U.S. women aim for sixth straight gold
56-1 record started in 1984
41-game winning streak dates back to 1992
Players make more overseas than in U.S.
Still awaiting their fate at the time of writing on Thursday are three taekwondo fighters, eight weightlifters, four badminton players and one golfer.
The Americans wound up finishing third in the tournament, but Nike planted the seeds which would turn players Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd and Abby Wambach into household names by the time they swept the 2012 London Olympics and 2015 World Cup.
In truth, women’s soccer had already entered America’s collective consciousness in 1999 – when Brandi Chastain donned a Sports Illustrated cover celebrating in a sports bra after defeating China in the World Cup – and never left.
A recent Sports Illustrated Olympic preview cover features women’s footie star Alex Morgan, alongside prominent Americans Kevin Durant, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky.
But of the seven athletes featured on the SI cover, none of them represent the country’s most dominating – yet largely anonymous – team over the past three decades, one whose eye-popping statistic was buried in a one liner under its medals picks: The U.S. women’s basketball team has a 41-game Olympic winning streak.
That’s right, U.S. women are undefeated in basketball since winning the bronze medal game of 1992 – two years before reserve center Breanna Stewart was even born.
Team USA has, in fact, won every gold medal bar one since President Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, compiling a crushing 56-1 record in the interim. Its margin of victory at London 2012 stood at over 34 points per game.
The women hoopsters are aiming for their sixth straight gold in Rio – an era of domination exceeded only by the men’s basketball team from 1936 to 1968.
No matter what Nike said in 2007, one thing is abundantly clear: The greatest team you’ve never heard of plays basketball wearing red, white and blue.
“The greatest athletes in the world”
“I don’t think it’s an attack on the U.S. women’s Olympic team, I think it’s just a function of society,” Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman tells CNN. “Is it fair? Of course not, because we do deserve a lot of that attention for what has been accomplished.”
Lieberman explains that any headlines related to basketball at the Olympics are unsurprisingly dominated by the men’s team overloaded with NBA talent, even though teammates Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings have earned three consecutive golds since the 2004 Athens Games.
This, despite the fact that NBA players themselves seem to be coming around to the value of women’s basketball. Team USA’s starting point guard Kyrie Irving recently met Bird, and hailed her as one of his favorite point guards of all time, according to NBA TV.
Teammate Draymond Green told Sports Illustrated he prefers watching the WNBA in his spare time.
“In the NBA there’s always a guy who is only around because he can jump; he doesn’t have a clue about the fundamentals,” said Green. “I learn more from the WNBA. They know how to dribble, how to pivot, how to use the shot fake.”
“I don’t think the media is directly trying not to give us our due,” adds Lieberman, who played on the silver medalist 1976 team and is a current assistant coach with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, one of only two women coaches in the league.
“There are just so many things that are happening that we are just getting pushed to the back page.”
Lieberman calls the U.S. women basketball players “the greatest female athletes in the world,” but admits that playing overseas in better paying leagues after the WNBA season – rather than establishing coaching camps and clinics back home – works against them.
Six-foot eight-inch center Brittney Griner earned 12 times her WNBA salary playing just four months in China, according to ESPN.
Taurasi, one of the greatest scorers in women’s basketball history, has played for the Phoenix Mercury since 2004, but bolts to a club in Russia or Turkey every winter. Bird recently teamed with Taurasi in Russia and has played there since 2004. Catchings has played in Turkey, Poland, South Korea and Russia.
“You can’t blame the women for going over to make enough money so that their future is secure,” says Lieberman, “(but) they are not in our communities, they are not in our shopping centers, and they don’t have national commercials. And so it’s out of sight and out of mind.”
Not enough high-profile games
Along those lines, marketing experts say there are not enough high profile games for the women’s basketball team at prime time hours, unlike the U.S. women’s soccer team that won the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
The USWNT’s 5-2 finals win over Japan garnered over 25 million viewers domestically – a record for any soccer game, men’s or women’s – and outdrew the previous month’s NBA Finals Game 5 by over four million.
“The women’s national team plays very regularly in the U.S,” says Kevin Payne, a soccer marketing executive and former president of the MLS’s Toronto FC and D.C. United.
“They play a lot of games together and they are in the public eye on a pretty regular basis in games that are heavily promoted by US soccer and generally are very well attended. I don’t know if that is the case with the women’s national basketball team. I certainly don’t hear about it as often.”
Outside of the Olympics, the only other international competition for women of relevance is the low-profile FIBA World Cup. Although the U.S. has won nine of the tournaments since its inception in 1953, it has yet to host one.
Victims of their own success
Payne adds that the women’s astonishing success in basketball may actually work against its players, in terms of gaining interest in the sport, and ultimately receiving product endorsements.
“When a team is that dominant it just becomes commonplace, I don’t think accomplishments are as relevant,” he says. “The perception is that they don’t have any competition.”
This, of course, does not seem to apply to the U.S. men’s basketball team, who will command tickets in the thousands of dollars for the gold medal game in Rio, or to Michael Phelps, who will attempt to add to his record 22 medals.
Another theory is that basketball is an American sport, one that men have dominated for decades which makes the success of the women that much less surprising.
“I think if we were only good at women’s basketball and not men, then you might have the women’s basketball team being popular,” says Daniel Rascher, professor of sports management at the University of San Francisco.
“The men’s soccer team, while they are good players, they just don’t stack up to the rest of the world yet. And the women’s team do.”
But that point ignores Russia’s dominance of women’s basketball up until it boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. The team featured 6-foot 11-inch Uļjana Semjonova, who finished her career unbeaten in international competition.
“We were amateurs and they were professionals,” says Lieberman, who was 18 when she faced Semjonova’s team in the gold medal game in Montreal, the first Olympics that featured women’s basketball.
Rascher calls the lack of mainstream marketing of U.S. women’s basketball “a fascinating question” and one that did not have an obvious answer.
Although the national team is endorsed by Nike, individual players don’t seem to get the big marketing campaigns enjoyed by past soccer stars like Mia Hamm, who has a building named after her at the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon.
No America’s sweetheart
Arguably the U.S. women’s basketball team has lacked a captivating face that has taken over the country. An America’s sweetheart in the form of gold medalists Mary Lou Retton, Gabby Douglas, or Dorothy Hamill.
The current face of U.S. soccer, Alex Morgan, is a photogenic starlet who’s scored 67 goals for her country and has 3.8 million followers on Instagram.
Team USA’s most popular female on social media is 6-foot 5-inch star forward Elena Delle Donne, with 253,000 Instagram followers (her photogenic Great Dane also has an account).
The 26-year-old former college volleyball standout with Tim Duncan-like low-post moves and a nice outside shooting touch does feature in a Nike Olympic campaign alongside Durant, Serena Williams and Brazilian soccer phenom Neymar.
In contrast, teammate Bird has less than 50,000 followers and Taurasi does not appear to have an official account.
Meanwhile, U.S. basketball’s most famous player under 30, Griner had to battle negative publicity last year after annulling her marriage of less than one month to fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson, who was pregnant with the coupe’s twins.
None of that seems to faze Lieberman.
“We have some beautiful women. Take those women out of those jerseys and their hair pulled up and they are absolutely gorgeous,” she says. “They are tall and they have great physiques and they are stunning, stunning women.”
The difference is, according to Lieberman, that women’s Olympic basketball players are just not as interested in turning themselves into brands. Their priority is winning.
“Quite frankly, although it would be nice for them to go out and get more exposure, that’s not what drives them. Representing America is what drives them,” Lieberman says.
“I fully expect they will walk away with another gold medal.”