by Clay Kallam
Once you get past the glitz, the overblown pregame shows and endless chatter, the NBA Finals are simply riveting basketball – and one reason is the sheer magnificence of the athleticism.
Now, “magnificence” is not a word I throw around a lot, but NBA players are simply a breed apart. With all the World Cup ads blanketing ESPN and ABC, it’s hard not to wonder how good a soccer team the US would have if all the NBA players had grown up kicking a ball rather than dribbling it.
So what does this have to do with the WNBA? Simply put, it means the entertainment value of the women’s game will never match that of the NBA because of the athletic abilities of the players are so different. Even a boring NBA game will feature two or three jaw-dropping displays of pure athleticism that are worth watching regardless of the setting.
In the WNBA, though, there’s just not the same potential for consistent explosive plays that beg to be seen over and over again. Sure, there are brilliant passes, and all-out hustle plays, and skilled footwork and shots – but the jaw seldom drops in amazement. (And in a bad WNBA game, the jaw will drop, but usually it’s the beginning of a yawn.)
So does this mean the WNBA isn’t worth watching? Of course not, because the WNBA, especially with just 12 teams, offers up quality basketball played by professionals, and played by professionals who have much more reason to play hard all the time than their male counterparts.
One of those reasons is, oddly, the low level of pay in the WNBA compared to Europe. The WNBA maximum salary is around $90,000 while a max player will easily make double that in Europe – but paradoxically, pay level in Europe is in great part determined by performance in the WNBA. So the American rookie making $43,000 at home knows full well that if she plays great in the US she’ll make a bunch more money in Europe, where she won’t have to play as hard.
So there’s always something at stake in the WNBA, and there’s also a sense that the league won’t make it if the players aren’t totally committed to it. The women are on a kind of a mission, and it shows in how intense they are. (It’s also easier to be intense when the bodies are smaller – the potential for injury is the same regardless of the size of the athlete who receives a blow, so a 6-8 player is not necessarily any less likely to get hurt than a 6-1 player, male or female. But a 6-8 player is going to deliver a lot more punishment than a 6-1 player, especially over 82 games, so even aside from the money, there are reasons why women can, and do, play harder.)
But you know, kids play really hard in high school, and that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is going to pay $25 to watch them. In the end, professional sports’ teams are competing for the entertainment dollar, and part of the value is athleticism on display. The WNBA and NBA may be equal in some of the skills of the players (shooting and ballhandling, say) but they are not when it comes to spectacular plays.
In fact, they aren’t even close, and though it’s not like the Lakers and Celtics are going to deliver seven games’ worth of highlight reels, fans can count on several “did-you-see-that?” moments every time out. In short, expecting great in the NBA Finals is a given – but for the WNBA to lead fans to believe the same will happen in a San Antonio-Indiana game in mid-July is simply foolish.
The WNBA can and should succeed because it’s the best women’s basketball league in the world, and it can offer (if expansion dreams are held in check) a high-quality, professional product built around legitimate stars.
But it’s not the NBA, and shouldn’t pretend to be. Even the most ardent fan of the women’s game couldn’t watch the NBA Finals without being forced to admit the men do things that, at this point at least, the women can’t even imagine doing – and that’s one reason NBA players earn a lot more money, and get so much more media coverage.