WNBA builds on Olympic momentum
On some level, the success of the United States women's basketball team at the Olympics is a self-contained story for those involved. It was a point driven home to WNBA president Laurel Richie when she caught rides to and from medal-round games in London with the parents and other family of U.S. players, who invested so much time and energy to first reach their potential as basketball players and then come together as a team.
It wasn't the thought of growing a brand or gaining mainstream attention that left Tamika Catchings' aunt joking that she needed oxygen during the too-close-for-comfort stages of a semifinal win against Australia.
But Richie and the WNBA also hope the league didn't once again shut down business for a month, pushing the season's eventual conclusion deeper into fall and the all-consuming shadow of college and professional football, solely for the benefit of the 12 American women from the league who won gold, or even the couple dozen players from the league who competed in total.
As the WNBA season resumes, Richie believes what happened in London will benefit the product in Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Tulsa and eight other WNBA cities across the country.
"We know that upwards of 10 million people watched our medal round, so I am really encouraged that there are now many more millions of people in this country who know what the WNBA is all about because the U.S. team was comprised of W players," Richie said. "Not only have we had success on an international stage, we've exposed more people domestically to the game, to the players, to the story. I thought it was great that Liz Cambage, even though she plays for Australia, plays for the W and had such a great game [against the United States in the semifinals]."
Such is the conundrum of the Olympics, particularly for women's sports. For two weeks every four years, millions of sports fans in the United States spend hour upon hour watching and caring about women's sports, be they individual endeavors such as swimming and track or team sports such as soccer and basketball. And then, for the most part, the masses drift away.
Pro soccer leagues have come and gone and might come again, and pro beach volleyball is set for a second try, while indoor volleyball players are left to sort out living arrangements in places such as Russia to keep playing. But if they so choose, fans can watch Sue Bird, Tina Charles, Candace Parker and the rest of the Olympians less than a week removed from the gold-medal ceremony.
"For those who saw the Olympics and are intrigued by women's basketball, it's great that immediately they can, if they live in one of those 12 cities, go and see a game," Richie said. "I think even for the sales personnel at the team level, I think it just gives them an extra thing to talk about when they're making a call and reaching out to potential fans and potential partners."
There is evidence the stage offered women's basketball by the Olympics is far from a salvation. The United States made a similar run to gold in 2008 in Beijing, winning its pool games by an average of 43 points and each medal-round game by at least 15 points, including a 92-65 rout of Australia in the final. Within 15 months of that high, the league experienced the double lows of the Houston Comets and Sacramento Monarchs ceasing operations, followed by the Detroit Shock (the team that won the championship in the months following Beijing) relocating to Tulsa.
Richie was not yet on the job in those days. Attendance has climbed steadily in subsequent seasons, albeit not to the highs of the league's early days, and television ratings have improved on her watch. And the president, at least, believes the fundamentals of the league are stronger now than four years ago.
"One, when you've seen something happen, we have the benefit of hindsight with that," Richie said. "We're trying to do the right things to make sure that doesn't happen again. You know, you experience something once and you say to yourself, 'By golly, this is not going to happen again.' I am very encouraged by the fact that at this point in time, the league is profitable and three of our teams are profitable and I think we're in a different place."
There is a product to market, like the potential for a first-round series between the reigning champion Lynx -- with Olympians Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus -- and a Storm team potentially revitalized by the return of Australian Olympian Lauren Jackson to complement Bird. Assuming, of course, the Lynx can fend off the Sparks and Silver Stars for the top seed in the West. That it will play out against the backdrop of football, not to mention the late stages of baseball's postseason (the WNBA season could end as late as Oct. 24), is an obstacle to solidifying gains made at the Olympics.
"There will always be competition out there, and we're always up against something," Richie said. "I'm excited about the second half of the season to see how everything shakes out. I think we're going to have a compelling playoffs, based on how teams are doing. Minny is as strong as they were last year. L.A., with a healthy Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver, they look really good. Chicago made really interesting changes to the roster so that if they make it into the playoffs, they have the kind of experienced players to help everyone through that. Connecticut's having a good run, San Antonio went crazy, so I think it's going to be down to the wire.
"It's going to be a very interesting postseason, so that sort of helps give some confidence knowing that we're extending into a period where there is more competition."
And while there won't be an Olympic opportunity to build buzz again until 2016 in Brazil, there is something much nearer on the horizon that is likely to generate interest from established WNBA fans, fans of the college game who have been slow to extend their loyalties and even new fans beyond the women's basketball base. Almost as soon as the WNBA season ends, the college season will begin for Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins and Brittney Griner, three players who form what is sure to be the most talked about draft class in league history.
"I dream about that potential 2013 draft class," Richie said, chuckling. "I hope they all join the league. They're fabulous players, they have interesting stories, they have interesting followings, and in some ways, the combination of the three of them, to me, are emblematic of what I think is so wonderful about the WNBA. First and foremost, they are athletes at the top of their games.
"Brittney has the physical -- the height and the talent and the ability to be literally a game-changer because of all of her gifts. I think Skylar Diggins is just an incredible player and an incredible personality. I can't remember how many followers she has on Twitter, but it probably rivals NBA players. And Elena Delle Donne, the heart and the way in which she's made the choices in her life to be with her family speaks to, I think, the heart and soul of the league. I love the combination. I think it's going to be really interesting. I'm sure our teams are salivating at the possibility."