The WNBA, the NBA, and Why We Compare the Two

The WNBA should succeed - or fail - on its own merits

Earlier this week, I got involved in a "why do men hate the WNBA" discussion on Twitter. I learned after the fact that the person I was "tweeting" with was WNBA player Olympia Scott. Of course, Twitter is a less-than-ideal medium for making a reasoned argument. The 140-character limit is pretty limiting, and having grown up in a world without text messaging, I'm still inclined to use punctuation in my sentences.

So I'll respond to Ms. Scott's question here.

To be fair, she didn't start out asking why men hate the WNBA - she simply wanted to know why the two leagues are constantly compared to each other. That doesn't generally happen in other sports - people don't generally compare and contrast the games of Serena Williams and Roger Federer, or judge male and female beach volleyball players against each other. So why does every conversation about the WNBA seem to lead off with "they're less athletic than the men, they play below the rim, and they can't dunk?"

I think the answer is simple.

Marketing.

We Got Next

For the WNBA's entire history, 1997 to the present, the league has been marketed as a sort-of "companion" to the NBA. The teams were set up in NBA cities, played in NBA venues, and generally wore uniforms derived from their NBA counterparts. And as NBA fans can attest, the league pushed the WNBA heavily, with promotions ranging from television commercials to integration of WNBA players in NBA All-Star weekend events.

And frankly, that's the problem.

See if you can follow my reasoning.

I'm an NBA fan. You're the league. You tell me, "here, watch this other league, you'll love it, because you love the NBA." I may give it a try. But my natural reaction will be, "wait... this isn't what I love. The game is much slower.

The game is played beneath the rim. It's sort of like watching a Princeton vs. Penn game... all back-door cuts and scores in the 50s. This isn't nearly as good as the NBA."

I don't think this is a gender issue -- not exclusively, anyway. There are plenty of NBA fans who have a similar reaction watching men's college basketball. And they're right. I'll watch a Fordham vs. St. John's game because I have a connection with the teams, and I do so knowing that the talent level on the floor is miles away from what I'd see in a matchup of the two worst teams in the NBA. Even on the best teams in Division I, players with top-level NBA talent are in the minority.

Unfortunately, the marketing problem started to compound itself. Many fans started to resent the constant barrage of WNBA promotion. ​ESPN's Bill Simmons wrote roughly 30,000 one-liners about the league and its constant presence at NBA events. To many NBA fans, the league became nothing more than a punch line.

Where They Went Wrong

It didn't need to be this way.

There are plenty of women's basketball fans. Spend a little time in Connecticut and you'll see plenty. Because in places like Connecticut, and Tennessee and North Carolina and Northern California where the elite teams of women's college basketball play, the fan base is established.

That should have been the WNBA's strategy all along. Instead of presenting the WNBA to NBA fans as a companion league, they should have targeted women's college hoops fanatics and said, "Here's how you can continue to follow the careers of the players you already love."

What Happens Next

The league has taken some steps in that direction -- there's a team based in Connecticut now, one not associated with any NBA team. Another franchise -- formerly known as the Detroit Shock -- is disassociating itself with an NBA "partner" and setting up operations in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But I can't help but wonder if the move away from being the NBA's "little sister" is too little, too late. Four WNBA teams have folded already; a dispersal draft of Sacramento Monarchs players was being held on December 14th.

League officials have said they hope to replace the Monarchs with a new franchise in the San Francisco Bay area in time for the 2011 season.

I'd like to see the league survive -- as a source of positive and healthy role models for girls, as an aid for coaches trying to teach fundamentals and below-the-rim play, and as an entertainment option for families who can't necessarily afford an NBA game.

But I'm not optimistic. According to an increasing number of reports, lots of NBA teams are losing money in the current economy. How long will NBA owners be willing to prop up the WNBA?