Even the Ming emperors who ruled China for 276 years would admire the dynasty created by the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, which is pursuing its fourth consecutire and NCAA-record 11th national championship at the Final Four.
Yet plenty of people will not tune in to watch the Huskies’ kinetic style, majestic teamwork and relentless concentration.
By being too good, UConn is bad for women’s basketball.
By being too dominant, UConn is killing the game.
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According to that faulty logic, Novak Djokovic is bad for men’s tennis. Djokovic defeated David Goffin 7-6, 6-4 at the sweltering Miami Open on Friday. The sublime Serb has not lost a set in Key Biscayne. He advanced to his 19th final in his past 21 tournaments. He has been ranked No. 1 since July 7, 2014.
Djokovic possesses a game so complete and sturdy his opponents might have to consult a locksmith to figure out how to crack it. He has turned the Big Four into the Only One.
“Against Djokovic, you have to go for every point,” Goffin said. “If you are not there for a few seconds, you lose.”
Is Djokovic unwatchable in his dominance — a criticism heaped on the Huskies? No, he is a marvel to behold. If you love tennis, you love to watch him play.
It would be preposterous to assert that Serena Williams’ chase of a calendar Grand Slam last year killed the game. Her run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open increased the popularity of women’s tennis and gave her opponents extra incentive to end her streak.
UConn is a boon for the sport. The program’s superiority is indisputable; UConn has won 120 of its past 121 games, and this season’s 35-0 team has won by an average margin of 40.8 points.
But when the Huskies crushed Mississippi State 98-38 in the Sweet Sixteen they got booed by those on the side of the debate who think the moat between coach Geno Auriemma’s empire in Storrs and everybody else has grown too wide.
“Don’t watch. Nobody’s putting a gun to your head,” Auriemma said. “When Tiger was winning every major nobody said he was bad for golf. He made everything better. Now there are a lot more great golfers.”
Auriemma was referring to Tiger Woods, of course, who became the brand name of golf, attracted an entirely new demographic of fans and cranked its TV viewership through the roof. UConn’s TV numbers are better than ever this year, and Breanna “Stewie” Stewart has become the face of women’s basketball as she goes after her fourth consecutive Final Four MVP award.
Likewise, when undefeated Kentucky got to the 2015 men’s Final Four, ratings were high. The Golden State Warriors rarely lose, and fans can’t get enough of Steph Curry. They want to see how he makes all those three-pointers.
Consider other examples of dominance. When Roger Federer was in his prime, No. 1 for 237 consecutive weeks, was he bad for men’s tennis? Have the New York Yankees’ 27 titles been ruinous for baseball? Who was the biggest name at the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Eight-time gold medal winner Michael Phelps.
The Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s helped push the NFL to its status as king of American sport. No one would claim that the Boston Celtics, who won 11 championships in 13 years from 1959 to 1966, were boring. Michael Jordan’s two three-peats with the Chicago Bulls carried the NBA to new heights.
The University of North Carolina women’s soccer team, which won 22 titles from 1979 to 2012, boosted the quality and popularity of the entire sport, from rec league to World Cup.
The five-time champion University of Miami football teams brought a maverick style and sensibility to college football.
John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins, who won 10 championships from 1964 to 1975, were very, very good for men’s college basketball. The Bruins might not have won by an average of 40 points, but they did go undefeated four times.
UConn’s dominance is not an indictment of the lack of depth in the women’s game. A FiveThirtyEight analysis revealed that the talent pool for women is almost as deep as that for men and that recruiting favors the powerhouse men’s programs such as Kentucky, Duke and Kansas more than the elite women’s programs. Auriemma signs his fair share of top-10 talent, but he’s not monopolizing it, as the rosters of Notre Dame, Baylor, South Carolina and Tennessee will show.
UConn’s dominance is proof that Auriemma’s system and his ability to develop players and sustain excellence is better than that of his opponents. And though that 60-point blowout was not a sign of growing parity in the women’s game, the presence of fourth-seeded Syracuse and seventh-seeded Washington in the Final Four is. No. 2 seed Oregon State upset No. 1 seed Baylor. UConn forces other programs to elevate their quality.
Auriemma asked critics not to demean people who appreciate women’s basketball, which is a different, purer form of the game. Rebecca Lobo, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Maya Moore, Tina Charles and now Moriah Jefferson and Stewart are the stars that UConn has given us — the DiMaggios, Alcindors and Montanas of the Husky dynasty. They compete no matter what the score with a brilliant combination of finesse and power.
Greatness isn’t just interesting, it’s magnetic. If you find UConn unwatchable, you’re not interested in watching women play basketball.