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.