The 20th WNBA season tips off on May 14th. Did you know? Do you care? More importantly, do you recognize any of the follow names?
Maya Moore. Brittney Griner. Diana Taurasi. Sue Bird.
These women are some of the most talented and skilled professional athletes in the world. Yet, outside of WNBA circles, they remain largely unknown.
Why is that?
Maya Moore has been compared to Michael Jordan as his female embodiment in women's basketball, and she has her own sneaker line through the Jordan brand. Yet, the harsh reality of being a WNBA "star" is something even she can't ignore. Last April, she wrote an honest and open essay for The Players' Tribune, called (In)visibility, in which she talks about all the hard work she put in to get to get to where she is today, and how disappointing it is that all that hard work goes relatively unnoticed.
It's true and also unfortunate. WNBA players work just as hard as their male counterparts, receive a fraction of the attention and get paid far less. "But they only play a few months in the summer," you might say. Sure. But once the WNBA season wraps, several players head overseas to play internationally. The league's best player, Diana Taurasi, even sat out last year because the Russian team she plays for overseas gave her a million reasons not to. The WNBA can't compete with that. And as the 20th season nears, its future lingers in the balance.
So, what's the answer? Is it marketing?
Moore thinks so. "We need the marketing to match our product," she said in her essay. "Celebrate us for the things that matter -- the stories, the basketball, the character, the fiery competitiveness, our professionalism."
But basketball fans don't really care about the stories off the court. Or the character. Or the professionalism. They care about the basketball product. And the product isn't televised as much as it needs to be. The league's best teams aren't showcased like they should be, in order to market said product. Women's college basketball gets more televised games than the WNBA, and that's part of the problem.
Moore also wondered in her essay why the fans that rooted her on at the University of Connecticut didn't follow her to the WNBA. But most diehard college basketball fans are just that -- college basketball fans. Once Moore left, the next crop of talent came up and UConn has remained a perennial powerhouse. As a UConn fan, why look elsewhere?
It's been often said that the main Achilles heal of the WNBA is the lack of interest from men. That's part of the reason why previous attempts to soften the WNBA's image were brought up in marketing sessions by WNBA league-heads. I interviewed Brittney Griner a couple of years ago for a magazine story in which she revealed that the league was contemplating shorter and tighter uniforms. This cringe-worthy idea would have done nothing to improve the quality of the product, and would have played into the stereotypes that so many female athletes are trying to break down. The fact is a lot of men don't want to watch the WNBA because they think it's boring. How do I know? I've asked. They are used to high-flying dunks and blocks and fast-paced wheeling and dealing on the court. That's what they want in a basketball game. But the only female baller that can really throw down is Brittney Griner. And guys think she's too manly. But they want dunks. Yet they don't want girls to be overly athletic.
See the catch-22?
I'm not here to rationalize or talk about all the reasons why men won't watch the WNBA. Graham Hays of ESPN did that for me already, with this well-written piece for PAGE 2 about why men are afraid of the WNBA. Trying to attract men who already have preconceived notions about the WNBA or female athletes in general is fruitless. These are the guys who make fun of WNBA players, and then kiss their daughters good night and tell them they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. They will never be fans.
What I want to focus on is what I believe to be the crux of the WNBA's problem. And it isn't men. It's women. Why aren't more women paying attention to the WNBA? Why do more women tune into Scandal or The Real Housewives of Wherever for water cooler fodder instead? I wrote a column about this, about getting women to care about sports when they simply don't. It's a hard task. I've pitched sports stories to female publications before and they are just not interested. It's not the right audience, they say. But if women aren't the right audience for women's sports, then who is?
And that, you see, is the real issue. The WNBA, and women's sports in general, need more women to care. Notice I didn't just say women. I said more women. The WNBA's audience is 75 percent women. But those 75 percent make up a small fraction of the population. We need more women to read, watch, and soak up women's sports the same way men do men's sports. Think about it. Half the population in the United States is made up of women. If every woman in the country tuned into the WNBA, it could stand on its own two feet. It's one thing for women who have no interest in sports in general not to care about the WNBA. But I've encountered women who actually play basketball and played in college, and they are "meh" about the WNBA. Even females who are actually interested in sports balk at the WNBA, including professional sports writers. Stacey Pressman, who writes female affirming and supportive prose in ESPN Magazine's: The Body Issue, wrote this (far) less than glowing review of a WNBA game. And she isn't the only female writer to do so.
Last year, in a bold yet seemingly desperate move, the WNBA launched a marketing campaign that focused on LGBT fans, holding public events at lesbian clubs and pride parades. While I get why they are focusing on inclusion and targeting this particular market, it's also very narrow minded. When I say "women," I don't just mean gay women. I mean all women -- straight, gay, married, single, athletic, non-athletic, etc. For some reason there is a disconnect between women and the act of consuming women's sports, particularly the WNBA.
Some of the women I questioned say they are fans, but they can never find a game to watch on television. Others say the WNBA is on during the time of year when most people are doing summer-type things, instead of in the house watching sports. And others just say they have no interest, period.
The WNBA recently hired a new president of operations this past February to address the issue at hand. Lisa Borders, a former Coca-Cola executive, is now tasked with the responsibility of increasing viewership of the league. She has to figure out a way to market a product to a core fan base that isn't exactly interested in the actual product. The situation is kind of like marketing gourmet ice cream to a group of people who are mostly lactose intolerant. It's a hard sell.
When it comes down to it though, it's not about the product.
It's not about the looks of the players, either.
It's not about the cut of the uniform.
It's not about skill.
It's not about men or what they want.
It's about women viewership, pure and simple.
The WNBA needs more women to watch in order to stay viable. It's no secret that NBA has been carrying the league since its inception. The following truth is hard to swallow, but it's the truth nonetheless -- the WNBA would be defunct right now if it weren't for the NBA.
It's ironic that the WNBA, a female-centered league and organization, is hurting largely because of the lack of interest from its own gender. In order to truly stand on its own two feet, earn the respect its players so deeply deserve, and separate itself from the NBA, the WNBA needs women to step up.
Because without women, there is no WNBA.