WNBA: Something Just Ain’t Right

Something is different about the WNBA this year.

I’m not talking about the so-called parity that has resulted in teams with veteran basketball stars regularly getting their butts kicked. I’m talking about the way many longtime WNBA supporters and fans have distanced themselves from games – from the entire league. I’ve never seen large scale apathy from such hard core fans, and it concerns me.

I first noticed it pre-season when some Sparks season ticket holders told me they were foregoing their seats this year for the first time (they’d been there since the league opener in 1997) for Dodgers tickets. Dodgers tickets?

But then I got to Staples for the first few games and saw they weren’t the only ones; there are a lot of old-timers who aren’t there this year. And don’t think it’s just an LA problem.

A friend of mine in New York who had courtside Liberty seats for years barely goes to games anymore. I understand many more people have followed her lead recently.

Key Arena in Seattle has had many empty seats at some games this year. I don’t remember seeing empty seats in that crazy place since about 2002, when the Storm made the playoffs for the first time.

I think it’s a familiarity/brand name problem, where the players are the brand names. There’s been too much player shuffling, and fans don’t feel attached to their teams anymore. They barely know who their teams are.

In the cases of collapsed teams, it’s not the fault of the players. Tina Thompson had planned to retire a Houston Comet before the franchise folded two years ago. And I’m sure none of the Sacramento Monarchs anticipated they’d be looking for work at this time last year.

But the result was the same: athletes from those two teams were picked up by others, and suddenly fans are looking at a former arch enemy wearing the uniform of their own team. Weird, as one fan put it recently when watching Monarch-turned-Spark Ticha Penicheiro dribble up the court.

Then, there have been a lot of trades the last few years. The most recent big one was the Phoenix-New York-Chicago trade that put Shameka Christon and Kathrine Kraayeveld in Chicago, Candice Dupree in Phoenix and Cappie Pondexter in New York. New York fans lost two of their favorites, Chicago fans had just got used to Dupree, and Pondexter had just helped Phoenix win their second championship. Fans are still pissed. And some wondered why a fight almost broke out last weekend at the Mercury-Liberty game.

Humans are creatures of habit. Sports fans tend to be sentimental, and they can be irrational. They expect to see the same/their favorite players on their teams year after year. Sports fans equate those players with their team; they become interchangeable. For example:

Babe Ruth = Yankees
Magic Johnson = Lakers
Larry Bird = Celtics

So it’s not hard to see how WNBA fans can be feeling a little funky right now, because players have been changing teams like underwear the last few years. The only team I can think of off the top of my head that has stayed basically the same for a long time is the Seattle Storm. That’s one team out of the entire league. Everyone else – fans just don’t know. They have no idea whether or not the player they can’t stand this year is the one that will be introduced in their team’s starting lineup next year.

To increase fan stability and league viability, the WNBA would be wise to help each team develop an identity again – and one that centers around the players on the team. It is too much about the team name now, whereas in the early days of the league it was all about the players on the team. Liberty? T-Spoon and Sue Wicks. Sting? Dawn Staley. Lynx? Katie Smith. Comets? Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson.

Women’s basketball fans are more attached to the players as people and personas, so why not play on that? And start with trying to keep players on the same team for a while. Quit all the jumping around.

It’s unfortunate to see this bump in the road of the WNBA. But I’m hoping they wake up, look back, and right the ship.

This is why they teach history in schools, you see. You gotta learn from the past.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I stopped watching the NFL in the early 90s (and to a lesser extent, the NBA) for exactly this phenomenon. With free-agency, players were hopping from team to team. It felt to me like I was now just cheering for the team colors and design on their helmets. That seemed silly, so I stopped watching.

    In a way, I think the situation is almost worse in the WNBA. There is a lot of "trade me" terrorism going on. What this means, fundamentally, is that players are the tail now starting to wag the WNBA dog.

    Solution? The WNBA needs to loosen up its pay structure. Not to the point of ruinous salary wars, but enough so that one or two players can be enticed to stay in place even if the situation isn't totally "perfect".

    Now is the time for the league officials to start managing this before brand loyalty gets too diluted.

  2. Sue-

    IIRC (and these days, I so rarely do) in the beginning Team/Player branding was the goal. A player couldn't be a free agent for forever. So, no movement in the early years.

    I'm sure it was in the CBA — and that free agency was put in at the request of the players.

    Free agency exists because of Mr. Curt Flood. The plus is players can move, not just get traded, and get more money. The unintended consequence is that fans see their faves leave.

    As Sarah noted, just think of Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, Bret Favre, Wayne Gretzky, etc. etc. etc.

    The Yazs and Ray Bourques and Cal Ripkins (though I don't begrudge him his Cup – classy guy)and Bruschis are the exception to the current rule.

    There's no denying the salary cap is a major factor in the W. But, it's there because of a business need. It's not like teams are raking in the money and screwing players out of the big bucks. Some players just want to move (Cappie) and would be cranky if they got stuck. Some players NEED to move because they're not right for a team or they're right for another team.

    Honestly, I think there's a transition in fandom that fans of the W are going through — the "in love" phase into the "love the game" phase. It's a painful phase, but necessary if the league is going to survive as a LEAGUE, not a showcase for a personality or two.

  3. For those of you out there who don't know what IIRC means (and I didn't either until 10 minutes ago), it means "if I recall correctly."

    I know the whys and hows of free agency. But players like Pondexter are the pro equivalent of the college players who quit their teams and transfer to another school. And you and I have already established that we don't agree on that.

    You make it sound like WNBA fans only came to the league to watch certain players and didn't know anything about the game. Au contraire – the people I know who attend games know a great deal about basketball. And it is precisely their "love of the game" that is making so many in LA disgusted lately, because there is no good basketball to watch. The crowd clearly loves Delisha and Tina, but the bad basketball is too painful to sit through.

    I'll say it again: the WNBA needs some consistency. All the teams folding and players hopping from squad to squad has left fans feeling disconnected. The whole sentiment seems to be "so what?" and that's not good.

  4. You wrote: I know the whys and hows of free agency. But players like Pondexter are the pro equivalent of the college players who quit their teams and transfer to another school. And you and I have already established that we don't agree on that.

    I'm sorry, I'm not sure what the comparison is (and we did?).

    I didn't say I like it, I'm saying that it's something the player's want – a little freedom of choice. You suggested you didn't know it was happening in other leagues (or at least I read it as such).

    Hey, Spoon left, VJ left, Hammon left, CRob left… it happened in the past and it's happening now.

    My dissatisfaction with the Lib is not that Sue or Kym aren't there, it's that the GM has really screwed the pooch — and, it would seem, is a pain to work under.

    I'm not sure what the option is — say, hey, the next CBA says players can't ask to leave but the GM's can trade'em willy nilly.

    As for fan knowledge, you're lucky. I'm amazed how many Lib fans follow the team in the Garden but not out of it. Nor do they follow the league.

    Of course, it may be because it's so dang hard to find news on the league and the W.com is so stoopid about (not) using alerts.

    Finally, I can't tell if LA fans are disgusted because they're losing or because players are team hopping.

    In New York, the malaise has a lot to do with the losing. And the never ending incompetency of the management. And I don't forsee either changing.

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