An Open Letter to Laurel Richie
On the state of the WNBA.
Women’s National Basketball Association
Dear Ms. Richie:
It has come to my attention that you are soliciting input on the state of the Women’s National Basketball Association in its 15th year of operation, and as someone who has been writing about the league from day one—and as someone who has been known to have a few opinions—this is an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up.
First, some background. I began coaching girls and women back in the 1970s, starting with softball and quickly moving to basketball (the weather’s a lot better in the gym). I have covered high school, college and professional basketball for a variety of publications and media outlets, and I am a high school head coach in Northern California.
So without further ado, the state of the WNBA …
On the court
The league has never been in better shape on the court. Twelve teams is just about the right number for the talent available, as any expansion would dilute the product significantly.
And there’s nothing more important to the league than the product, which is basketball. If the basketball is good, then halftime dunk shows by guys in gorilla costumes are great; but if the basketball is mediocre, even setting the gorilla costume on fire isn’t going to draw fans. The job of the president, first and foremost, is to ensure the integrity and quality of the product, which is women’s professional basketball.
It is too easy to get caught up in worrying about sponsors or TV deals or the in-arena experience, but none of that means anything if the basketball is boring and/or bad (see Shock, Tulsa).
Luckily, you are taking over a mature league with established stars, traditional team personalities and a solid base of skilled (if not necessarily exceptional) players. Over the 15 years, the average player has improved drastically – the stars, of course, are still the stars, but what has made the league so much more entertaining and competitive is that the second tier of talent has achieved true professional status.
The same is true, for the most part, of the coaches and officials (and ignore the whining about the refs; they’re fine). Sure, there are some bad coaches just as there are bad players, but compared to 1997, the improvement is impressive.
The result? Competitive games pretty much every night, a knowledgeable fan base that cares about teams and players, and a league that delivers high-quality basketball—at least in terms of skill and intelligence—every night.
Just one note: Please, please, please don’t get caught up in somebody dunking, or not dunking, and don’t let the All-Star Game turn into a dunk-attempt joke. Even if Brittney Griner comes into the league and dunks every night, it will not convince the know-nothings that women’s basketball is legit. (And if someone thinks basketball is only worth watching if there’s dunking must think high school boys’ basketball is a waste of time too.)
If you want to focus on one aspect of on-court play, make it assist/turnover ratio. The biggest statistical difference between the men’s and women’s game – in fact, the only statistical difference – is A/TO (an acronym you should know), and an improvement in that aspect of the women’s game would have the most impact on the quality of play, and thus the quality of the product.
And to repeat, the Women’s National Basketball Association is selling basketball to the public, and improving the quality of that product is the best way to ensure the survival and growth of the league.
Off the court
The WNBA is, and will be, a league that will depend on getting fans into arenas to watch games, eat and drink, and buy some memorabilia. There is no golden goose TV contract out there, and no sponsor that’s going to rain $25 million down on the league out of the goodness of its corporate heart.
It is also not a league that will see significant appreciation in the value of franchises, so the only way owners can get any kind of return on their investment is by selling tickets to games. (It may be that someday a WNBA franchise will be sold for $30 million, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Right now, the franchise itself is not worth very much at all, and most likely less than what outside owners have paid for them.)
And who buys those tickets? Two primary groups: Lesbians, and families with young daughters. Attempts to attract other groups have met with mixed success, but the first order of business is to keep those two groups happy, which due to the nature of those groups isn’t all that easy.
In some areas, of course, the sight of a couple thousand lesbians in one place isn’t a big deal, but in others, it is – and that presents a marketing challenge unique to professional sports. Too much emphasis on lesbians will scare away a certain percentage of families, but ignoring the lesbian fan base (which has been far too common in the league) risks alienating perhaps the most significant portion of available fans.
Which leads to the most obvious missing link in the league’s list of franchises: the San Francisco Bay Area. Putting a team at Oracle Arena in Oakland (where the Golden State Warriors play) is pretty much a guaranteed success (I almost wrote “slam dunk”), and the only reason there hasn’t been a team has been the idiocy of since-departed owner Chris Cohan.
The new owners include Joe Lacob, who ran the San Jose Lasers in the old ABL, and since he’s going to have a lot of time on his hands during the lockout, you should be calling him every day until he says yes to taking over a team.
And no, the league shouldn’t expand; instead, move either Chicago or Tulsa to Oakland – and please don’t fold a team, disperse its players and then expand, which has been done in the past. Sure that adds some money to the pot due to the franchise fee that must be paid to the league, but it also creates a very bad team that plays bad basketball, and that damages the quality of the product.
It’s possible no owner wants to sell in 2011, in which case, be patient. Sooner or later (and most likely sooner), a team will be available, and it must be relocated into the Bay Area.
Otherwise, the off-court work seems to be going in the right direction – though could you please put someone in charge of the website who actually has a clue? That might be the most important connection between fans and the league and right now, it’s clearly run by low-level interns who post only when forced, and have no interest or commitment to the league.
The big pitch
I’ve said this many times before, and it’s always ignored, but what the heck – it’s worth another shot.
I think the WNBA should not only acknowledge its lesbian fans and players, but proudly embrace them. The league office should take the lead, and take the moral high ground, by simply telling the truth: The WNBA is populated with lesbians at every level, and not only do we not hide that fact, we’re proud of it. The WNBA believes a) diversity is the future; and b) intolerance of those who aren’t in the majority is simply wrong.
Sure, there will be some backlash, but it will also give the WNBA a status no other sports league can hope to attain: That of a social groundbreaker leading the way to a more tolerant future.
That’s probably enough for one letter (maybe more than enough), but remember, you asked for it. But if that isn’t enough, somebody in your office probably has my phone number.
And finally, good luck. Given the state of the economy, which is probably the single biggest barrier to the league’s success, you’re going to need some.