The W Roundtable Discussion
Panelists discuss current issues, the 2009 season, and future predictions.
by Ben York
With as much attention as the WNBA has received of late, I thought it would be pertinent to bring in a couple of outstanding writers to discuss some of the hot-button topics regarding the league. For the first in a series of roundtable discussions, we welcome Quentin (“Q”) McCall and Michelle Smith.
Quentin McCall writes for SBN’s women’s basketball site Swish Appeal covering both the WNBA and women’s college basketball (mostly Pac-10). “Q” brings a unique perspective to the panel as both a fan of the WNBA and NBA, focusing on the development of both leagues and their influence on youth. Follow Q on Twitter @QMcCall3.
Michelle Smith is the editor and founder of leftcoasthoops.com. An award-winning sports writer, she has more than 20 years experience working as a journalist for some of the largest papers and publications in the country. Smith has spent the last 15 years covering women’s basketball at every level and for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Sports Illustrated for Kids, ESPN.com, CBS Sportsline, AOL FanHouse, and Women’s Basketball Magazine. Follow Michelle on Twitter @leftcoasthoops.
As always, we invite you to chime in with your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below.
How significant (or not) was the 2009 season to the future success of the WNBA?
Q: The reality of this world is that people fundamentally want to be entertained. That would seem to require three things for a sport: 1) a quality product, 2) some sort of intriguing story that both draws people in and holds their attention, and 3) fan access to not only who the players are but fundamental information about the game (I.e. statistics, salary info, etc). In 2009, I think the WNBA Finals helped establish the league as a legitimate quality product. It’s unreasonable to keep demanding that people expect something great without delivering at some point and 2009 at least demonstrated that the league is worthy of respect from people who appreciate the sport. As more people pay attention, I think the narratives and transparency will come, both from the league and increased media attention. Ultimately when we look back on 2009, I think we might say that it was the year when regurgitating the same old critiques about women’s basketball were finally recognized as arbitrary and juvenile.
Michelle: The 2009 WNBA season ended so well that the league had to hope it would be the thing people remembered; Taurasi vs. Catchings, a high-scoring, competitive series showcasing the best of the women’s games. But the postseason that immediately followed was like popping a balloon when Detroit moves, Atlanta scrambled for a new owner and the Monarchs fold. Hate to say that all that canceled out such a great postseason, but I’m afraid it might have.
Ben: I think it had more significance than any of us presently know. If we look at solely the basketball aspect of the season (which is, in my opinion, most important) it exemplified what WNBA fans have been saying for years – it’s a damn fun league and the competition is incredible. In the end, that will have the biggest impact toward respect and adoration – not the financial issues or relocations. If the product is worthy (which it is), more and more people will make an effort to give it a try. The 2009 season caused a considerable amount of people (including some detractors) to eat crow and give the league some well-deserved props. More media outlets (as well as the blogosphere) have increased their coverage of the league, and started what is becoming a grassroots campaign in favor and support of the WNBA. This is exactly what the league needed.
The WNBA just unveiled its latest ad campaign with a commercial entitled, “Basketball is Basketball.” Thoughts?
Q: I think it’s a step in the right direction — establishing that this is simply a game for people who love the sport of basketball. It doesn’t come off as a defensive response to critics, asking people to take a leap of faith in following the league, or pandering to male fans who are still drooling on their Lindsey Vonn covers; to me, it simply asks basketball fans to give appreciating the game a chance. In a way, it’s a sign that the league recognizes that it made some gains in 2009 and became a little bit more secure in what it offers. That’s a good thing
Michelle: It’s a little frustrating that the league is still so overtly trying to convince mainstream sports fans that the women’s game is worthy of their attention. I’m not sure the meat-and-potatoes sports fans are ever coming to the WNBA. But there are plenty of folks to appeal to, people who will buy tickets on the game’s merits. I liked “Expect Great” — last year’s campaign — better.
Ben: I love it. I think it simplifies everything and doesn’t necessarily go after any demographic or gender. It appeals to the type of fan the WNBA needs – the basketball fan, not solely the NBA fan. The WNBA doesn’t specifically need male followers to be successful; it needs fans and proponents of the game of basketball itself. This isn’t anything revolutionary to people who have been following the women’s game. The great thing about the commercial is that it shows the league is confident and proud of its skill level and entertainment value; if you’re not watching it, you’re the one missing out. That said, it also doesn’t come across as an attack or guilt-trip which they’ve been criticized of in the past.
We’ve seen a couple major additions to several WNBA teams this offseason. Which player(s) will make the biggest impact? Any surprises thus far?
Q: Well, I’ve always liked Lindsay Whalen’s game, so in terms of impact it’s hard for me to look past the fact that she will be a major contributor in turning the Lynx from a non-playoff team to a contender. Staying with the Lynx, the Hamchetou Maiga-Ba signing was a bit of a surprise to me for two reasons: first, I didn’t think the Lynx stood to gain much from free agency in terms of filling needs that they couldn’t get in the draft. Second, it really seems to crowd their rotation. Of course, as Cheryl Reeve has said, adding talent to a generally unselfish roster is a problem most coaches would like to have and Maiga-Ba can still defend, which Reeve wants. But it will be interesting to see how Reeve manages the rotation
Michelle: There’s so much movement with free-agency. Lindsay Whalen will bring valuable experience to a young Lynx team. Nicole Powell will be a huge help to the New York Liberty, the addition of an All-Star caliber talent. Kara Lawson will mentor Renee Montgomery in Connecticut and help Montgomery get settled in. It’s very interesting that Ticha Penicheiro signed with Los Angeles. It looked as if she would retire after Sacramento folded.
Ben: I’m not convinced that the biggest and most talked about moves in free agency will have the most impact. In some ways, I think the addition of a well-defined role player (such as Le’coe Willingham or Hamchetou Maiga-Ba) will have the greatest influence on their team’s success. For some organizations, their biggest need is simply depth at key positions (I.e. Seattle Storm) which could get them over the hump and either back into the playoffs or closer to a Finals appearance. On the other hand, with the roster size firmly at 11 and now with only 12 teams in the league, getting over that hump will be harder than every before.
What is the biggest issue plaguing the WNBA today, and how do we get past it?
Q: I still think it’s building the fan base and their emphasis on male fans over the past few years. One of the major struggles in making the leap from the NBA to the WNBA – after you learn to appreciate the differences between the two – is that the level of conversation about the game is a very different partially because there is substantially less information available about the WNBA. It’s not exactly easy to invest in a game as a new fan if the information required to understand it is not readily available to develop informed opinions. The recently passed NBA trade deadline is a perfect example of the depth of conversation in the NBA: contract information is readily available, there are trade checkers, and multiple places for the average fan to get advanced statistical information about the impact of exchanging any two players. You could literally spend all day engaged in nuanced conversations about any given player or team in the NBA. To get a fan to that point where they are so invested in the game that they cannot stop thinking about it, they have to have something to think about beyond conjecture and gossip. Attracting them is only half the battle – they have to be given enough substance to want to stay once the final buzzer sounds. It’s difficult to follow or even write about a game that keeps background information hidden. So there’s a bit of a contradiction in the WNBA’s strategy – they want to attract male fans but then don’t give them the type of experience that they’ve grown accustomed to while following the NBA meaning their far less likely to stay engaged.
Michelle: The biggest issue for the WNBA this year will be the impact of a lowered salary cap and the loss of 11 roster spots with the folding of the Monarchs. Teams are struggling to sign veteran players with higher salaries and keep some of their second-tier players. We may see a lot of rosters with stars and young players. And a lot of very good players may be out of a job because of money.
Ben: I think the biggest, and most important, issue is how they will continue to build upon the victory that was the 2009 season; doing so, is imperative to the future success of the league. With the amount of negativity some people harbor for the WNBA, any misstep or decrease in ratings will be amplified and scrutinized even more (whether this is fair or not is beside the point). But the good news is that the league and its players are extremely well-equipped to make 2010 even better and set a precedent for the future. The sheer amount of star-power in the league is amazing, and unlike any the WNBA has ever seen. With more exposure and coverage I actually believe that 2010 may be a record year; not just in attendance numbers but also with more teams acquiring sponsors and investing in the overall success of the organization with public appearances, fan involvement, and an increasingly engaging in-game experience.
Early predictions for the 2010 season:
Q: Tina Charles will be drafted No. 1? The Lynx will be good? Atlanta Dream fans will continue to debate whether Shalee Lehning is a starting point guard? But just beyond the obvious, one pattern that has come up in talking with coaches about the roster cuts and salary cap reductions is that the WNBA middle class is going to feel a real crunch this season. I won’t go as far as to say that there will be a ton of talented players who don’t make rosters this summer, but as one coach put it, you’re going to see a lot of really good vets and a lot of cheap younger players but a lot less in between. Many average veterans may be left out because of cost and roster space. It’s unfortunate, but ultimately I think with fewer teams and more concentrated talent the league as a whole will be much, much more competitive and the quality will actually increase.
Michelle: Phoenix makes a run at another title and Indiana, with Tamika Catchings should be in the mix as well. Connecticut’s changes — and the No. 1 draft pick of Tina Charles — could put the Sun in the mix. If Lauren Jackson stays healthy, maybe Seattle moves up. But it’s the Mercury’s title to lose.
Ben: Speaking in more general terms, I think 2010 could be an even greater season than 2009. The talent in the league has never been better or more condensed. Because of this, every single game in the season will be vital. No longer will it be kosher to take a night off or make excuses for a loss; every game will affect you in the standings come playoff time. But, I think the players and coaches know this. It’s an exciting time for the league and the anticipation is palpable. There has been a lot of talk with the recent Whalen trade and the 2010 Draft which is good for the league as a whole. A fantastic sign that the league is making progress, and that 2010 will be a continuation of this, is how we have been talking about the league on a national basis since the 2009 Finals ended! This shows a vested interest in the success of the WNBA and lifts the spirits of long-time WNBA fans who have longed for this type of exposure.