Broadening the WNBA's appeal
SAN ANTONIO, Tex. -- Our cab was stuck in traffic as a long line of cars crept toward the AT&T Center and the WNBA All-Star Game.
It was three hours until game time, and I thought, "Wow. It's going to be a nice crowd."
The driver disagreed.
"Gun show," he said.
He was right. Most of those cars were headed to the coliseum next door.
But the All-Star Game crowd, announced at 12,540, sold out the lower bowl of the 18,500-seat AT&T Center Saturday afternoon, with only some sections of the uppermost seats covered by black curtains.
The game was shown live on ABC. The crowd was loud and spirited. It was also, for the most part, a WNBA crowd.
If the WNBA, now in its 15th season, is going to make a more-than-niche name for itself -- especially now, with an extended lockout facing the NBA -- it's going to have to generate crossover appeal, with the All-Star Game one place to draw those who wouldn't otherwise see women pros play hoops.
San Antonio's All-Star Game was just that -- a game -- when it could've been a weekend. There were no skills or 3-point-shooting contests. No rookies vs. veterans game. No non-basketball celebrities.
The WNBA is full of personalities trying to bust out, and a day of fun stuff would show that. As it was, Angel McCoughtry and Liz Cambage, a rookie, gave a glimpse of that when they engaged in a brief dance-off at mid-court (McCoughtry won) in the game's second quarter.
That happened not long after McCoughtry scored on a pass to herself off the backboard.
So these folks can play, and they can play. Why not show both on a WNBA showcase weekend?
The league, now 15 years old, should be credited for not only surviving, but starting to thrive when many thought it would go the way of hoops' ABL and soccer's WUSA. At halftime, the league celebrated the top 15 players in its history, retired stars like Lisa Leslie, Teresa Witherspoon, Dawn Staley and current ones like Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.
Veteran Taurasi and rookie Maya Moore like the idea of more games than the game.
"It's probably something they could look at," Taurasi said. "A little celebrity game, Brian McKnight, Donald Faison."
Soccer star Abby Wambach?
"Get her out here. She can head it in."
For Moore, it's simple.
"Anything to do with a competition, with a basketball... It's all fun, it's all celebrating the game."
According to new president Laurel Richie -- hired for her marketing acumen that helped boost the Girl Scouts of the USA and other companies -- WNBA numbers are up: average game attendance up six percent; gate receipts three percent; sponsorships 25 percent. (The WNBA would not release sponsorship dollar totals, saying it is "not our policy.")
But with a group of talented rookies poised to step in -- a record-tying four were named all-stars and Moore was voted a starter -- it's time to be bolder.
So we called upon the king of bold, Mike Veeck, for his take. Veeck is a third-generation baseball promoter, the son of Bill Veeck, legendary for getting people to the ballpark.
Mike Veeck, a promoter for 30 years in both major and minor leagues, became famous in his own right with 1970's-era Disco Demolition Night, where fans brought their disco records to burn on the field.
"In baseball tradition, 35 percent of the audience is there for baseball, which leaves a fairly large universe," Veeck said. "That was true my grandfather's time with Cubs. Two of three are there because it's an interesting thing to do."
"You need to attract attention, especially with limited budgets."
Veeck is an expert at attracting attention, even the cringe-worthy kind. Tonya Harding Mini-Bat Night, "wasn't funny in Portland, but Charleston loved it."
At the ballpark, Tweeting Wiener Boxing Shorts were given out in the aftermath of the Anthony Wiener scandal, and to celebrate national hot dog day. The St. Paul Pioneers also handed out Larry Craig bobbleheads that were actually bobblefeet.
"We're having fun and being silly," he said.
What the WNBA has to figure out is, "you have to make a decision if you're willing to do those things."
You also want to occasionally make a statement. Veeck said he signed woman baseball player Ila Borders to a baseball contract in 1997 because it "was a chance to make a political statement" that women could play pro ball.
The WNBA is good at doing community clinics, like their work Friday in San Antonio, where players did literacy and stop-diabetes clinics at a nearby military base.
"What they're not doing well, is drawing attention to the wonderful things they're doing in the community," he said.
Some of the most consistent media attention in the minors comes from an unlikely source: ballpark fare. Veeck has brought in cooking guru Racheal Ray.
"We get more coverage from our...ballpark fare and cooking demos than we do from beat writers as a Yankee affiliate," he said.
Outside the gate at the AT&T Center Saturday, Becky Heninger and Irene Tang had come all the way from Canada for the game. They're big fans of the host San Antonio Silver Stars and guard Becky Hammon.
"It'd be cool to see other stuff," said Heninger, 24, who played college hoops at the University of Calgary. "Not a lot of them can dunk, but if they do dunk, it would be pretty sweet. Trick shots would definitely be cool. I don't know if they do them. I do. What's the point in playing if it's not fun? If you get a little more exposure, see how they are, it's always fun."
Next year being an Olympic year, Ritchie said the All-Star Game is up in the air, though the league will at least name all-stars. As for a day to showcase skills, the first-year president said that's a decision for later.
"I spent a good chunk of time with...fans last night, and they seemed really thrilled with the plans we have had for this week," she said.
Maybe you don't go after the gun-buying crowd, but it's time to look beyond women's basketball fans. They're already there. An All-Star Weekend would be a good place to start.