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.
Back in 2007, Nike unveiled an ad campaign promoting the U.S. women’s soccer team ahead of the World Cup Finals in China with the tagline “The Greatest Team You’ve Never Heard Of.”
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.