Who’s More Popular? Brittney Griner & Skylar Diggins Vs. Cody Zeller, Trey Burke, Shabazz Muhammad et al

It’s often argued even the greatest female basketball players could not come close to seriously challenging NBA players in a one-on-one game. And that, somehow, this axiom will always limit the mass appeal of the women’s game. Plenty people respect the games of great players like Chamique Holdsclaw and Elena Delle-Donne. But at some level I believe there must also be a sense of genuine awe for their game to truly catch on.

Brittney Griner comes closer to flat-out awing me than any female I have ever watched.  Sometimes, when I watch her, I forget thinking about how she would stack up against men and just appreciate her historic dominance against women. The Baylor senior is 6-8 with an 88-inch wingspan and some serious agility – measurables that would be good for even an NBA player. She has matched all that with an underrated court awareness, passing ability and a diverse shot repertoire  to become our generation’s version of Lew Alcindor.

For all the marks she has already set – she’s the second leading scorer in NCAA history and its top shotblocker – I believe her most socially significant will occur this March and April. It appears Griner, along with Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, will become the first women to be more popular than their male counterparts during their respective NCAA tournament runs.

Slate’s Stephen Fatsis recently mentioned this as a function of a) interest in Griner and Diggins on a scale never seen before for female players and b) a field of college male players who haven’t yet made their mark on the mass public consciousness.

There is no superlative talent or personality yet make a defining mark on this college season – no Anthony Davis, or Kemba Walker or Blake Griffin. This is partly because there was no juggernaut program this season, and the closest to it – Gonzaga – is relatively isolated from the rest of the nation because of its location (east Washington state) and conference (West Coast).

Still, there are some players who have already been hyped as the nation’s lovable alpha dog (remember all those season preview magazine covers featuring Cody Zeller?) or will be soon if they break out during the tournament (Doug McDermott, who stars for darkhorse Wichita State, is a prime candidate).

So I thought it would be interesting to measure how some of the top male players stack up against Griner and Diggins in terms of popularity. My metrics are admittedly crude – Google mentions (i.e. how many results appear when the person’s name is Googled) and popularity on the two largest social media sites.

But I hope these numbers at least indicate the women’s game has turned a significant cultural corner:

Skylar Diggins

Google mentions: 467,000

Twitter: 311,538 followers

Facebook 60,440 likes (this is a fan page; Diggins’ real FB page appears to be private)

Brittney Griner

Google mentions: 794,000

Twitter: 9,579 followers

FB: 9,335 Likes

Cody Zeller

Google mentions: 646,000

Twitter: 54,528 followers

FB: 12,138 Likes

Mason Plumlee

Google mentions: 512,000

Twitter: 31,778 Followers

FB: 7,212 Likes

Doug McDermott

Google mentions: 350,000

Twitter: 18,375 Followers

FB: 3,051 Likes

Shabazz Muhammad

Google mentions: 668,000

Twitter: 87,450 Followers

FB: 2,741 Likes

Ben McLemore

Google mentions: 476,000

Twitter: 29,4008 Followers

FB: 1,843 Likes

Trey Burke

Google mentions: 831,000

Twitter: 40,757 Followers

FB: 4,433 Likes

Michael Carter-Williams

Google mentions: 2,370,000*

Twitter: 17,662 Followers

FB: 631 Likes

*Yep, this huge number surprised me too. My theory: news of MCW’s association with a shoplifting incident partly caused this.

There have, of course, been great women college basketball players before. But, in past March Madnesses, men overshadowed them. In 2007-08, Candace Parker was wrapping up an outstanding career at Tennessee with a title, but she didn’t capture the national consciousness like the all-out effort of North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough or the otherworldly shooting of Davidson sophomore Stephen Curry.

In 2003-04, during Diana Taurasi’s senior year at Connecticut, more of the headlines centered on her college’s other star, Emeka Okafor, and the amazing run of Jameer Nelson and the plucky St. Joseph’s team he led.

Going back even farther – into the early 1990s and before – college’s transcendent female players were much harder to follow because the majority of their games weren’t easily accessible like they are  today through more cable sports networks and the Internet. Even if you wanted to make sure to sit down and watch Sheryl Swoopes or Lisa Leslie as collegians, it would much more difficult to find a way to watch them in the regular season.

With today’s athlete, though, nationwide TV broadcasts are becoming less vital for mass exposure. A lot can be accomplished though YouTube clips, Instagram and Twitter. This was never more evident than when Diggins led Notre Dame to the 2011 title game as a sophomore:

As ESPN The Magazine reported in November 2011:

“During her Kemba Walker-ish run through the NCAA tournament last spring, her status, popularity and Twitter account blew up. R&B star Chris Brown got hooked. (“She’s a cutie … Congratulations, Beautiful,” he tweeted.) Lil’ Wayne let it be known he wanted to wife her. (His tweet: “Good lukk to my wife Skylar Diggins and the Fighting Irish.”) By now, her Twitter account has 120,000-plus followers, more than any other NCAA basketball player … male or female.”

Diggins doesn’t create awe in the same way Griner does. She isn’t as physically dominant and won’t shatter numerous records. But she has a charisma and an ability to lead that may be as unique as Griner’s length and quickness. Diggins also has a classically beautiful face, great smile and proportional body – which helps the average fan (male and female) relate to her. This hasn’t been the case with other basketball players with model-like looks, such as the  6-5 Lisa Leslie.

I’d argue Diggins is the most telegenic female basketball player of all time, and she may end up being the most popular as well.

How did she burn her way into the mind of the average fan in the span of two years? In the beginning, her skills and determination were the wood.  On top of that came the kindling – the looks, the smile and the attitude. Social media has added the spark.

As media consultant media consultant Kathleen Hessert told ESPN The Magazine last season:

“Social media, combined with a presence like Skylar, attracts people to the sport, to the team, to her personal brand in a way that could never happen before. People who never followed women’s basketball are following it because of Skylar.”

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