They Still Got Next

As the WNBA closed the curtain on it’s 13th year, the league still seems to have to prove itself to network executives and mainstream public. In a deciding Game 5, between the Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury, for the WNBA Championship, coverage was brushed aside to ESPN 2. It’s counterpart on ESPN? College football, in the form of a Western Athletic Conference match-up between a 1-3 Nevada Wolf Pack vs. 2-2 Louisiana Tech. Seriously? It’s only other real sports competition that night was the MLB playoffs on TBS. Whether you follow the WNBA or not, I personally don’t, it should be noted that this isn’t a pushover league. At least it shouldn’t be considered one. Yahoo’s! BDL explains why the WNBA is a must-watch. If you need further proof, let’s turn back the clock and focus on Clay Kallam’s story back in July 2007, where he highlights what’s so important about the WNBA.—Matt Lawyue

SLAM 109, WNBA Feature.

By Clay Kallam

The summer run on the first court at UCLA’s John Wooden Center isn’t for pretenders. Paul Pierce and Chauncey Billups have been known to show up, as well as current Bruin studs like Arron Afflalo. At 6-3, 300 pounds, Marvin Hamlin sticks on that main court all the time, and though he’s not a college-level player, he makes plays even when the big boys drop by. Hamlin is also a practice player for the UCLA women’s team, so he’s gone up against Nikki Blue (backup guard for the Washington Mystics) and Lisa Willis (backup guard for the Los Angeles Sparks) on a daily basis. And he’s faced Noelle Quinn (fourth overall pick by Minnesota in the WNBA’s April Draft) for two years.

Sometimes he brings one or more of the trio down to the Wooden Center—and he knows what to expect, even if the other guys don’t. “A lot of times the guys don’t know who they are,” says Hamlin, and there’s the usual banter about who has to guard the girl. Hamlin tries to warn them. If somebody draws Blue, who’s just 5-7, he’ll say, “Watch for the crossover—if you’re not ready for it, it’ll be bad.”

If they get the 6-0 Quinn, “Don’t fall for anything. You never know when the pass is coming, but don’t give away the jumper.”

The 5-11 Willis? “That guy’s going to have the biggest problem. She can guard anybody—she’s not going to let you get a shot.”

Remember, this isn’t the freshman dorm league—these are good, been-there-and-done-that players. “The whole (UCLA) team came down and played one time,” recalls Hamlin. “The guys thought they had it, but the girls are very, very athletic. The guys got more physical, and they still lost. I’ve never seen men get so frustrated over basketball. Some women came on the court and beat them. They’re not guys, they’re not dunking, but you see athleticism—and you start to understand basketball better when you watch the women’s game.”

A lot of people don’t watch the WNBA. After all, even the best team in that league couldn’t beat a decent men’s D1 team, so why bother, right? (Then again, the Grizzlies would win the NCAA Tournament without a sweat, so by that logic, why bother with the college men?)

The WNBA celebrated its 10-year anniversary last season, and like it, tolerate it or hate it, it’s become part of the American sporting scene. It’s the best women’s basketball league in the world, featuring size (7-2 Margo Dydek, who can shoot as well as any 7-0 guy you can name), athleticism (Deanna Nolan is a 6-0 blur) and skill (the likes of Seimone Augustus, Lisa Leslie and Diana Taurasi can flat-out play ball).

Back in ’96, when two women’s professional basketball leagues (the ABL was the other) tried to elbow their way into the SportsCenter highlights, most people, even those in women’s basketball, thought an American pro league would never make it. There wasn’t enough talent, and there wasn’t enough interest.

“We just had a business plan that David Stern put together,” says Kelly Krauskopf, now chief operating officer and GM of the Indiana Fever. And the basketball? Well, to describe it as ragged would probably be too complimentary—but that was then. “We’re better,” says Krauskopf, and not just on the court. Originally, the NBA owned every franchise and all the player contracts. Now each team takes care of its own business, and several of the 13 are out from under the NBA umbrella entirely. “We’re selling franchises,” says Krauskopf, referring most recently to the Sparks and Houston Comets. “We have value.”

That value is supposedly $10 million a franchise, but no one’s ever gotten a look at the books of a WNBA team. In fact, there’s been a lot of debate over whether any WNBA team can make money, but the fact that the league has been around for more than 10 years says that something is working. Tom Wilson, the president and CEO of Palace Sports and Entertainment, which owns and operates both the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Shock, acknowledges that the Shock have lost six figures in some seasons and doesn’t make that much back in the good years. But it’s still well worth it. “You add up all the positives,” he says, referring to Detroit’s WNBA title in ’06 and the free promotion of pro basketball and the Palace, “and ask, ‘Would I spend $300,000 or $400,000 for this kind of publicity and promotion?’ Yes. We’re not in this to make money. I’m promoting the mothership [the Pistons], and it’s helping.”

Joe Maloof, the co-owner of the Sacramento Kings and Monarchs, goes even further. “It’s been great,” he says of the Monarchs, who won the title in ’05. “We make money at it.”

“How can you not call it a success story?” says ESPN analyst Doris Burke. “It’s 10 years in, and it’s not going away.”

But that doesn’t mean it can’t get better, and the ups and downs of the league show improvement is mandatory. Last year, the league expanded into Chicago, and a shortage of talent caused the newly formed Sky to fall, going 5-29 in front of small (but devoted) crowds. Then, in the offseason, Bobcats’ owner Bob Johnson pulled the plug on the poorly attended Charlotte Sting franchise, forcing the league to contract one year after it expanded.

Krauskopf didn’t think that was the best thing that ever happened to the league, but to her, it was just another bump in the road. “Closing down one team and opening another,” she says, “that’s just the nature of business today.”

SLAM 109, WNBA Feature. The nature of business today is also that if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse, and WNBA president Donna Orender is well aware that the league has more work to do. “We absolutely have to increase the volume of our public relations initiatives,” she says. “It’s more about coverage, the buzz—broadening out to a wider terrain.”

Wider terrain means more sponsorships, more marketing targeted to women. Remember, most in-home spending decisions are made by women, so companies have a reason to affiliate with the WNBA. (Oddly enough, however, half the TV audience is male; 70 percent of the attendance, on the other hand, is female.) “Sponsorship is a very critical component of any sports league,” says Orender. “We’re not a league with significant TV revenue, so sponsorship is even more important to us.”

Ah yes, TV. “Consistency on TV in any sport is really important,” says Carol Stiff, a senior director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. So this year, the WNBA will play every Tuesday on ESPN2 during its May to September season, and though the ratings should be higher than ice hockey’s, they are still barely a blip on the Nielsen radar. “It fits a void in our programming,” says Stiff. “It’s a good brand of basketball for us.”

But is it good basketball? John Wooden was famously quoted as saying that the women’s game is more fundamental than the men’s—but as this year’s McDonald’s Games showed, that may not be as true as it once was. “I think that’s changing,” says Jenny Boucek, the new coach of the Sacramento Monarchs and formerly an advance scout for the Seattle Sonics. “I think the fundamentals have suffered in high school, because they’re just playing all year round. They’re not taking the time to work on the fundamentals.”

Helen Darling, a guard for the San Antonio Silver Stars, doesn’t wholly agree. “I think there are more women in the league who are fundamental than there are men in the NBA,” she says, “but there are a lot of guys in the NBA who are fundamental.

“Guys just use their athletic ability,” counters Bridget Pettis, who played in the W for eight years. “Overall, the fundamental part of the women’s game is more developed.”

That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean more people want to see it. “Yeah, it’s more team-oriented, but even my good players didn’t watch the NCAA championship game,” says Lana Lozano, a coach at San Jose City College. “I don’t ever get into a conversation with my players about the WNBA. Girls’ nature of watching sports is different than guys. When you talk to girls, they’re just not into it.”

League officials concede that they attract lots of 10- to 12-year-old girls, but once they get in their teens, they lose interest. One limiting factor is talent. When the WNBA expanded to 16 teams in the late ’90s, the quality of play faded faster than the UNC men coughed up that lead against Georgetown. “Are there enough high-quality players to produce a high quality of play?” asks Ohio State coach Jim Foster. “Is the game good enough to draw more fans?”

Foster is also skeptical of the WNBA’s shift to a 24-second clock (last summer, down from 30) and to the eight-second backcourt rule (this season). “If the best athletes in the world are playing with a 24-second clock and an eight-second clock, can athletes who aren’t as big, aren’t as strong and aren’t as quick, play at that level? The clock, to me, is a huge issue,” Foster says.

Others disagree, citing the higher scores and increased tempo as positives. “I think they’re making all the right moves,” says Burke. “They’re differentiating it from the college game.”

SLAM 109, WNBA Feature. But Burke is as concerned as Foster about expansion—which would be great for sponsorships and TV. “They should not expand anymore at this point,” she adds, though the league would like to get back at least one more for ’08.

The clash between a drive to put more teams in more cities, which would attract more sponsors and increase TV ratings, and the inevitable dilution of talent that would follow is going to be a critical factor in the league’s direction in its second decade, but few can argue its impact so far.

“The WNBA has influenced women’s basketball at every level. The whole cycle has been enriched,” says Orender.

“The extent that our children are influenced by the media culture is enormous,” says Donna Lopiano, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation. She notes the cultural impact of the WNBA’s longevity, adding, “It’s tremendously important that the WNBA has survived.”

“Kids can see a future in this,” says Olympian Katie Smith, who won the title with the Shock last season. “They have role models.”

Boucek buttresses this point, noting the cross-gender benefits. “The next generation of boys have grown up admiring female basketball players,” she says. “They’ve been watching 10 years, and they have a much healthier view and respect for women.”

So, the WNBA is about more than just basketball. Adds Burke: “For women, the focus is sharper. The WNBA represents something to me and the next generation. It represents opportunity.”

But philosophy is for junior year; basketball’s about getting on the court, and once you’re between the lines, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. “At first, it’s a girl and they don’t know how to handle it,” is how 6-5 Nicole Ohlde of the Minnesota Lynx describes playing pickup ball. “I made a move and a guy said, ‘That’s NBA right there.’ They are definitely surprised. We’re not going to play against guys who played D1—but you get guys who played in high school, that’s when it’s great for us.”

“Guys take you lightly at first,” says 5-6 Helen Darling of the Silver Stars, “but then the next time you come, it’s, ‘You’re on my team.’ They don’t realize you can play, and it’s so much fun to get that respect. Not only do we make them a believer, we make them a fan.”

Says Smith, “Though some guys will never give credit where credit is due, when you score a bunch, then they’re denying and playing hard. You spread the word one pickup game at a time.”

“People underestimate the talent in the WNBA, the size and the strength,” says Boucek. “TV doesn’t do it justice.”

In the end, good basketball is just good basketball—no matter who’s playing or how many people are watching on TV.