The Australian women’s basketball team on winning the 2006 FIBA World Championship
Women’s basketball began in 1892 at Smith College when Senda Berenson, a physical education teacher, modified Naismith’s rules for women. Shortly after she was hired at Smith, she went to Naismith to learn more about the game. Fascinated by the new sport and the values it could teach, she organized the first women’s collegiate basketball game on March 21, 1893, when her Smith freshmen and sophomores played against one another. However, the first women’s interinstitutional game was played in 1892 between the University of California and Miss Head’s School. Berenson’s rules were first published in 1899, and two years later she became the editor of A. G. Spalding’s first Women’s Basketball Guide. Berenson’s freshmen played the sophomore class in the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game at Smith College, March 21, 1893. The same year, Mount Holyoke and Sophie Newcomb College (coached by Clara Gregory Baer) women began playing basketball. By 1895, the game had spread to colleges across the country, including Wellesley, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr. The first intercollegiate women’s game was on April 4, 1896. Stanford women played Berkeley, 9-on-9, ending in a 2–1 Stanford victory.
Women’s basketball development was more structured than that for men in the early years. In 1905, the Executive Committee on Basket Ball Rules (National Women’s Basketball Committee) was created by the American Physical Education Association. These rules called for six to nine players per team and 11 officials. The International Women’s Sports Federation (1924) included a women’s basketball competition. 37 women’s high school varsity basketball or state tournaments were held by 1925. And in 1926, the Amateur Athletic Union backed the first national women’s basketball championship, complete with men’s rules. The Edmonton Grads, a touring Canadian women’s team based in Edmonton, Alberta, operated between 1915 and 1940. The Grads toured all over North America, and were exceptionally successful. They posted a record of 522 wins and only 20 losses over that span, as they met any team that wanted to challenge them, funding their tours from gate receipts. The Grads also shone on several exhibition trips to Europe, and won four consecutive exhibition Olympics tournaments, in 1924, 1928, 1932, and 1936; however, women’s basketball was not an official Olympic sport until 1976. The Grads’ players were unpaid, and had to remain single. The Grads’ style focused on team play, without overly emphasizing skills of individual players. The first women’s AAU All-America team was chosen in 1929. Women’s industrial leagues sprang up throughout the United States, producing famous athletes, including Babe Didrikson of the Golden Cyclones, and the All American Red Heads Team, which competed against men’s teams, using men’s rules. By 1938, the women’s national championship changed from a three-court game to two-court game with six players per team.
The NBA-backed Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) began in 1997. Though it had shaky attendance figures, several marquee players (Lisa Leslie, Diana Taurasi, and Candace Parker among others) have helped the league’s popularity and level of competition. Other professional women’s basketball leagues in the United States, such as the American Basketball League (1996–98), have folded in part because of the popularity of the WNBA. The WNBA has been looked at by many as a niche league. However, the league has recently taken steps forward. In June 2007, the WNBA signed a contract extension with ESPN. The new television deal ran from 2009 to 2016. Along with this deal, came the first ever rights fees to be paid to a women’s professional sports league. Over the eight years of the contract, “millions and millions of dollars” were “dispersed to the league’s teams.” In a March 12, 2009 article, NBA commissioner David Stern said that in the bad economy, “the NBA is far less profitable than the WNBA. We’re losing a lot of money among a large number of teams. We’re budgeting the WNBA to break even this year