The Media and the WNBA
A Q&A with Jeff Pearlman.
Over the past couple of months, a new article emerges on what seems like a daily basis detailing a perceived negative affect on the NBA’s bottom line by the WNBA.
There’s no denying that the NBA lockout fueled the fire of late, but the pessimistic view of the WNBA has gone on for almost two decades now by much of the mainstream media.
Furthermore, no matter how much is said to the contrary, blame continues to find its way to the WNBA. We’ve seen numerous articles in in local newspapers, national outlets (CBS, ESPN, etc.), blogs, and other random publications virtually calling for the WNBA’s demise and accusing it of being the NBA’s ugly, worthless stepchild.
Why is it that people want the WNBA to fail? Why is there a biased attempt to bring it down?
I’m genuinely asking, folks.
Enter Jeff Pearlman.
WNBA fans might know him as “the guy who wrote that one article for SI.com bashing the WNBA,” but he’s better known as the author of two New York Times’ best-sellers, Boys Will Be Boys and The Bad Guys Won! as well as the non-New York Times’ best-sellers, Love Me, Hate Me and The Rocket That Fell to Earth. His new book, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, goes on sale October 4, 2011.
However, since that time, I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging numerous emails with Jeff and getting to know him quite a bit. Heck, we’re even friends on Facebook. He’s a good guy.
(Not that it would matter if he wasn’t.)
I figured he would be the perfect person to turn to with my questions. Obviously, I have a vested interest in wanting the WNBA to thrive. Jeff, on the other, certainly isn’t as close to the situation. I wanted to get his thoughts from the “other” side.
Here’s our Q&A session.
Ben York (BY): About a year ago, you wrote a column that stated the WNBA will never be a popular league. Do you still feel that way today?
Jeff Pearlman (JP): I do. I don’t take any happiness out of that–I just think it’s an impossible task, making the WNBA much more than what it is. But here’s the thing: Why is that so terrible? If we have a women’s basketball league that inspires young girls and gives them hope and courage and positive ambitions … well, who cares if it generates only a handful of total views? That’s probably what was off from that piece I wrote. Do I think the WNBA can grow much more? No. Does it matter? Not really.
BY: Your ended the article with the word “yawn.” Do you believe that’s how the majority of sports media views the WNBA?
JP: Yes, without question. And I’ll be honest–the play of the WNBA is often boring. Put to music in a 2-minute soundbites, a crisp pass looks great, a breakaway is exciting, a blocked shot is riveting. But overall, I don’t find WNBA games to be especially engaging. That said, most NBA games are also pretty dull (if we’re being honest). But a lot of the NBA joy comes with the anticipation of something miraculous–a LeBron 360 dunk; Kevin Love grabbing 30 rebounds. The WNBA’s ceiling of riveting is much lower. It just is.
BY: Is the league relevant? Why or why not?
JP: Well, to its fans, sure. But to the sporting world as a whole? No. Not even half relevant. Not even close to relevant. Put it this way: Take the WNBA’s biggest stars: Bird, Jackson, Catchings, whoever. Place them on a New York City subway car. Do 5 out of 100 people recognize them? No. Why is this the case? Because, mostly, sports fans don’t hunger for women’s sports. I’m not saying it’s fair or righteous, but it’s true. Most sports fans—men and women–believe men deliver the better product … with tennis the most obvious exception. People want speed, power … and, unfortunately, male athletes possess more than female athletes. Not always, but mostly.
BY: There is a difference between hoping and/or wishing the WNBA folds and looking at the situation based on facts. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you want the WNBA to succeed, but just don’t think it will. Is that accurate?
JP: Yup. Of course I want it to succeed. It’s jobs, it’s hope, it’s an outlet for women athletes and fans. I just don’t see how it lasts.
BY: Many journalists and writers, on the other hand, specifically want the league to fold. Why? Why is there so much, for lack of a better term, hatred toward the league?
JP: I disagree, Ben. I think most writers just don’t give a shit. And that’s the problem.
I will say one thing, in this area: I think many in the media find the WNBA to be a, mmm, insincere product. It’s propped up heavily by the NBA, benefits from NBA hype and NBA dollars. WNBA players are included in NBA All-Star festivities. It just can feel very, very, very forced; almost as if Susan B. Anthony had been propped up by a man behind the stage. It seems like the people screaming SISTERS CAN DO IT! are men in the shadows, mouthing the words. Because, while sisters can certainly do it, without the NBA the WNBA is dead. It doesn’t exist.
BY: I continue to read article after article saying how much the WNBA affects the NBA negatively in terms of their bottom line. No matter how much we state otherwise, it is still ignored. Why is this?
JP: Honestly, I have no idea.
BY: You’re a forward-thinking person in terms of sports. By that, I mean it seems like you root for the “good guys” and the “underdog.” Am I way off base? Why isn’t that same logic applied to the WNBA?
JP: Ben, I want women’s basketball to succeed. I really do.
BY: I’m not saying everyone has to love and/or adore the WNBA. Far from it. But what, in your opinion, is keeping people from giving it an unbiased shot? Machismo?
JP: No, I think people watch the NBA and don’t feel the need for more hoops. I also think people want to watch the best possible product–gender be damned–and the best is the NBA. Also, the WNBA is hard to find. On TV, not on TV, in papers, not in papers. Even if a guy wanted to follow it regularly he’d struggle a bit.
BY: I’m not a huge hockey fan. Yet, I see commercials and marketing materials for the NHL all the time. It doesn’t bother me; I respect what they do. Why do people continue to say the NBA “forces” the WNBA down the public’s throat? Is it really that offensive to show a WNBA commercial or to say “Basketball is Basketball?”
JP: I just don’t trust the NBA’s motives.
What do you think? Let us know in the comment section.