How to fix the WNBA.

The stadium scene.
Oct. 20 2009 7:53 PM

How To Fix the WNBA

Why the NBA's plan for selling women's basketball will never work—and what might.

Members of the Phoenix Mercury celebrate with the WNBA trophy. Click image to expand.
Members of the Phoenix Mercury celebrate with the WNBA trophy

Earlier this month, the New York Times' Karen Crouse argued that America was falling for women's hoops. After the Phoenix Mercury beat the Indiana Fever to win the WNBA title, Crouse wrote that the championship series "was pixie dust for the league —the women's equivalent of the NBA Finals in the 1980s between the Lakers and the Celtics." Kelli Anderson echoed that take in Sports Illustrated, citing higher television ratings, increased year-over-year attendance, and the courtside presence of male athletes like Peyton Manning and Larry Fitzgerald as "evidence that the WNBA is on a roll."

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

In reality, there's little evidence the WNBA is primed for mainstream success. The AP reported Monday that the Detroit Shock—winners of three WNBA titles since 2003—were moving to Tulsa after years of poor attendance in the Motor City. The Shock's relocation comes a year after the four-time champion Houston Comets were forced to suspend operations. And if this year's finals were pixie dust for the league, the dust didn't make it to the upper deck of Phoenix's US Airways Center: The WNBA champion Mercury handed out thousands on thousands of free tickets during the championship series in order to fill its arena.

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While Crouse and Anderson clearly go too far in heralding the league's rise to prominence, so too do the hecklers who rejoice in the WNBA's foibles. As the finals wound down, ESPN.com's most-popular writer, Bill Simmons, mocked his own network's coverage of women's hoops. "Tweets you won't see tonight," Simmons wrote. "Flip over to ESPN2, the 4th quarter of the climactic WNBA Finals game is on right now!" A few months earlier, Simmons encouraged one of his readers to go to a WNBA game wearing a T-shirt reading "EXPECT LAYUPS." And last month, the desperate-to-be-edgy Foxsports.com video series "Cubed" played host to a debate about which activity was more palatable, women's hoops or gay porn. (Fox Sports later cut that bit, explaining in a statement that it had been "experimental.")

Why does the WNBA inspire such outrage and disdain? All nascent sports leagues—the WNBA launched in 1997—have a problem with legitimacy. (Just ask the Continental League, the XFL, or the United Football League.) But the WNBA's detractors are also railing against perceived political correctness. In a 2005 polemic, Simmons argued that "the WNBA has been given countless chances, endless promotion, mainstream coverage and truckloads of capital. Has it helped? Absolutely not. … [T]he WNBA should accept its place in the Sports Fan Pecking Order alongside NFL Europe, indoor lacrosse, minor-league hockey, bowling, celebrity poker and every other niche sport that appeals to a specific audience. … None of those sports get preferential, wink-wink treatment from TV networks. Neither should the WNBA."

Look past the taunts and there's some truth to Simmons' argument. The World Series of Poker has averaged a 0.91 rating for ESPN in 2009; ESPN2's primetime coverage of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals received a 0.43 rating, or about 555,000 viewers. The NYT's Crouse and SI's Anderson fail to mention that number, which makes it seem like they're trying to fool their readers into thinking the WNBA is more popular than it really is.

It's also undeniable that the WNBA wouldn't exist today if not for the largesse of the NBA. The women's hoops league was launched and paid for by its men's counterpart, and the NBA still owns and subsidizes the majority of the WNBA's 13 franchises. [Clarification, Oct. 20: Upon reflection, the new WNBA franchise in Tulsa could be considered independent or league-owned. While the Tulsa team's principal owner Bill Cameron is also a part-owner of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, the WNBA's Tulsa franchise won't share a home city or home arena with an NBA team. If you do choose to count Tulsa as an independent team, that would mean the majority of the WNBA's franchises—seven of 13—are independently owned.] So far, the investment hasn't paid off. As of 2007, WNBA teams were losing an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million per year.

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