Patronizing defense of the ladies

>> Saturday

In case you didn't notice--which I assume you haven't unless, like me, you have a raging lesbian fetish--the WNBA season begins this afternoon.

Sadly, I suspect that this could be one of the last WNBA opening days, if not the last. Without knowing the details of the league's financial troubles, the signals are plentiful. Consider:

1. More so than NBA players, many women's basketball players have been looking to Europe (I recall an ESPN feature a year or so ago about Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird making big bucks in Russia) for larger paychecks in recent years.

2. The league trimmed its roster size from 13 to 11 coming into this season.

3. The Phoenix Mercury will have the name of their primary corporate sponsor, LifeLock, an identity theft prevention service, emblazoned on their uniforms this year.

4. Although today's Detroit Shock-L.A. Sparks game will be broadcast on ABC, there is absolutely no mention of it currently on's homepage, and we all know that ESPN hypes the mother-loving shit out of every sport (and non-sport) that it broadcasts, even ones that generate little interest outside of a tiny niche market.

5. As I've just discovered, does not have a WNBA page. Although the dropdown "ALL SPORTS" button at the top of the homepage has a link for WNBA, it actually takes you to the general "Women's Basketball" page that covers both college and pro women's hoops. 

Speaking of said page, check out the "girly" color scheme they use for it:

So who's doing the patronizing now?

Of course, that perfectly represents the way that ESPN's marketing of the WNBA--not to mention the league's marketing of itself (see: pretty much every team nickname in the league)--has, in my opinion, gone great lengths to undermine the credibility of the league. Year-in and year-out, ESPN promotes the WNBA (and the NCAA Women's Tournament for that matter) with some trite "feminist anthem" to play up the image of WNBA players as selfless, wholesome role models and not--just like the menfolk--the highly competitive animals they are. (Last year, I believe the promotional tune was Liz Phair's "Extraordinary," which--as a huge fan of Exile in Guyville--I find cruelly appropriate. Oh, Liz... Once so gritty; how you cheapened yourself!) God forbid ESPN would use a song sung by a man or that actual WNBA players might, you know, listen to. 

To size up this effect, look no further than the dual "Oh, heavens, no! The ladies are fighting!" / "Ooh, catfight!" reaction that last year's Detroit-L.A. in-game brawl mainly received. It was one out of the roughly two instances--the title clincher possibly being the other, though I wouldn't be so confident--that an out-of-market WNBA game was covered by local news outlets, and ESPN, of course, milked the "controversy" of it. I remember Jamele Hill wrote a great commentary on the incident, which I think may have been the only occasion where Jamele Hill trumped Bill Simmons's assorted ramblings and Rick Reilly's hacktastic drivel on's home page.

While I do credit ESPN for bringing women's sports to their market--without which, they'd hold even lower status--the fact that the network has simultaneously undermined the WNBA's credibility for the vast majority of that viewer market has, I think, cut significantly into their efforts to promote women's basketball. And as a man with a raging lesbian fetish, I think that's a damned shame.

So who's doing the undermining now?


Paul 3:56 PM  

You're spot on. The WNBA has always tried to sell itself as a sport for a single demographic: girls younger than age 18.

It is not marketed as an alternative major sport but an alternative to major sports.

Mike 7:44 AM  

This kind of niche marketing really doesn't give the league any chance to expand its footprint and grow.

The argument we will inevitably hear when the WNBA folds is that it is a shame that for all the men's sports, even one of the top-flight womens' leagues couldn't survive. Naturally, this argument completely ignores the reality that a very large segment of the target market for professional sports is men, and frankly, the WNBA did not put out that great a product.

The WNBA came along at a time when fans' impressions of what makes exciting basketball were already formed. The WNBA, for all its unselfishness and teamwork and good role models primarily lacks a vertical dimension to the game. Sure Candace Parker and maybe a few other players can dunk, but having seen Candace dunk (in high school) she barely gets it over the rim. So what was once a three-dimensional sport is now a two-dimensional sport.

Imagine if a women's football league were formed (stick with me here) with the same backing the WNBA got from the league, tv, and national sponsors. Now, what if the women never passed the ball. No forward passes. No aerial leaps. No hail marys. What you would be left with would be a completely different kind of football (rugby?), and impossible to compare the two.

The WNBA's failure is almost entirely based on a myopic marketing agenda, and frankly, a product that is not that exciting to watch.

Vinnie 12:51 PM  

The WNBA's best opportunity to establish itself was probably the post-strike / post-MJ (II) years when the (M)NBA was dominated by isolation sets, Van Gundy-Ball, the Jail Blazers, and Darius Mileses. I think if they'd marketed the WNBA as an actual stylistic alternative ("Hey look--we pass the ball and don't choke our coaches to boot!") without the schmaltzy girl-power mantra, they had a chance to win some converts sick of watching a 350-pound Sean Kemp back down underdeveloped 19 year-olds and dainty imports thirty-five times a game.

I also don't think it helped that the NBA branded all the original teams with silly knockoffs of their respective city's NBA franchise name and colors, sort of the way a sitcom will have a character sip a beverage from what looks exactly like a Pepsi can except that the label says "SODA." Right away, that sent the message, "If you blur your vision real good, we may fool you into thinking it's the real thing," which I think ensured that the league would never be more than a chintzy, transgendered spinoff in the minds of most NBA fans. Big mistake.

Vinnie 12:53 PM  

*Shawn Kemp

Bones 2:43 PM  

Wonder what's more popular:

The WNBA, the NHL, or those chainsaw competitions ESPN 2 shows at, like, 4 am.

I agree with Paul, though, the WNBA's never been broadcast as an actual sports league, it's just a branch of the NBA, same as the D-League. With the economy in the toilet and no real dynamic MJ-Gretzky-Babe Ruth-style poster girl to rake in cash and fans, I can't see the WNBA making it past this season.

Iain 4:58 PM  

I was going to make some snarky comments about Hooters and Hustler sponcering teams, but no everyone had to make good points in a non-sexist manner. So, instead I'll aggree with Mike's point that the WNBA is missing something. It's missing the best athletes in the sport. Americans like watching the best athletes in a given sport compete aginst each other.
Plus I'm tired of those terrible songs they use in their ads getting stuck in my head.

Vinnie 11:12 PM  

"Americans like watching the best athletes in a given sport compete aginst each other."

I don't think this is the reason at all. If it were, how could we explain the popularity of college football, which is clearly sloppier and played by vastly less talented competitors (even to the casual fan) than the pro game? If it were all about watching the best athletes, the MLS would've folded long ago.

Sports franchises have always been about selling a brand and building a community. It's about creating arbitrary affiliations that have little to do with any purely athletic distinction between franchises. Most fans don't have a discriminating enough eye to know the difference anyway. Hence, when the NFL used replacement players, people still showed up and watched the games because the Packers still played in Green Bay, the Browns wore Brown, and the Chargers had lightning bolts on their helmets.

The WNBA was marketed as a novelty, and the franchises were branded as knockoffs. That's why the league is (seemingly) in trouble today.

Anonymous,  6:05 AM  

I'm a female sports fan, and... I don't watch the WNBA. I feel guilty about it, really.

It's not that they're inferior athletes, because I'm an ardent fan of college sports, MLS, and the Memphis Grizzlies. Plus, I'm hopeful for WPS, because they seem to have learned a bit from the mistakes of WUSA, and also because I feel compelled to buy a Chicago Red Stars jersey based on sheer badassitude.

I think you've completely caught on to why the WNBA has never really had a chance. There's systemic misogyny inherent in sports media and fan bases, but the biggest hurdle was created by the patronizing, faux-"girl power" marketing which alienates female sports fans and does little to create long-term new fans. It was always going to be an uphill battle, but the league and ESPN didn't make things easier.

Iain 2:35 PM  

Collage sports are always different from pro sports in popularity. People support their collages in general but will pay attention to the sports they excell in, see Tennesse and UConn Women's Basketball or the sudden soar in popularity of Marquette Women's Soccer when they beat then number one Notre Dame. Even the people who didn't go to collage will latch onto a program that is excelling when they start getting into the sport, or they'll latch onto the closest major team.

Vinnie 9:53 PM  

I guess that's more or less the point, though. It's not necessarily about quality of play--it's about people getting behind a brand or a community. I grant you that it's much easier to create a community around a college allegiance, but really, pro sports succeed by the same mechanism. It may be a little tougher to build community around a city, nickname, and logo, but if it weren't possible, pro sports wouldn't exist on the scale they do.

Also keep in mind that there are extremely popular minor league baseball teams and AHL teams, but they're typically in large cities without a major sport alternative. I wonder if the WNBA would've been more successful if they'd targeted places like Knoxville and Hartford for their original franchises, instead of, say, Sacramento and Salt Lake City.

Iain 11:20 AM  

Speaking of gimiky knok-off leagues, remember the XFL and Slamball?

Vinnie 1:23 PM  

Am I alone in thinking that everyone gave up too quickly on the XFL? I wish it were still around; Rex Grossman needs a home.

Zuch 7:41 PM  

The XFL itself (an alternative football league in the offseason) was not a bad idea, but the gimmickry of having it run by a wrestling promoter whose offshoots have all amazingly failed doomed it to irrelevance. I still think there is a market for an offseason football league (memo to the new league-do not directly compete against NFL but move season to later winter/early spring) as NFL Europe was a great breeding ground if not overly popular on a continent much more enamored with soccer.

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