Women's pro basketball wins fans all its own
WASHINGTON — A few not-so-scientific observations about the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA):
Women pros hustle more than men, even in an All-Star game.
Teenage girls are among the loudest fans in sports.
Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, who both play for the Seattle Storm, could one day become the most dominant one-two punch in pro basketball.
The WNBA, despite lackluster support among men, is here to stay.
That said, the women's pro league, in its sixth year, still has a long way to go. Attendance is hovering around 9,000 fans per game (about 65 percent are women). The 16 teams play just 32 games per season. There's tension between ownership and the players, and a strike after this season is an outside possibility.
Yet, as was evidenced at Monday's WNBA All-Star Game at Washington's MCI Center before nearly 20,000 ardent fans, something special is happening and it reflects the enormous progress in women's sports some 30 years after Title IX gave female athletes equal rights in publicly funded schools.
For proof, one need only follow Bird, the much decorated rookie guard from the University of Connecticut, onto the court as she's swarmed by adoring fans. Or watch Ticha Penicheiro of the Sacramento Monarchs handle the ball in the open court as if it's a yo-yo on the end of an elastic string.
Or hang around a WNBA team before a game, and notice that most of the players are polite, articulate, and well-rounded (no Allen Iversons here).
"It's getting better every year," says Teresa Weatherspoon, the veteran point guard for the New York Mystics, who is strong, flashy, and the unofficial heart and soul of the league. "The talent level is rising fast."
So is the recognition.
"When I walk on the streets in New York, everyone knows me, and everyone wants to talk to me," Weatherspoon says. "It's an awesome feeling. I'm appreciated. It's what I worked so hard for all these years."
According to Val Ackerman, president of the WNBA, the league is making steady progress and is moving forward, albeit cautiously. It is likely that it will add more teams and lengthen the season in coming years. Already, the WNBA is among the most successful professional women's sports leagues in history.
The players, who are employed by the league, as opposed to by individual teams, make from $35,000 to $55,000 per season. Many of them have to play in a European league in the off-season to earn extra cash. Yet the top college stars and an increasing number of foreign standouts answer the WNBA's call.
"It was a journey that brought the WNBA to where it is today, and there's a journey that lies ahead," Ackerman says. "Women's basketball has truly found its space on the national landscape."
A lot of the success has to do with television, he says. This year there will be about 800 women's basketball games on TV: 150 WNBA games and 650 college games. Last month, the WNBA announced that it had signed a six-year television contract extension with ESPN and ABC. Games will also be picked up on the Oxygen Network, a cable channel that targets women.
The WNBA has prominent sponsors, including Nike, Coca-Cola, American Express, and Reebok. Some of the players, such as All-Star game MVP Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks, have lucrative endorsement contracts.
The WNBA has come a long way. "I never thought [we would play] in an NBA arena," Leslie says, recalling when she first came into the league.
"To have the type of fan base that we have [now], it totally blew me away."
And these women at least at the all-star level are good. They may not fly above the rim like the men, but they pass, shoot, run hard, and dive on the floor for loose balls. They even command the respect of the toughest of critics the men of the NBA, some of whom watched the All-Star game at the MCI Center with mouths agape.
It's a little bit like the old-school game from the Midwest every player touches the ball until there's an open jump shot or a backdoor layup. Nearly every game regular season or playoffs is played at a frenzied pitch.
Remember the movie "Hoosiers?"
"There's no dunking, so they have to work harder," says Helen Wheelock, a reporter for Women's Basketball magazine who was covering the All-Star game.
"They pass, they break down zone [defenses], they play tough defense, and they shoot the ball comparably to the men."
One admitted difference between the WNBA and the NBA is how the leagues are marketed. Whereas many NBA players project a tough-guy image, the women tend to get glamorous for a photo shoot, Wheelock says.
On the cover of the official WNBA guide book, for instance, half of the players are photographed as if they were fashion models, and half are shown in uniform.
"I think what makes our players interesting is who they are as people," says Ackerman, the WNBA president. "Fans want to know where they shop, what they like to read, what Cheryl Swoops [of the Houston Comets] does with her son."