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Thursday, June 21, 2007
Late arrivals, scheduling conflicts still a problem for WNBA

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

Exactly 10 years ago, an opening tip between the New York Liberty and the Los Angeles Sparks in Inglewood, Calif., marked the official beginning of the WNBA.

Val Ackerman
Former WNBA president Val Ackerman, now president of USA Basketball and a member of FIBA's Central Board, says FIBA had no authority to regulate the schedules of any country's pro league.
Think about that now, as teams are currently 10-12 games into their schedules. Imagine if the league was just getting its 2007 season under way this week. (Yes, we hear the Mystics and Comets fans loudly yelling they'd be all for that, and please just erase the past month.)

Obviously, things were very different then: there were eight teams and a 28-game regular season. The "playoffs" consisted of three games: two semifinals and a championship matchup. In those circumstances, it wasn't hard to start in the third week of June and be done at the end of August.

Clearly, such a playoff "system" wasn't adequate for a professional sports league, and thus began a progression to inevitable conflict. The league itself, the season and the playoffs had to expand. But starting earlier and ending later would bump the WNBA against longer-established foreign leagues.

In time, it reached the point where many of the WNBA's players were late arrivals to their preseason camps because of overseas commitments. As a result, the WNBA preseason became more a "weeding out" process to get down to the required roster size than real preparation for the season. It really isn't until about now, a month into the season, when teams have taken their true form as a unit.

Meaning that in some ways, spectators might feel in the early part of the season they are seeing more like a dress rehearsal than the actual play itself. As with a good Broadway production, a good team in any sport prepares, debuts, works out kinks that come up, improves and eventually hits a consistent stride through its run.

But the WNBA goes on stage whether it gets adequate preparation or not. I'm not suggesting the first few weeks of the WNBA season don't necessarily provide good entertainment. However, it's just common sense that an even better product would result from better preparation.

There appears to be no resolution in sight. In her annual preseason teleconference in May, WNBA president Donna Orender said there had been no "substantive progress" in terms of adjusting schedules so all WNBA players could be at training camps earlier.

Thus, familiar statements were made in the preseason coaches' teleconferences: "We haven't spent a lot of time together" … "We're still waiting for [fill in name of star player(s)] to get back from [fill in name of country]" … "It's hard to have a lot of cohesiveness" … "It makes it difficult to decide our roster cuts."

There was a very uncomfortable situation in Seattle, where former UConn standout Barb Turner felt pressured to leave her team overseas before its final game in order to come back to the Storm to fight for a roster spot there. Which she ended up not getting. (She's now with Houston.)

Orender suggested that it might be up to some of the WNBA's premiere players to take a leading role in working to more significantly change the various overseas calendars. But a subsequent teleconference with players such as Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas made it clear that it never crossed their minds to do any such thing. In fact, on this lone topic, they sounded as if they were still college kids who thought it was completely up to the "grown-ups" to solve the problem.

"It is something that Donna and FIBA will have to figure out," Catchings said.

So I called Val Ackerman, who oversaw the WNBA's launch and its first eight seasons, and is now president of USA Basketball and a member of FIBA's Central Board. I wanted to get a little more insight from her as to how the issue might be solved. She acknowledged that FIBA had no authority to regulate the schedules of any country's pro league.

FIBA has a hard enough time these days dealing with how to schedule international competitions in such a way to give countries adequate preparation time.

"For the national teams," Ackerman said, "it's become very problematic trying to find pockets of time to practice together."

Last year, to accommodate the World Championship in Brazil, the WNBA schedule had to be squeezed so the playoffs would be over the first weekend in September at the latest. Even that meant players such as Detroit's Katie Smith and Cheryl Ford, who were competing in the WNBA Finals, had very little time to get to Brazil. Let alone spend much time working with the U.S. national team before the competition started.

Ackerman said there was a small, but still significant breakthrough in March. At a meeting in Madrid, Spain, representatives from many countries discussed when to hold the next World Championship for women. January was suggested (the European leagues didn't like that at all) and so was May (bad idea for the WNBA). Finally, it was decided the 2010 World Championship would again be in the fall, but a bit later to give it a little more distance from the end of the WNBA season.

(Of course next year, with the Beijing Olympics running from Aug. 8-24, there will be another scheduling issue the WNBA has to handle.)

Naturally, the overall issue of the global women's basketball calendar was at least touched on at this March meeting, too.

"It was helpful because I think the dialogue was healthy, and hopefully the conversations will continue," Ackerman said. "In other countries -- unlike here, where USA Basketball has no role in the WNBA's schedule -- their national federation can and does control those types of issues. So at this meeting were people who are in charge of club and national team play. They were the right people to be there, the decision makers."

Even so, Ackerman said of the WNBA's late-arrivals issue, "I don't think there's a ready solution."

Fans of the league seem in large part resigned to this. The players acknowledge it's problematic but, understandably, defend it.

As Sacramento's DeMya Walker, who competes in Russia during the winter months, said, "What I make here is not nearly as much as I make overseas. The money I make there -- that's what I'm saving for my daughter to go to college. This is our life. This is what I need to do for our future."

This wasn't given much consideration when the WNBA began. The ABL had launched the previous fall with an unrealistic business plan, and it crashed shortly into its third season. The WNBA had a better plan, one more grounded in the harsh reality of the pro sports marketplace.

At the time, although no one in an official capacity with the WNBA would have said it, there wasn't an idea that players were going to amass much wealth in the league. At least not for some time, until the league had truly established itself. In 1997, the sentiment was, "Let's just see if this will get off the ground and stay in flight."

Also, even 10 years ago, you tended to hear much more of the negatives of Americans playing overseas than the positives. You heard of checks that bounced or never arrived, of substandard playing conditions. And, of course, of the loneliness/boredom of being overseas -- something that technology has changed tremendously. Now, with cell phones, the Internet and every possible entertainment gadget, passing three or four months away from the States is a much less-daunting prospect.

Plus, the salaries have become bigger and more of a sure thing. So much so that most American players come home at least once during the winter. In Russia, "buying" top players for a season appears to be a status issue among a group of wealthy owners.

So the bottom line is that there is more enticement than ever for players to compete as much as possible, wherever there may be a paycheck for playing basketball.

But that presents another issue. Just a few days after I spoke to Walker, she suffered a season-ending injury. It was one of those things that sometimes just happens in games -- and likely would have whether she'd been playing all winter or not.

But no one would argue that there have been injury issues in the WNBA that do result from players pushing themselves without enough rest and recovery time. To see that, look no further than Seattle's Lauren Jackson hobbling as much as she did last year.

I have no opposition to the concept of players competing in both the WNBA and other countries' leagues, and it's especially understandable for non-American players like Australia's Jackson to want to do that.

It's obviously beneficial, even beyond the financial boost it provides players. It allows them to improve or at least maintain their skills and fitness. But there's a fine line between that and players overextending themselves. Phoenix star Diana Taurasi, who turned 25 on June 11, summed up the good and bad in that regard.

"My personal experience is that I like being on a team, I like going to practice, I want to be in that setting and having that schedule [in the winter months]," she said of her experience in Russia. "Your body does break down, though, and it does need rest. After this season, I'm going to think about what my schedule is like and give myself a little more time off. Because, eventually, your body needs it. And your mind does, too."

Speaking of minds, that's another benefit of American players going overseas to play. The cultural experience of living abroad further supplements the fact that the vast majority of the WNBA's players spend at least four years in college.

That accumulated wisdom helps players improve as people, which sounds like a cliché, but is anything but. The WNBA is about more than just basketball, and its players are more than just athletes. They are community ambassadors for a league that has a critical dependence on growing and maintaining its grassroots support.

The WNBA's more personable and "approachable" connection with each team's community and fans should not be looked at as burdensome, as something that just has to be done with a niche sport. It should be embraced as part of being a professional athlete. Even the boundlessly popular NFL has in recent times made it more of a priority to maintain a positive image.

Alas, all of this makes for a very complicated issue in terms of the month of May and part of June for the WNBA. Foreign leagues want to do what they think is best for their business. Players want what's best for themselves economically. And there are only so many days in the year.

Ultimately, the one thing that would make overlaps in scheduling moot is if the WNBA's salaries were such that American players had drastically less incentive to go overseas to work. But that isn't something likely to happen anytime soon.

I've thought and thought and thought about this issue for years now, and few things have ever made me feel as much like I was just running around in a circle.

Ackerman pointed out that there have been gradual adjustments in some countries' schedules as small concessions to the WNBA. Maybe, over the next few years, there will be more small steps. The flaws that exist will not be overcome but they will be remedied bit by bit.

And let's not forget … we're talking about this a decade into the league's existence. That is both a short amount of time, in terms of any large business establishing itself, and a long amount of time, in terms of what many expectations, fueled by negativity, prejudice or cynicism, were for the WNBA.

There are flaws, but things are still infinitely better than when the scheduling conflicts didn't exist because there was no WNBA.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.