Saturday, October 29, 2005

...And the state of the WNBA

WNBA fansTalking about Sheryl Swoopes also made me start thinking about the WNBA and to a lesser extent the state of all women's professional sports, specifically Jean Van de Velde's recent statement that he would try to qualify for the Women's British Open, because, according to him, if the women get to play on the "men's" tour, men should get to play on the women's tour.

Let's start for the WNBA first. It's no secret why the WNBA is stagnating and not showing any growth. It is plain and simple an inferior product. To expect someone to pay to see an inferior product is just arrogant and off-putting. There is no athleticism in the game and no defense, just poor offense. (Please don't take this to be a defense of the style of play in the NBA, though.) There are constantly loose balls and turnovers (in the WNBA) and lane penetration is never stopped. The shooting is also terrible. This brings up my second point:

Why would a league that wants to be taken seriously as a basketball league use a smaller ball? When women play tennis, they don't give them smaller balls. When women play golf, sure they shorten the course a little bit, but Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie have shown that they are more than capable of playing from the men's tees, and they don't use the whiffle golf balls that you use in gym class. they use real golf clubs and real golf balls. Why would you give women a smaller ball? I've played many girls on the playground using normal men's basketballs and they don't complain. In fact, a lot of them kick guys' butts. The smaller ball is harder to shoot no matter what size your hands are because it comes off your hands at a different velocity and therefore comes at the rim from different angles. Shaq has huge hands compared to the men's ball and this is why he is such a poor free-throw shooter. Everyone has different sized hands and you can't just adjust the size of the ball for everyone. It seens to me that giving the girls smaller balls is more sexist than saying the WNBA sucks. Let them play with real basketballs. What's next, lowering the rim three feet so that they can dunk? Come on!

Thirdy, the league has serious marketing issues, and just because of the number of openly gay athletes (remember, homosexuality in America today is still a pretty controversial topic). You have to watch a lot of unathletic, unexciting women pound on each other, and then the commercials come and it's for things like tampons. No self-respecting man would ever subject himself to that. Men make up the vast majority of sports fans and bringing them in has to be a priority, and you won't do it with the kind of league sponsors the WNBA has. Men will watch women's sports, which bring me to my fourth point:

There is a market for women's sports, and it's not just with women. Men watch women's tennis and women's golf and more importantly they will watch women's college basketball if it's their alma mater. Criticize the NCAA all you want but they have an excellent playoff system. Single elimination, winner takes all, is the most exciting playoff format there is, and that's why football and college basketball are the two favorite sports in America. The NBA and baseball seasons are far too long to have the entire season come down to just one game, but football and college basketball seasons are short, and so are their playoffs. This is what the league needs to do to spice up interest. No more best-of-three or best-of-five game series. The season of the WNBA is about as short as the college basketball season, so there's no reason you can't have this system of playoffs. There are also other ways of improving the quality of the competition and the biggest most important way is...

STOP EXPANDING!!! The worst thing you could do to a league that already has an inferior quality of play is to thin out the talent pool. It might work for major sports like football, baseball, or basketball, but it just kills niche-leagues like the NHL and the WNBA. In the WNBA there are what, twelve, sixteen teams? There should be no more than eight teams, all on the East Coast. Why the east coast? Because that's where most of the major women's college teams are: UConn, Rutgers, Duke, Tennessee, North Carolina (with the exception of Stanford). This is exactly how the NBA started. It eliminates a lot of the cost of traveling and you already have a built-in fanbase. In essence, you're just creating a professional extension of the colege game. Once again, this is exactly how the NBA game started. Once your league is relatively stable, then you can slowly expand. And even when you do, there's no guarantee that it's going to work. It still hasn't really worked out in cities like New Orleans, Vancouver/Memphis and Tampa Bay for those other leagues.

Finally, this would help create an emotional connection with the players on the floor. This is the best way to get people to watch. I have no problem watching high school girls sports because I know who the girls are personally and I actually care who wins. This should be the ultimate goal of the WNBA, get people to care who wins. It's not enough to rely on people's pride in their city's name, as the aforementioned expansion cities show. People criticize the NBA for marketing players and not teams, anfd this is a legitimate criticism because it is a major sports, but niche-sports rely on personalities to get audiences. Tiger Woods brought new fans to golf, Michele Wie and Annika Sorenstam brought new fans to women's golf, the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova brought new fans to women's tennis. You need to market personalities in a league like this. The WNBA can survive and be financially viable without being a charity-case as it is right now.

As far as Jean Van de Velde's comments, as many people have pointed out, it's not the "men's" tour, moron, it's the best-in-the-world tour. If a woman is one of the best in the world, she should be allowed to go on the best-in-the-world tour. It's not the "men's" NBA, it's the NBA, and if Candace Parker or whoever is good enough to play there, more power to them. Frankly, I think we'll see a woman in the NBA before we see a woman president.