Love or hate domineering athletic teams, they always make headlines. Sometimes for all the wrong reasons and through no fault of their own.
Last week, the Oklahoma Sooners softball team hadn’t hoisted its third-straight national championship trophy for two hours before the online criticism surrounding their dominant season, capped off with a 53-game win streak and numerous broken records, began.
Oklahoma softball with the three-peat!
53 straight wins, and the seventh national championship in program history.
Beth Mowins on the call for ESPN. ???️ pic.twitter.com/kS5bcI0OJf
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) June 9, 2023
“We will commit to using every resource we have to bringing parity and equality to the college softball playing field. It’s not good for our game to have one super dominant team year after year,” the United Women’s Athletic Association tweeted out to their 31,000 Twitter followers after the conclusion of OU’s historic run.
Although it’s disappointing to see criticism of an incredible women’s sports program from a women’s sports organization, dynasties and dominant teams tend to come with a side of controversy. Given the competitive landscape of college and professional sports, an underlying assumption of successful teams is that they didn’t come by their wins fairly, whether it’s allegations of “deflategate”-style offenses or resource disparities that often fuel athletic dominance, as the UWAA alluded to.
Today’s college sports landscape, rife with opinions on the roles of NIL and the transfer portal in the recruitment process, only complicates these conversations.
However, to imply that dynasties are bad for sports–and women’s sports in particular–is highly questionable. Take Oklahoma softball for example. Any sports bettor would be wise to put all of their chips on Oklahoma for the past three years now. Yes, their game outcomes might be predictable, but from 2021-2023, viewership of the Women’s College World Series has increased every year, with viewership exceeding the Men’s College World Series in 2021 and 2022 (the 2023 men’s postseason is still underway). This year’s championship series between Florida State and Oklahoma averaged 1.59 million viewers, up from 1.58 million last season, and WCWS viewership overall was up 6%.
The growth of women’s programs amid their dominance isn’t a new dynamic in the realm of women’s sports, which entered mainstream media in the ‘90s as another legacy blossomed: the U.S. Women’s National Team. Although women’s and girl’s access to sports increased tremendously after the passing of Title IX in 1972, the legacy of the 1990s USWNT is highly regarded as a time in which the world witnessed the rewards of years of Title IX advocacy efforts, and the athletes involved were intent on making a statement with their athleticism much like Oklahoma is doing for the still-developing sport of college softball.
Kicking off the Women’s Sports Movement
It can be argued that the women’s sports movement started in 1972 with the passing of Title IX, but came to fruition nearly 20 years later thanks to women’s soccer. In 1991, the women on the USWNT didn’t just win the inaugural Women’s World Cup–they dominated every team they faced on soccer’s biggest stage. The U.S. women outscored their opponents 49-0 throughout the tournament, including a 5-0 shutout of Canada to qualify in the first place.
According to the players, they felt pressure to excel. “We didn’t let anything distract or deter us from what our goal was,” forward Carin Gabarra said of her experiences. “We had to grow up in a Title IX world where we were just now getting an even playing field in a lot of respects. We were excited that we had the opportunity, and we were going to make the most of it to win that world championship.”
Following a disappointing third-place finish in 1995, the USWNT won the Olympic gold in 1996, the first-ever Games that included women’s soccer. Then, in the 1999 World Cup, which is widely considered women’s soccer’s watershed moment, the sport’s popularity exploded–the Women’s World Cup field was expanded to 16 teams and was declared the “largest women’s sporting event in history” with 460,000 advanced tickets sold on June 18, 1999, and 40 million U.S. viewers. The U.S. was chosen as a host site and, once again, the USWNT dominated in opening rounds, outsourcing North Korea, Nigeria, and Denmark by a combined scoreline of 13-1.
After the USWNT advanced to the finals, 90,000 fans gathered in the Rose Bowl Stadium to watch them take home gold against China in what is considered one of the most memorable games in the history of the sport, and the team’s resounding performance is historically viewed as not only a win for the athletes involved but proof of the success of Title IX. It also resulted in one of the most iconic (and at the time, controversial) sports images of all time, as Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off after scoring the game-winning penalty kick and faced scrutiny for “shifting the focus away from the football and the tournament.”
Chastain wasn’t overly concerned with the criticism and added that her celebration, which female athletes are often criticized for, gave the sport and her platform more visibility. “There’s always going to be someone who says, ‘Why did you do that? That’s disrespectful,'” she said. “I was grateful for those comments because it gave me a new platform to express myself about what sport has given me.”
Chastain’s celebration also drew attention to double standards that exist for male and female athletes–although many male soccer players celebrated by tearing their shirts off before Chastain did, none were criticized like she was. Today, Oklahoma softball players can certainly relate. Just before the Women’s College World Series, head coach Patty Gasso came to the defense of her players, stating that they must be “unapologetic” about the way they play and celebrate.
OU centerfielder Jayda Coleman added, “I really don’t get it. I feel like we are continuously–and softball itself–are just breaking barriers. It disappoints me on the double standard and how the male athletes slide with things and female athletes don’t, and hopefully, that will change very soon.”
If it’s any comfort to Coleman, plenty of fans are on her side–in spite of complaints and criticism, the numbers show that people enjoy watching women athletes break barriers in a domineering fashion. Otherwise, viewership of teams en route to dominating dynasties wouldn’t be so high.
Athletic Dominance Makes For Good TV
If the USWNT put women’s soccer on the map in the 1990s, a women’s basketball rivalry was doing the same thing at the college level around the same time. And if Oklahoma softball, with its seven national championships and fresh three-peat, is the premier college sports team of the decade, there are arguably two programs that have historically done it better.
UConn and Tennessee women’s basketball, with eleven and eight titles respectively, have had dynasties of their own and partook in a rivalry that arguably launched women’s college basketball in the same way the USWNT did with professional soccer–and arguably what OU is currently doing with college softball.
In 1994, men’s college basketball was premier programming on ESPN thanks to popular color analysts like Dick Vitale and the appeal and fanfare of March Madness–but the network success on the men’s side stood in stark contrast to coverage on the women’s side. Enter UConn and Tennessee women’s basketball on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1995. Tennessee had already established itself as a national powerhouse at this point and UConn was a promising “startup” team in the Big East ranked #2 in the nation at the time. The game (and the rivalry) between the Huskies and the Lady Vols weren’t supposed to happen, but Carol Stiff, who was in charge of women’s basketball programming for ESPN at the time, had to get creative with scheduling after then-defending champions North Carolina turned down the elusive programming spot. Tennessee, however, accepted and was set to square off with UConn in what was the premier college basketball event of the year at the time–save for the postseason of course.
UConn was thrilled with the airtime, and Stiff knew that legendary coach Pat Summitt would be on board for one reason. “She knew the importance of television,” Stiff said of Summitt. “She was very savvy, from wearing microphones to letting us into her house for [NCAA tournament] selection shows. So, she stated it, ‘For the good of the game, I’ll take the game.’”
To which Stiff responded: “I really appreciate this, I think it’s going to be a great game and a great showcase for women’s basketball.”
Although Stiff didn’t know it at the time, to say that the game would be great for women’s basketball was an understatement–UConn won the game and the national championship against Tennessee that year, and ratings were booming. Over the history of women’s college basketball television ratings, championships featuring UConn and/or Tennessee at the peak of their respective dynasties and three-peats were among the highest-viewed championship games including the 1995 matchup that attracted over 7 million viewers as UConn challenged, and defeated, arguably the best program in the country.
The game that eclipsed those numbers? The 2023 championship between LSU and Iowa, which garnered nearly 10 million viewers and featured two of the most electric personalities in college basketball in Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese–and women’s basketball’s newest superteam LSU who might be starting a dynasty of their own thanks to the transfer portal. As of 2021, the most-watched and highest-rated women’s national championship in the ESPN era was UConn vs Tennessee in 2004–right in the middle of UConn’s three-peat from 2002-2004.
Finally, as UConn and Tennessee are proving, all dynasties must come to an end and those who are tired of watching Oklahoma softball win won’t have to suffer forever. And luckily for the sport, fans also love to watch dynasties crumble. Take last season’s college football upset of the year, Tennessee over Alabama, for instance. That game garnered an all-time high viewership audience of 11.6 million, which was Tennessee’s most-watched game on record (since 1986).
Any fears of Oklahoma’s dynasty taking away from the sport or deterring fans are unfounded and when OU eventually falls, there will be plenty of delighted fans watching the Sooners’ reign end.
The bottom line is that, despite complaints from fans and critics, there’s no solid evidence from a viewership standpoint in women’s soccer, basketball, or softball that suggests that dynasties and dominance are bad for the game. In fact, the numbers suggest the opposite is true.
Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @