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The Mavericks' 'NBA 101' event for women gets a lot right

We went to the Mavericks’ women-only event, and it was nothing like those awful examples you might remember from the news.

via DallasMavs.com

Last September, the Dallas Mavericks announced through Twitter its 16th annual “NBA 101” event, a program targeting women interested in learning more about the Mavericks and professional basketball generally. That announcement went poorly.

It’s no surprise. “Ladies nights” hosted by men's teams have a checkered public history that undoubtedly contributed to this reaction. A chalk talk hosted by Texas A&M in July changed the team’s war hymn to include lyrics like this: “We are putting down our dish towels, And taking off our gloves, No more lysol or cascade, We want to score Touchdowns.” Another “Ladies Night” hosted by the Astros in 2013 featured makeovers, vodka and very little baseball. Those are far from the only two.

But soon after the criticism, many past participants gave vehement defenses of the event, including current Kings assistant coach Nancy Lieberman who formerly coached the Texas Legends, the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate. I wanted to see it for myself, so on a Friday evening last month, I took a train downtown to the American Airlines Center, uncertain of what I was getting myself into.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I could put the nightmares of the A&M “Chalk Talk” out of my mind for good. NBA 101 was enjoyable, educational and nothing like those events from before.

Upon arriving, I waited to pick up name tags and shirts, listening to women of all ages and ethnicities chat about their days as we made our way through check-in downstairs to eat chicken strips in the Old No. 7 club. I found a table overlooking the practice court and joined two strangers while we waited for the event to begin.

After some getting-to-know-you basics, I asked my dining partners what they thought about the criticism of the event’s advertising and the notion that there's something inherently sexist about events targeting women. I told them the event’s marketing struck me as condescending (we’ll get to that), but they shook it off and pointed out that it’s been running for years and gives women a judgement-free opportunity to ask questions of pros. It seemed for many of the attendees, the bad marketing was excused by the event’s successful execution.

After hanging out for a bit in Old No. 7, I was corralled into a group with 15 other ladies, and we spent the next few hours rotating through organized, informative 10-minute sessions, including:

  • an overview of offense from assistant coach Kaleb Canales, who explained the basics before fielding thoughtful questions from the ladies in the group
  • a chat with Donnie freaking Nelson in his office, where we saw his enormous “bad news chair” before leaving without a chance to ask questions
  • an informative presentation from the training staff on the players’ daily schedules and therapy regimens
  • a Q&A with new Mavericks Harrison Barnes and Quincy Acy, who were both incredibly warm and, in Barnes’ case, a very good sport about answering questions about leaving a championship team
  • a sit-down with an always brooding yet polite Rick Carlisle that was unbelievably cool yet also felt a little like getting sent to the principal’s office
  • a session with Fox broadcaster Dana Larson (the event’s only female session speaker) followed by a conversation with Mark Followill, Chuck Cooperstein, Earl K. Sneed, and Victor Villalba
  • and finally, a lecture on basketball rules from assistant head coach Melvin Hunt (again, the session ended before we were able to ask many questions)

I absolutely learned some things. While I’m a die-hard Mavericks fan, I certainly didn’t walk through those doors feeling like a basketball expert. I left the event with a much better understanding of the Xs and Os of basketball, of how the Mavericks organization is run, what it’s like to be a basketball broadcaster, and a little bit more about the players’ mindsets and experiences. I’ll never forget sitting at the same table as Rick Carlisle or hanging out with Donnie Nelson in his office.

I also genuinely enjoyed my conversations with the other attendees. It was clear early on that we didn’t necessarily feel the same way about some of the controversy surrounding the event’s initial announcement this year, but it was refreshing to talk about sports with other Mavs fans without anyone talking down to me in a way you might find at a sports bar (or anywhere else, for that matter).

In the wake of some of the more poorly executed examples of the concept, the very idea of a women-only sports event attracted some criticism initially, but after participating in one, I think that (when it’s done properly, as this one was) there’s a lot of value in providing a welcoming and comfortable learning experience for female sports fans.

So kudos to the Mavericks — they got a whole lot right. This is an event that I would attend again in a heartbeat. But because it’s an annual event, I think it’s also worth taking seriously the issues some women have with the aspects that didn’t work as well.

A good event doesn’t excuse bad marketing. Many of us female fans feel that it’s often difficult to get people to take us seriously, to believe that our fandom is rooted in a sincere appreciation of the sport and the team rather than a desire to pick up guys. The “hey girl hey” wording of the tweet and the pink lettering was condescending to me and many others. Now that I know firsthand what an amazing experience the event is, it feels even more like the team missed an opportunity to feature someone awesome and empowering like Nancy Lieberman talking about her experience with the event in its promotions.

And while the event overall was great, there were a couple of small ways in which it reflected some of the problems with the marketing:

  • Over the course of the evening, we heard from a lot people employed by or associated with the team. Just one, Dana Larson, was a woman. Obviously, players and coaches are men, but the Mavericks have a number of fantastic female employees, and it felt like a missed opportunity that we didn’t get the chance to hear from any of them, especially given that the event ended an hour earlier than advertised.
  • The event concluded with a raffle featuring autographed basketballs and photos, as well as gift cards to places like Sephora, Nordstrom, and DSW, and everyone left with team calendars and lip gloss. I like shoes and make-up as much as the next person, but sticking to Mavs-themed prizes and swag that reminded us of our common interest would’ve been more appropriate than sending us off with make-up.

These are small things, mixed in with a lot of good, but they add up in a way that makes many of us feel like slightly lesser fans. I firmly believe that the Mavericks host this event because they take outreach to their female fans seriously, and the fact that so much of NBA 101 is fantastic shows that the organization obviously cares about this issue. Many of us who offer criticism only do so because we love this team and want to feel fully included as fans. I hope next year’s event can be even better!

Kate Crawford contributed to this story.