The weather is crisp. Summer a distant memory. The green of trees are giving way to orange leaves; colors of the season. Speaking of seasons, perhaps there is no better moment for fans of athletic ventures. Like the freshness of a cool October morning, such is the feeling resonating with a diverse collection of spectacle to select from. Football is in full swing with the college kids and paid (legally) men holding it down on Saturdays and Sundays (much love to the Friday night lights warriors). From San Francisco to New York, the race to the World Series has been riveting. The hoopers are preparing, free of CBA discourse. Hockey is…..oh yeah. Somewhere in between, the WNBA presents its playoffs. For your information, game one of the WNBA Finals between the Indiana Fever and defending champion Minnesota Lynx is this Sunday. Judging by personal experience, media exposure and economics, the league’s popularity seems to be falling like its autumn.
According to the Sports Business Daily, WNBA teams saw an average of 7,457 fans per game this season. This is the lowest since the league’s inception n 1997. The Los Angeles Sparks led with just over ten-thousand. So what gives? There are multiple scapegoats for the lack of major interest including one major focal point that we will delve into. Let us begin with the matter of scheduling. The WNBA season runs from May to September, which to their detriment tries to coexist with Major League Baseball for summer supremacy. This means clubs in locales such as New York, Washington, Chicago and Atlanta must stand amidst popular baseball communities.
I recall during the summer of 2010 covering Washington Mystics games. A few games were during the afternoon giving way to a huge summer camp crowd while contests at night found themselves playing in the shadows of the Nationals. The arena atmosphere complete with in-game crowd interaction was pretty good. The numbers just weren’t there. Do other leagues overlap with each other? Well yes, but the giant that is the NFL entertains mostly on Sundays and begins late enough to where baseball’s schedule doesn’t affect it too much. The NBA has the week to enjoy and reaches a fever pitch during playoff action. Ending in June, baseball fans are given ample time to enjoy pennant races.
There is the issue of name recognition. During the WNBA’s beginning, the likes of Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo resonated with the fan. Perhaps the new kid on the block feeling give it a major push during that era, but it doesn’t seem as strong today. Take the marquee players in the championship series. Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas lead the Indiana Fever. Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus form one of the league’s more dominant backcourts. Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury is respected as the best in the women’s game. Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver of the Sparks and Cappie Pondexter of the New York Liberty are a few of many more talents. But do we really know and recognize them?
While covering a Mystics and Atlanta Dream game, I recall noticing the exploits of Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry (WNBA’s scoring champ). There was fluidity and natural knack for scoring that excited me. There was a connection when I watched her play in this year’s Olympics. You could say I am invested in her play whenever a Dream game is on television. Before witnessing in person, I never knew she played her college ball at Louisville. In the men’s game, we follow the likes of LeBron, and Carmelo throughout their high school or college years, only lending to an invested interest in their pro career. During March Madness, the ladies still find themselves fighting for air time with tourney games broadcasting on the two ESPN channels, whereas the men’s game is spread across the family of Turner stations. Brittney Griner (Baylor), Skylar Diggins (Notre Dame) and Elena Delle Donne (Delaware) are expected to be the top three picks in next season’s draft. Maybe the WNBA is hoping for a LeBron, Carmelo and D-Wade type of effect. Interest may rise early on depending on how the league capitalizes on the trio’s marketing value. Yet, how much of a hold can they have when the ladies travel across the pond for added streams of income once the season ends? And haven’t we seen college stars in the mold of Chamique Holdsclaw, Candace Parker and Maya Moore matriculate to the league before?
In a recent article in the New York Times, Holdsclaw offered a remedy mentioning the need for business women to buy season tickets and attend games after work, comparing to the males who use NBA games as social outings for business purposes. While the idea is legitimate, this brings us back to the issue of brand recognition. Male and female sports fans will easily tally off the top ten players in the NBA. When it comes to attracting the causal female viewer, major opposition arrives from a husband or boyfriend. The causal female viewer’s recognition of the game will derive mostly from their male counterpart’s interest. Even the television series “Basketball Wives” may indirectly increase the NBA’s hold on the female market. Female viewers relate more to Eric Williams or Matt Barnes compared to a Taurasi or Parker.
But of course, if given an intriguing reason to watch, female (and male fans) would certainly rock their gear and purchase season tickets right? Alas, the underlying theme birthing the latter is a lack of visual engagement. While I and others can appreciate the fundamentally sound and below the rim style of the women’s game, it does not lend itself to competing as an engaging spectator sport. The NBA game is made popular because of amazing athletic feats by men taller than your average person. A female version of Michael Jordan soaring through the lane would do wonders for the WNBA. Physically though, this is not likely. It is a fundamental concept that males and females are built differently.
This isn’t about sexism but rather realism. Male and female fans I’m sure can point to this same reason. Perhaps in no other sport is there such a major divide in physical gifting than basketball. In tennis, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka are blessed with the size, strength and speed awe inspiring to onlookers. In soccer, the feats of males do not overshadow the skills of the females. Even with track and field, female participants are respected in their own right. The reality is that in the game of basketball in terms of the physical development of players, the female does seem to have a ceiling.
Griner is a gifted ball player at 6-8. She doesn’t possess the agility or perimeter game of a Kevin Durant. Moore is highly skilled, yet isn’t a hulking figure in the mold of a LeBron. Griner and a few others have shown the ability to dunk, yet fails when juxtaposed against male counterparts (see Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart and Brittney Sykes in McDonald’s All-American dunk contest). This notion of the female game being inferior is ingrained in early stages. On the playgrounds, the highest honor is given to the girls who can hang with the guys. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said as much when pertaining to Griner stating, “She’s like a guy playing with women.” To get better, female players are urged to play with the boys. Add in the fathers or brothers they learn the game from, who more than likely have an NBA game showcasing the exploits of a Derrick Rose or Kobe Bryant, the WNBA game is even lost on the future leaders of the game.
Griner, Diggins and Delle Donne are extremely gifted players. Still, don’t expect them to increase league recognition amongst the sports viewing market on their own strength. Until we all learn to accept the gifted female game and not compare to the men’s game, only then will the WNBA thrive. It will take a conscious effort from the high school coaches encouraging players to watch the way Becky Hammon or Sue Bird plays point guard, fathers and mothers taking daughters to games and the league capitalizing on rising and marketable talents. Moore’s singing with Jordan Brand last summer is an encouraging sign. Building franchises in Kansas, Tennessee or North Carolina may prove valuable as well. It will take a village to raise the league. Back in 1997, the WNBA’s slogan was “We Got Next”. Fifteen years later, what comes next is not quite clear.