Mind Over Media: The WNBA Deserves Better

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There is some great basketball being played by gifted athletes right now. I’m not talking about the games at Rucker Park or in the lockout-free gyms of L.A., Houston or Philadelphia, where the likes of Melo and La La are speed-dialing their press agents following every neo-conversation … No, these contests are on live on network TV from Minneapolis and Atlanta: the WNBA Finals. And it’s now way past the time that news media get hip and give these women their due. The league has teams in 12 cities, and most hometown dailies don’t assigns a beat writer to all of the teams’ games. Well, it’s time to wake up, dudes. (And don’t blame this on the fact that the sports world is run by men.)

But why change now? The WNBA (in my opinion, by far the most meaningful legacy of the ballsy and ingenious NBA commissioner David Stern) needs to survive and thrive. The fact is, thousands of women and families attend games in major cities every year, and that means there are consumer products to be hawked and revenue to be generated. But the “old way” of selling the league needs to die.

Since the league was created in 1996, the WNBA has been systematically maligned by basketball “experts” and satirized by the likes of Beavis, Butthead and The Family Guy for its cumbersome style of play and its audience demographics. The former, to anyone who really understands the game, not the knuckleheads who believe in Ron Artest aka Meta World Peace— isn’t true. And as for the fan base, who cares?

Women’s basketball has made giant strides since the late 1960s, when teams were still composed of six players, three of whom were prohibited from crossing half court. Since the passage of Title IX, thousands of gifted women — Nancy Lieberman, Cheryl Miller, Ann Meyers, Paula and Pam McGee, Anne Donovan among them — have been given opportunities to excel. Soon after, the business of women’s college basketball flourished. Stars and big-time coaches became pop culture heroes. Nevertheless, efforts to create a professional league floundered until Stern committed NBA resources to his plan. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not preaching that the league, now under its third leader in 15 years, Laurel Richie, can’t do a more creative job selling its “product” to the mainstream, but I am saying that the media, new and old, needs to make a commitment before the baby is killed. Anyone involved in the hoops world, on campuses, at AAU tournaments, or in the Olympic movement knows the women play it right. That might be one of the problems in a culture that celebrates the drone-head Kardashian sisters marrying Lamar Odom and Kris Humphries, or that tunes into furiously moronic TV shows such as Basketball Wives, or worse, purchases books by the spurned divorcees of one-time NBA players who never figured out the risk/reward ratio of taking the vow with a rock ‘n roller who can dunk.

The WNBA has many attributes: star players, some excellent coaches, 12 teams in major markets, low payrolls, and some TV exposure. This season’s finals between Atlanta and Minnesota showcase the All-Star Angel McCoughtry against the Rookie of the Year Maya Moore. These players have personalities and character, and in this diverse league, there are storylines galore. During the past 15 years, TV ratings and attendance have gone up and down.

Franchises have come and gone, but in part thanks to Stern, the owners and players won’t give in. So exactly what is the problem? Why doesn’t the media cover this league more? And what role does the league play in terms of making its product more or less attractive? Does it need to stop thinking and acting as if it is still a social movement, or does it need to push, push, push the envelope and take each and every chance? After all, the act of survival is 24/7.

Here’s my playbook:

  1. The WNBA season needs to be played when fans care about the game. The Finals tipped off Sunday night while sports fans were watching the baseball playoffs and Week 4 of the Lord’s Prayer, the NFL. C’mon. After 15 years, just make the change. And don’t tell me about how difficult it is to schedule games in NBA arenas or that these months conflict with professional women’s teams overseas. The commissioner rules in a Bismarckian manner, so this can and needs to be done.
  2. Pay the women more, especially the stars of the league. Increase the league’s salary cap and keep the great players in the U.S. The marginal players are replaceable anyway. Create rivalries and resentments via money. After all, what else is capitalism for?
  3. Revamp the annual draft from three rounds to eight. This way you create hope, you expand your antennae into the college crowd, and you develop more entertaining and broader storylines. In addition, start using the territorial draft pick. Why are you killing the built-in fanfare of a All-American such as Maya Moore playing in Minnesota, instead of in a place closer to UConn? The NBA did this until the mid-1960s. Oscar Robertson stayed in Cincinnati, Princeton’s Bill Bradley in New York. Fans need hometown heroes with name recognition to stay close by.
  4. Create and co-produce a WNBA reality TV show similar to Hard Knocks with a national cable network. Personally, I abhor reality TV, but I’m in the minority, and every once in a while I admit to sneaking a peak at The Real Housewives of New York, Celebrity Apprentice and (whisper) Mob Wives. Such a show would be made for today’s marketplace and culture: sex, gender, sport, personalities, race, competition, ups, downs, ball.
  5. Turn the All-Star Game into an All-Star Week, and host an eight-team world championship of women’s basketball right here in the U.S. Invite the four best teams from around the globe to compete in a double-elimination tourney against the four best teams from the WNBA — not an all-star team. The media would have to cover this. Even hockey, which is run by a stiff, does something similar.
  6. Reach into the hip-hop culture in a serious way so you are completely embraced, not maligned. This is where fashion, style, language, sound, and presence are born. And please, please, don’t waste any more time, money or thought venturing down this avenue “by committee.” You don’t need to hear the thoughts of Mary J. Blige or Mariah Carey’s husband Nick Cannon (even though I saw him play in last year’s celebrity All-Star game in L.A., and he shocked me because he has some real game). You need to retain my old friend Steve Stoute — although he owes me some dough — give him one week to come up with a written plan and four months to execute it. If not, adios. He’s the one marketing guy in that world who can actually deliver if you ride him to the finish line.
  7. Just as the folks who open multi-million dollar private golf clubs offer celebs free memberships, find a few well-known investors in local markets and call them “owners.” When Marc Anthony and J. Lo apparently put some bucks into the Miami Dolphins, it helped the excitement level. The franchise even got a free National Anthem out of Anthony, probably because J. Lo’s lip synchers weren’t available on Sundays. Jay-Z’s minority interest in the Nets has been a major plus. Give it to them on the cheap. Again, no downside.
  8. Increase the game time to four 12-minute quarters instead of 10. You have a great on-court product. Let ’em play.

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