Posted by: Ethan Johnson | June 16, 2010

WNBA: Nobody Here But All of Us Fans


I seem to recall writing this not all that long ago:

Please, Mr. Pearlman, don’t let this be the last thing you write in support of successful, visionary women.

Apparently, having delivered one eulogy, Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated has decided to pen another.

He says, in part,

Despite all this, however, the league continues to dwell in anonymity. The action is all but ignored by the media, reduced to a tiny standings box on the bottom of the local newspaper’s agate section. When the 2009 five-game championship series between Phoenix and Indiana averaged a puny .4 rating on ESPN2 (That’s 548,000 viewers. By comparison — and it’s admittedly not a fair one –Game 5 of the NBA Finals drew 18.2 million viewers), the league celebrated the 73 percent rise from the previous season as if it had discovered a new planet.

Speaking of unfair comparisons, my knee-jerk reaction to this article is to snark, “what do you mean, SI doesn’t offer enough women’s coverage? We make a yearly swimsuit issue, what more do you want from us?”

Clearly, Jeff Pearlman is part of the problem. Far be it for him to, you know, cover the WNBA. Far be it for him to report on women’s basketball at all unless there is some personal connection, and a fleeting one at that.

But he’s not the only part of the problem.

Not to hijack this article and discuss soccer, but I think the dismal local ESPN radio coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ gives insight into the claim that “nobody” is interested in a given sport or phenomenon. I think what Jeff Pearlman is saying, in so many words, is “we don’t want to have to cover this stuff.”

Time and time again, instead of, you know, actual World Cup coverage, I have heard the local ESPN station host shrug and explain the lack of material by saying “I don’t know anything about soccer.” So that justifies not even making an attempt at covering the world’s largest sporting event. To return the discussion back to the WNBA, Norm Van Lear often said that “basketball is basketball” and callers to the local sports station shouldn’t feel as though he couldn’t talk about the sport unless it was specifically NBA-related.

I have noticed that ESPN really, really wants people to care that Game 7 of the NBA Finals is at hand. The radio station yammered about the NBA Finals rather than even deign to provide the final score of the NHL Stanley Cup game that was played on the same night as the NBA because, well, I don’t know why. I guess the NBA is far more important than any other sport, even if teams that have no connection to (in my case) Dallas are involved.

I think people like Jeff Pearlman apparently feel comfortable with the status quo, and apparently do not have much bandwidth for learning about or discussing sports outside of a select few. And I will hazard a guess that this sort of thinking is not confined merely to sports, but politics, the sciences, humanity itself, or perhaps food. There’s being focused, and then there’s being a boor.

“I couldn’t tell you most of the teams in the league,” says Russ Bengtson, the former editor of Slam magazine and as devoted a basketball junkie as the world knows. “I couldn’t name the Liberty starting five, or the Chicago starting five. I couldn’t tell you who the top three draft picks were. In fact, I’m not sure whether I could tell you who the No. 1 pick was without a hint. Except for the tiny fan base, people just don’t have an interest.”

Some “basketball junkie”.

So let’s recap. An SI writer can’t imagine why anyone cares about the WNBA because he doesn’t. He says “nobody” watched the games except for, um, the people who do. And it’s never going to be any different, he concludes, because there is “no solution to this problem.”

My solution continues to be not subscribing to Sports Illustrated.

Being part of the problem, I can appreciate that Jeff Pearlman is plum out of ideas.

I find that I am plum out of respect for Jeff Pearlman.

(Note: Read Ben York’s response to the SI article here.)



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