in WNBA history. But imagine we asked this question:
Did Diana Taurasi lead the University of Connecticut – the NCAA champion – in scoring in 2003-04?
You would have to think she did. But how would we know?
Before we try to answer this question, let’s imagine we asked a very similar question:
Who led the UConn men’s basketball team – also the NCAA champion that year – in scoring in 2003-04?
A curious person can go to ESPN’s website – the leading sports site – and easily answer the second question. Ben Gordon averaged 18.5 points per game for UConn that year. His teammate, Emeka Okafor, averaged 17.6 points. You can see that Charlie Villanueva, who eventually was a lottery pick in the NBA, averaged just 8.9 points per game. For 2003-04, ESPN shows all the box score stats for every man who played college basketball at UConn. In fact, ESPN reports box score stats for every man who played Division I basketball that season. You can even see that the long-forgotten hoops star David Palmer led Southern Utah University in scoring in 2003-04.
But what about Taurasi? If you look at ESPN, you are out of luck. The site doesn’t report any player statistics for women’s college basketball before the 2009-10 season. Both Bird and Taurasi went to UConn. But ESPN.com can’t tell you what they did as college players.
Remarkably, the same is also true for the NCAA’s website. The first year the NCAA reports statistics for the women of UConn is 2008-09. So, we really can’t see if Taurasi led her team in scoring. We know from the school’s site that she scored 16.2 points per game her last year in college. But we can’t see if that led her team.
Dollars and Stats
Basketball is not the only sport suffering from such a significant stats gap. Football-Reference tracks statistics for teams in the National Women’s Soccer League (the top league in women’s professional soccer) and the English Premier League. A quick comparison of the pages at Football-Reference for EPL powerhouse Manchester City versus the newly formed NWSL club Angel City reveals, predictably, that the former includes much more statistical information.
It’s the same story in hockey. There is far more data tracked for men in the National Hockey League than there is for women in the Premier Hockey Federation. Meghan Chayka – co-founder of Stathletes, a company that specializes in analyzing hockey statistics – tells us why we see these differences: “It’s getting better, but there’s a big difference in statistics and coverage with men’s and women’s hockey. Some of it comes down to budget, infrastructure, and staffing, but also the historical focus on the men’s tournaments. I’m hoping this changes drastically in the next five years.”
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Chayka makes a good point. Collecting data costs money. And men’s sports generally bring in much greater revenues than women’s sports. Yet even when men’s and women’s leagues are partners – as we see in the NBA and WNBA – the men’s leagues seem reluctant to fully invest in closing the stats gap. In 2021, the WNBA announced it was going to track extensive data via a company called Second Spectrum for the championship of the Commissioner’s Cup. Progress? Yes. But only for one game. To date, the WNBA website is still not displaying Second Spectrum data that the NBA is now routinely reporting for its players.
A WNBA source told Global Sport Matters that the WNBA doesn’t collect and share the same statistics that the NBA does because doing so would be too costly.
“It takes more staff than the WNBA currently employs,” said the source, who is familiar with the business of the league. “Also, Second Spectrum has been cost prohibitive for the league, and not all W arenas are equipped with the cameras needed to follow players throughout their in-game motions and collect data.”
Although some WNBA teams play in the same arenas as NBA teams, many do not. For example, both the Dallas Wings and Chicago Sky play in arenas on college campuses. Such arenas are simply not equipped with Second Spectrum cameras and technology.
If you’re the type of fan who thinks there are already too many numbers in sports, it might be easy to conclude that none of this matters. Sports, though, are very much about stats. For starters, you can’t tell who won or lost without keeping score.
But it goes beyond that simple observation. Without numbers, it is immensely difficult to explain what we are seeing on the field or court – and also to predict what is going to happen in the future. In turn, this makes decision-making more difficult and suspect. Do you really want a coach or general manager of your favorite team deciding which players belong on the roster by just … looking at them? Yes, scouting is important. But in 2022, we all hope that our teams are at least looking at data before making their choices.
And that’s not all. Without numbers, sports gambling is severely constrained. It is estimated that more than $100 billion is gambled each year on sports – and as more and more U.S. states move to legalize sports betting, that number is expected to grow, engaging fans and boosting leagues’ bottom lines.
Yet betting on the WNBA is not a very big part of this massive industry. According to John Lopez of Dimers:
“[D]espite this historic rise in viewership (for women’s sports) coinciding with the boom of online sportsbooks, betting WNBA games is extremely limited. If you wanted to bet on a WNBA game right now, you might have 14 betting options total for the entire game. On the flipside, if you wanted to bet on Steph Curry in the NBA Finals, there were 176 different options for just Steph on the ‘Popular’ tab on FanDuel. Despite there being a high demand for WNBA player props, there is zero supply from the big online sportsbooks like FanDuel Sportsbook and DraftKings Sportsbook.”
People don’t bet on which players look to be playing the best. People bet on things that can be tracked. If no one is tracking the numbers, then no one can place the bets.
Less Context, Less Meaning
Consider the question people were posing the day after Steph Curry led the Golden State Warriors to the NBA championship in 2022: Is he the greatest point guard ever?
The NBA has been around since 1946. If you tried to answer that question with just what you remember from personally watching basketball – well, you wouldn’t have much of an answer. Many of the best point guards in history – Magic Johnson, John Stockton, and Oscar Robertson – stopped playing years ago. If you are under the age of 30, you really never saw any of these players play outside of YouTube highlights. But with numbers, we can have a debate. We might even think we can come up with an answer.
Such connections are absolutely essential to the fan experience. What Curry does today has meaning because we can learn about what great players did in the past. We have context for what we are seeing today. We have a way to compare athletes and teams and eras to discuss and debate how they stack up against each other. These kinds of comparisons are what sports are all about. Who ran the fastest? Jumped the highest? Scored the most points relative to the pace of play at the time? Who, ultimately, did it best?
But if the numbers don't exist, fans can’t have these conversations with the same level of depth. Writers and broadcasters and pundits can’t tell complete stories. Without numbers, we don’t just lose context. We lose a whole lot of meaning. And we lose a whole lot of history.
Bird and Taurasi are legendary college basketball players. But were they better than Paige Bueckers or Aliyah Boston today? And, if so, what about these players made them better? Without numbers, we have less to learn, less to explore, less to argue about, and, ultimately, less to care about. Our heroes are less epic. Their mighty deeds are less memorable.
Bird put this best six years ago:
Data helps drive conversations, strategy, decision-making. But data on its own isn’t terribly interesting. It needs context. It needs a storyteller. Data helps tell the story of a player, a team, an entire career.
No one gender gap in sports exists on an island. Without numbers, perspective is lost. Without perspective, we fail to understand and celebrate excellence. And when excellence is depreciated, women athletes dazzling fans on a nightly basis are deprived of the financial and competitive opportunities they deserve. If we can’t even debate at a bar like Bird and Taurasi, how can we hope to have a real conversation?
The Influence of Sports Media
The media shapes how people view characters and issues in sport and society. Today, however, journalists' stories are increasingly found online and on social networks in addition to more traditional mediums like print, television and radio.
As the media itself has changed, its relationship to and impact on athletes and the sports industry has changed as well. Does a more disparate and diverse media ecosystem inspire hope for a better future in sport, or could old pitfalls arise again in an era defined by digitization and immediacy?