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Growing the WNBA: fixing the basics

A'ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby address the media prior to the All-Star game last weekend. WNBA photo.
A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby address the media prior to the All-Star game last weekend. WNBA photo.

This is part I of a series that looks at growing the WNBA

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has big plans to grow the league, from getting more large-scale publicity for athletes to adding teams.

But many players, past players and fans say that before those things can happen, the league needs to ensure that some basic tenets of sport are in place, and operational. The first issue, they say, is making games easier to watch.

Currently the WNBA contracts with ESPN, CBS Sports Network and ABC to air some of the 36 games per season. Other matchups can be streamed via Twitter, Facebook and locally-based apps. But while the diversity of modalities is good, it also makes it complicated for the average fan to tune in.

“I would like to see the league make it easier and more accessible for fans,” Aces guard and All-Star game MVP Kelsey Plum said in a pre-All-Star press conference. “For me personally, it’s so interesting when people are…tuned in, (and ask) ‘where can I watch the game?’ and I’m like, ‘well, you’ve got to download this app, then you got to put this in and oh, it’s blacked out, so you’ve got to go to this place.'”

“We understand that the product is great and when we get people to watch the game, they love it, but the hardest part is getting people there. So I feel that there are better ways strategically to figure out how to draw fans in, and then we can keep them.”

Her Las Vegas teammate and fellow All-Star A’ja Wilson agreed.

“It has to be more accessible to fans to want people, because you tell me I’ve got to go through three apps, I’m not watching that,” Wilson said. “Let’s be honest here. I think that’s just key as to how the league can grow.”

Many users also experience technical difficulties with WNBA League Pass. The app is supposed to give those who purchase it access to watch every game, but sometimes home games are “blacked out,” or not visible. In other instances, users report that League Pass regularly malfunctions.

Last week Indiana Fever rookie Queen Egbo highlighted the issue as she was at home due to health and safety protocols.

“I can’t even watch my team play because the WNBA app is tripping,” she tweeted.

A former WNBA player said when she tried to sign up for League Pass, the payment page wouldn’t accept her information. The app, which has malfunctioned for years, was supposedly upgraded before the season, and Engelbert said she has hired digital and data engineers to “improve the fan experience.” So why is the WNBA still having these issues?

It is not hard to understand why the average fan would assume – as some do – the league doesn’t care – especially when there are still name misspellings on website graphics, errors on the transactions page, and play-by-play announcers who still don’t get player’s names right.

This year, fans also took issue with what they characterized as last-minute planning and promotion for the All-Star game. Chicago wasn’t announced as the location for the event until late April, leaving planning time at a minimum, at a point when plane fares had increased exponentially due to rising fuel prices.

Wintrust Arena, the venue for the All-Star game, was already booked, so the WNBA put together a makeshift court at nearby McCormick Place for the three-point contest and skills competition.

Promotion for the entire event, in earnest, didn’t begin until last week. To compound matters, fans didn’t find out until they arrived that the events at McCormick were closed to them, as was a special concert by Chance the Rapper. The circumstances sparked a lot of frustration and anger that Engelbert’s attempts to explain didn’t soothe.

The WNBA has long been known for its last-minute approaches to events and projects. In order for it to evolve further, it must grow out of that mindset and plan for the long-haul. Being organized, and operating in that fashion, is key.

Another item on the “basics” list of many athletes is the availability of team and player merchandise. Last season, after the Chicago Sky won the WNBA Championship, jerseys, T-shirts and other items had to be back-ordered.

Wilson said she’d like to see the league take a more proactive approach.

“I feel like we shouldn’t go into an airport where a WNBA team is and you don’t see any WNBA gear,” she said. “There’s people plenty of times tweeting at us and they’re like, ‘we’re in Vegas, where I can get some Aces gear?’ And it’s like, ‘well, they only open the store on game days’ and it shouldn’t be like that. Yes, you can go to Nike but we all know, you can into an airport and they have every sport on demand right next to a magazine.”

Engelbert, who marks three years as the league’s first commissioner this week, and her team have helped bring the WNBA along in many good ways. Her vision for the league’s growth is on track.

But the building blocks for those big goals is to shore up the basics: make the game more accessible, streamline and smooth out operations, and get more merchandise into the hands of fans.

With two months to go, this is a very achievable goal. Hopefully WNBA staff will rise to the challenge.

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