Posted by: Ethan Johnson | August 7, 2010

WNBA: Killing Me Softly

I haven’t had much to say about the WNBA, and can only use my recent cross-country move as an excuse for the immediate past. But I haven’t been very dialed in to the W this season. Why not? I have seen some writings elsewhere that have tried to explain the reasons why people haven’t been very revved up this season, such as Candace Parker being out for the season due to shoulder surgery, and yes, that does put a damper on the season for me but doesn’t fully explain the blackout. Then I found an article that really took whatever wind remained out of my sails for weeks:

The NBA affiliation has meant that we’ve been put mostly in crowded and competitive sports markets. It’s meant that we’ve been put in too-large arenas. Worst of all, for much of the WNBA’s history, it meant that we were saddled with owners whose primary concerns were elsewhere, whose support for the women’s game was built more on David Stern’s strong arm than on any love for the game.

The organizational ties have at times seemed to produce an unhealthy tendency for the WNBA to focus on imitating the NBA’s model rather than fashioning its own. Awhile ago I emailed Mark Cuban, who knows as much about the business of basketball as anyone, and asked him what he thought of the WNBA. He said the biggest problem is that the WNBA tries to be NBA Jr., rather than recognizing that it has a fundamentally different market niche, and thus that it needs a fundamentally different business plan.

The WNBA has, for example, spent too much time trying to replicate the NBA’s revenue base — major-network TV contracts — and in the process, it has ignored other media outlets (the internet, public TV, etc.) that could have better served its fans and grown the game.

Testify! What a timely exposition of the issues!

Wait, what? It was written in 2004? Ouch.

Now, this could completely and utterly devolve into a sob-fest about how doomed the league is, and while I had those dark thoughts offline and alone, I realized that things aren’t as bad with the WNBA as they might appear.

First and foremost, the league still exists. That might seem like a strange “positive” to lead off with, but in this day and age of budget cuts, layoffs, and good old FUD, that the WNBA exists at all is remarkable and a ray of hope.

Second, assuming that this really is a “bad” year for the WNBA, it must feel good to be so bad. Ratings are up, attendance is up, and some players that didn’t have the best season ever (eg Leilani Mitchell) last year are making headlines with their improved performance this year.

Third, this is admittedly a strange bullet point but hear me out. My father and I once got into something of an argument about belief in God, where he misunderstood my take to mean that if everyone ceased to believe in God, God wouldn’t (couldn’t?) exist. “God doesn’t need your belief to exist,” he growled. Now for my point: The WNBA doesn’t need my support to exist. Don’t get me wrong; I do support women’s basketball and do like the WNBA, even if I’m having a lukewarm year. It is heartening to know that I can miss 85% of the season and flip on the TV and catch a game and know that the league as a whole continues to persist if not thrive. Not every sport and league has such stability.

2011 may have its share of FUD, with talk of Diana Taurasi taking a year off, but the difference for me is that I now live in-market. And I am looking forward to making the pilgrimage to the Allstate Arena to see the Chicago Sky.

In the immediate term, I am going to stop beating myself up for not being fully “invested” in the WNBA this season and concentrate on other areas of focus, like finding a job and getting re-established in the town that I left behind 11 years ago.

Here’s to a great 2010 playoffs.



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