On Sunday night, my first “Madden 2006” season concluded when the three-time champs (playing without an injured Tom Brady) squandered Super Bowl XL to a fired-up Eagles squad. That was immediately followed by another three hours completing my offseason tasks in franchise mode, which included re-signing every relevant Patriot with an expiring contract, scouting college prospects, drafting and signing those same college prospects, taking them through training camp and everything else. I even had to deal with Bill Belichick’s stunning retirement and hire another head coach.
By the time I finally finished, it was midnight and my wife was Googling the words “divorce lawyers los angeles full custody” on her laptop.
Why am I telling you this? Because I have no business criticizing someone else’s hobbies. We all have dopey things we enjoy. Maybe I like playing video games with the Patriots and pretending I run the team. Maybe you enjoy watching women playing basketball at the highest possible level — a level that could roughly be compared to “a good intramural game at a Division 2 college, only if nobody could jump or dunk” — and find the WNBA strangely intoxicating. Who am I to judge? So you have to believe me: I’m not telling anyone to stop watching the WNBA. Really, I’m not.
Here’s all I’m asking …
Let’s end the ongoing charade that this is a mainstream sport.
For the past nine years, the WNBA has been given countless chances, endless promotion, mainstream coverage and truckloads of capital. Has it helped? Absolutely not. Franchises keep folding and moving, regular-season ratings and overall attendance has dropped by 20 percent since the first two (heavily promoted) seasons, and none of the stars has captured the imagination of the general public.
Just this week, Sparks president Johnny Buss confessed to the L.A. Times, “Our attendance has leveled off. It would be one thing if it leveled off with the same interest. But it is diminished interest, and that concerns me. … I see a lot less interest in the WNBA.”
He’s not alone. After nine years of pushing and prodding, potential fans simply are not straddling the fence and saying to themselves, “Well, I’ll give it one more shot, maybe solid fundamentals and tons of loose balls is what I’ve been missing in life.” Nearly everyone has made up their minds at this point, just like we make up our minds on things like “I don’t like anchovies on my pizza” and “I would rather not sit through a movie that stars Rob Schneider.”
At the college level, women’s basketball works for many reasons: school spirit, compelling coaches, passionate young players, a nearly suffocating amount of emotion, and a fan-friendly, do-or-die tournament that wraps everything up in March. I don’t follow women’s college basketball, but I understand why somebody would. During my junior year at Holy Cross, when our women’s team made the Final Eight, our entire campus galvanized behind them. Yes, even me. Remove the student-alumni-college bond and here’s what you have: A sport where players plod along, coaches get fired and only the quality play keeps fans coming back (or not coming back). If your goal is “mainstream acceptance” and your hook is “women playing hoops,” you’re in trouble from the opening gate — most fans would rather watch men play basketball (for obvious reasons).
Even WNBA stars worry about the league’s future. Last month, Sheryl Swoopes told the Washington Post: “We’re in our ninth season, and I’m very frustrated today from where we were five years ago. The league hasn’t grown the way we’ve hoped. Talent-wise, the league has gotten better, and we know we’re providing good family entertainment. But we’re not noticed very much on the national sports scene and corporate sponsorships are hard to grow.”
Don’t be frustrated, Sheryl — you’re in a no-win situation. The mere concept of the WNBA is inherently flawed, like someone opening an inferior pizza place right next to the best pizza place in town, then using female chefs as a marketing hook. Who cares? It’s still subpar pizza, right? As for those elusive corporate sponsors, female tennis players get them because of their sex appeal as much as their abilities (for further explanation, watch “SportsCentury: Anna Kournikova” some time). Many of them pretend that isn’t what’s happening, and they put up the good fight … but the fact remains, if Maria Sharapova looked like Amelie Mauresmo, the average male sports fan wouldn’t be able to pick her out of a police lineup. Same for Jennie Finch, Danica Patrick or Brandi Chastain. In the words of Smilin’ Jack Ross, these are the facts, and they are indisputable.
Well, the vast majority of WNBA players lack crossover sex appeal. That’s just the way it is. Some are uncomfortably tall and gawky, while others lack the requisite, um, softer qualities to captivate males between 18 and 35. The baggy uniforms don’t help. Neither does the fact that it’s tough for anyone to look attractive at the end of a two-hour basketball game.
Then again, maybe these realities don’t matter as much as one would think, because Sue Bird is downright adorable — even when wearing Rip Hamilton’s Schnozzaroo — and I wouldn’t watch 10 minutes of a WNBA game because of her. If Sue was walking around at the ESPYs in a cocktail dress, I’m watching. If she’s running a pick and roll with Lauren Jackson, I’m flicking channels. And according to sagging attendance, I’m not alone.
Of course, after nine years of failed promos and cushy television coverage, there needs to be a P.C. reason for the league’s failure that goes beyond something as simple as “it’s just not that much fun to watch.” Hey, let’s turn it into a social issue! As the logic goes, the WNBA needs to stick around because the future of women’s sports is at stake. For instance, when the WUSA crashed and burned two years ago, then-WNBA commissioner Val Ackerman told USA Today: “It’s a sad day for women’s sports. I remain as hopeful as ever. But there is a difference between people being with you in spirit and in ways that matter economically [like] ticket sales, sponsorships, TV viewers.”
Geez, you think so, Val? More importantly, why should the WUSA’s demise be considered a “sad day for women’s sports?” Sad for whom? Should I feel sad that people didn’t want to pay money to support a product few people wanted to watch? Was it sad that female soccer players aren’t as talented as male soccer players, so it makes perfect sense that their sport would have failed because men’s soccer has been treading water (barely) in this country for three decades? Was it sad that the relevant sponsors and networks didn’t treat the WUSA like a de facto charity and start hemorraging crazy amounts of money to keep the league alive (much like the NBA is doing with the WNBA right now)? Where does the word “sad” come into play? I’m dying to know.
Apparently the WNBA can’t catch on until we change the way everyone approaches women’s sports in this country — you know, people like me, writers who poke fun because the league is such an easy target. In that aforementioned L.A. Times article, WNBA president Donna Orender urged patience, pointing out that neither Major League Baseball or the NFL was an automatic hit coming out of the gate (of course, in MLB’s case, this was 100 years ago, but whatever) and that “the growth of women’s athletics is a much more recent phenomenon” because of Title IX (which would have been a fantastic argument if Title IX didn’t go into effect 33 years ago). With everyone grasping for straws, it reminds me of the whole “soccer is the sport of the future!” craze, which started in the mid-’70s and continues to this day. That never made sense, either.
Hey, fudge the facts all you want. A product is still a product, whether it’s a sports league, soft drink, cable channel, or whatever else. When consumers have been exposed to a product for a prolonged period of time, and only a few of them enjoy it and come back for more, how is that not the product’s fault?
Which brings me to Big Question No. 1: How much money does the NBA have to pour into the WNBA before the equation changes from “potential business investment” to “unequivocal charity case”?
Take Vince McMahon’s XFL idea, which NBC killed after one season despite solid attendance and ratings that tripled the WNBA that year. When the XFL was canceled, few people realized McMahon’s biggest mistake was not giving the teams longer training camps so they could gel, that some of its players were good enough to eventually play in the NFL (most famously, Tommy Maddox), that some of its technical innovations helped to push the NFL’s TV coverage into the 21st century (like cameras on the field, or players wearing microphones during games). Unlike with the WNBA, there was a foundation there for a spring football league with some attitude — just look at the success of the Arena League — and I will always believe NBC dropped the ball here. But when the plug was pulled, nobody really argued, and that was that.
The WNBA doesn’t have to worry about a network losing faith in it, and here’s why: It has David Stern as its Sugar Daddy. He’s determined to sell the league to his NBA fan base, come hell or high water, no matter how much money it costs, even though there’s no empirical evidence whatsoever — seriously, it doesn’t exist — to suggest NBA fans could be swayed into liking the WNBA. It’s almost like showing commercials for “The View” during “Monday Night Football.” What’s the point? If the NFL started a women’s professional football league called the WNFL, would CBS, FOX or ABC ever kill valuable commercial time during NFL games promoting the WNFL to its fans? Of course not. And yet, with the NBA, it keeps pushing its sister league on us like an overboard mom pushing broccoli on her kids, even tying the WNBA’s rights to its own TV contract. You can have us, but you have to take them, too.
|WNBA FRANCHISE HISTORY|
1. Charlotte Sting (1997-present)
2. Cleveland Rockers (1997-2003)
3. Houston Comets (1997-present)
4. Los Angeles Sparks (1997-present)
5. New York Liberty (1997-present)
6. Phoenix Mercury (1997-present)
7. Sacramento Monarchs (1997-present)
8. Utah Starzz (1997-2002)
Became San Antonio Silver Stars (2003-present)
9. Detroit Shock (1998-present)
10. Washington Mystics (1998-present)
11. Minnesota Lynx (1999-present)
12. Orlando Miracle (1999-2002)
Became Connecticut Sun (2003-present)
13. Indiana Fever (2000-present)
14. Miami Sol (2000-2002)
15. Portland Fire (2000-2002)
16. Seattle Storm (2000-present)
Note: An expansion team in Chicago will begin play in the 2006 season.
Believe me, I’m not against the concept of the WNBA. When my daughter is old enough to start playing hoops — if she so chooses — I like knowing she could dream about playing professionally in this country (and not Bulgaria or Germany). It’s just that the WNBA might not be around by then. Realistically, it has a handful of years left before Stern’s retirement — coming sooner than you think, by the way — to expand beyond two of its biggest demographics: gays and lesbians (its most profitable fan base) and fathers and daughters (because a guy isn’t likely to attend a WNBA game with another guy, but he’s about 100 times more likely to take his daughter). To its credit, the league aggressively courts both groups — witness all the Gay Pride promotions over the past few years, or even “Fathers and Daughters Week” this season.
As for the casual fans, the Donna Orenders of the world maintain that they need more time to “come around.” Come around? Should we ignore the complete lack of progress in nine years? How far does this “come around” deadline extend to? 2010? 2020? Let’s pick a year. Give us a firm deadline. In the mean time, attendance figures and ratings keep dropping, and the timeline for us to “come around” keeps shifting. And so they keep running WNBA ads during the NBA Finals, keep flying WNBA players to NBA All-Star Weekend … they even hikjacked “NBA Hardwood Classics” on NBA TV last week (which almost caused me to break my TiVo in 30 pieces). And every time something like this happens, and that WNBA gun is being held to my temple, it makes me (and many others) root against the league a little more.
Which brings me to Big Question No. 2: How can this be salvaged?
The simple answer: It’s can’t. Nine years isn’t just a litmus test, it’s a full-fledged sociological experiment … an experiment that didn’t work. For instance, I tried to watch Game 1 of the Seattle-Houston series Tuesday night. Forget about the jarring lack of athleticism, how nobody plays above the rim, how the playoff games lack the life-or-death emotion of those March Madness affairs. This was just subpar basketball. For all the talk about fundamentals, nobody was challenging shots or denying guards from penetrating into the lane. The two teams ended up shooting a combined 39 percent, even though they were getting wide-open looks on both ends. For every decent play, there were three bad ones. And sure, maybe I just caught a bad game. But why would someone like me — a die-hard sports fan who loves basketball — watch this league on a regular basis? What’s the lure? What am I missing?
Two changes should happen regardless of how you feel about the league. First, the WNBA should accept its place in the Sports Fan Pecking Order alongside NFL Europe, indoor lacrosse, minor-league hockey, bowling, celebrity poker and every other niche sport that appeals to a specific audience. (That’s just where they are. None of those sports get preferential, wink-wink treatment from TV networks. Neither should the WNBA. If not for corporate nepotism, the WNBA would have pulled a WUSA and disappeared years ago. Don’t forget this.) And second, Sugar Daddy Stern needs to accept the fact there’s a fine line between promoting a business venture to your audience and antagonizing that same audience. Until he makes that connection, the league will remain an easy target for troublemaking schmucks like me.
In fact …
Last night, I originally planned on keeping a running diary of ESPN2’s playoff doubleheader, thinking it would be funny to log every loose ball, every brick, every turnover and every mediocre play that prompted an announcer to overreact (and only because they’re trying so desperately to make it seem like it’s fun to watch women play basketball professionally, when it’s really not). For once, I’m going to avoid twisting the knife and pass up one of the five easiest columns ever written. That’s my gift to the WNBA, its sponsors, its fans and Stern himself.
In return, they can give me a gift: Leave me alone. Stop pretending that the WNBA can work on a mainstream level, stop pretending the league would still be kicking if it weren’t for the NBA, and stop pretending regular sports fans are watching SportsCenter and dying for a WNBA playoff update. If you want the league to succeed, then create a “WNBA 2006” video game and tweak it so that WNBA arenas are always filled, players can dunk and block shots above the rim, teams aren’t folding or going bankrupt, and playoff games are televised in prime time on a major network.
See, that’s the great thing about video games — they can make any fantasy come true.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.