An education on the WNBA
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series in which espnW writer Kate Fagan takes an educational tour of the WNBA to try to answer one major question: Why has she never been a fan of the league?
Until this summer, I had never watched a WNBA game from tipoff to buzzer.
Since the league launched in 1997, I have, at various times, channel surfed and stopped, parachuting in mid-game, hoping to be immediately wowed. I once rode a bus from New York City to the Mohegan Sun casino to watch a former teammate in a preseason game for the Connecticut Sun. (I left early in the second half to play blackjack, but perhaps that decision says more about me than the WNBA.) All told, I probably watched the equivalent of one full game.
These details may not seem surprising -- many 30-year-old women likely have even briefer histories with the WNBA -- until you consider that I'm a former women's college basketball player. I was a sophomore in high school during the WNBA's inaugural season. I was playing at the University of Colorado during the league's formative years and was in my mid-20s when the WNBA should have been hitting its stride. I am the target audience, yet I had never given a dime, or an evening of my attention, to support the women's professional league of the game I love.
And the interesting thing is, I'm not an anomaly. The league, as WNBA president Laurel Richie readily admitted to me, must do a better job of capturing the interest of female college athletes. The WNBA has somehow missed the boat on transitioning us into lifelong fans of the only stable women's professional league in this country. Richie and her staff are currently in the process of addressing that problem, brainstorming ways for the league to foster a closer connection with the NCAA and even the AAU, which would put the WNBA at the grassroots level.
Even so, the overarching question remains: Why have I never cared about the WNBA? My ambivalence toward the league has always made me uncomfortable, as if my athlete card should be revoked. But, this summer, instead of ignoring the WNBA, I'm trying something different: I'm searching for answers. The WNBA isn't perfect, but as I'm learning, the flaws are hardly fatal. In fact, some of the flaws are strengths. And therein lies the league's Catch-22 -- its growth is necessarily slow because there is no one fix.
I'm not sure if better understanding the WNBA will translate into becoming a fan of the league, but it's a starting point.
So, on the opening day of the season, I went to Madison Square Garden to watch a contest between the Sun and New York Liberty. And at the beginning of June, I went back to the Mohegan Sun to watch the Sun play the Los Angeles Sparks. I was looking for answers, hoping I would see the WNBA game in a new light; that my long-held assumptions, namely that the quality of play doesn't match the quality of players, would be reversed as I watched Cappie Pondexter drain step-back jumpers, Kara Lawson swing the ball to the open (wo)man and Candace Parker swat shots off the glass.
I wanted to see if, by watching games, talking with players and bouncing ideas off of Richie, I might become a fan. I sat with Richie for the Sun/Sparks contest, and as we watched and talked, I explained my main issue with the league:
As long as the season is a summer afterthought, it will never wow basketball purists.
The best thing about women's basketball has never been monster dunks; it's excellent fundamentals and teamwork. For some people, that will never be enough. As one sports writer well versed in the women's game said to me, "The curse of women's basketball is that it's not men's."
But it doesn't have to be a curse. Women's basketball flourishes overseas, most notably in Russia, Turkey and France, where there are traditional, full-length winter seasons and top-tier players earn upwards of $600,000 a season (compared with the WNBA max of $105,000). In these leagues, teams play together for eight months and develop the kind of rhythm that results in beautiful, instinctive hoops. In the NCAA, women's teams spend a few years together, with players often training around the clock.
The WNBA season runs during the summer months to avoid scheduling conflicts -- with the NBA and those overseas teams -- and that handcuffs the women's league for two reasons: First, it's not the traditional time for basketball, and second, the shortened schedule stymies development and cohesion, which is necessary to make women's basketball fun to watch.
The majority of WNBA players spend eight months a year playing for a team you've likely never heard of. For eight months, they're jelling with a different set of teammates, executing another coach's offensive sets and defensive philosophies. They're also recovering from muscle strains and ankle turns and sore backs. And just when it should be the offseason, they're flying back to the States to play for three more months.
The bottom line is creating a popular (and self-sufficient) women's pro league in the U.S. can happen only if the product is polished and refined. It won't work if, for most of the players, the WNBA is the weaker second act of back-to-back seasons, a truncated tour plagued by sloppy play. I want to watch the best at their best, and the WNBA doesn't quite offer that right now.
But, and herein lies the catch, if the WNBA wasn't a summer league, it wouldn't survive. Playing opposite the traditional basketball schedule actually gives the WNBA two advantages: First, it isn't forced to compete with the NBA, and second, it can offer supplementary salaries ($36,570 league minimum) and still draw most of the best players in the world.
As many WNBA players have told me, although playing two consecutive seasons is not an ideal situation, it's better than the alternative -- because if the WNBA moved to the winter, none of the stars would play in the league. "We have to be in the summer because nobody is going to turn down overseas money to be in the WNBA," said Parker, who plays for the Sparks. "In all honesty, that's why."
She continues: "Playing overseas is totally different. You're not on ESPN, you don't have as many commitments; it's about playing basketball. Here in the U.S., it's about marketing, getting people to games. I like playing overseas -- that's how I'm able to maintain my lifestyle -- but in terms of competition, the WNBA is by far better. And everybody overseas will tell you this is the most competitive league. When you win a championship here, you would beat any team in the world."
Also, lower salaries mean WNBA franchises are slowly developing models for profitability. If the league moved to the winter and raised salaries to compete with overseas teams, that financial model would be blown apart. Right now, three of the 12 WNBA franchises turn a profit: the Sun, Minnesota Lynx and San Antonio Silver Stars.
As Richie is quick to point out, "We are in a position that is not much different than other sports leagues at their 16th anniversary." At the same point in its history, in the early 1960s, the NBA had only nine teams and was being aired on tape delay. "We will continue to make sure we are putting the best possible game on the court and running a good, solid business. Because the WNBA is here to stay."
The quality of the league's players is indisputable, but the quality of the overall play is still evolving and maturing. And although the best fix would be moving the WNBA to the winter and paying higher salaries so stars wouldn't have to split their time between U.S. and foreign teams, that fix would also doom the league.
"Sure, there are problems -- it's not perfect," one WNBA player told me. "But at least we have a league, and we're figuring out a way to make it grow."