“The WNBA is in a process, it’s in an identity crisis right now—especially with our society in America where people aren’t sure where to put it. It’s had its growing pains and it still is having some growing pains, but I think the NBA went through the same thing early on in its adolescence. It’s just going to take some time and we are going to have to watch it play itself out. But I think it’s proven to be a strong league, and just like any other league it is going to have its ups and downs based on things it can’t control.” — Monica Wright, guard, Minnesota Lynx
“Want to hear a joke?” asked a random woman at a sports bar two nights ago. “Sure, why not?” I said, trying desperately to work on my public sociability. “Women’s professional basketball.” She replied, in perfect deadpan delivery.
Given the shocking number of people who genuinely believe that a shadowy “Illuminati” runs world, that the United States never landed on the Moon, and that dinosaurs are an atheist conspiracy, I probably should not have been surprised that an adult female sports fan would openly mock the Women’s National Basketball Association. And in lukewarm defense of that lady in the sports bar, it almost assuredly wasn’t fair for me to compare her anti-WNBA beliefs with those of dinosaur denialism. But I have always been highly-skeptical of the hostility toward a professional women’s basketball league. Is it genuine opinion, or merely the lazy reconveyance of a tired sports trope?
People like to poke fun at the WNBA for putting forth an allegedly unwatchable product. I fondly remember the 1997 inaugural WNBA season. As a kid, I immediately became a casual fan of the Phoenix Mercury, and there was nothing unwatchable about that Bridget Pettis and Michelle Timms backcourt, let alone the savvy post play of Jennifer Gillom. And after watching quite a bit of the 2013 WNBA season, nothing has changed today. What the WNBA might lack in above-the-rim verticality, it more than makes up for in the ridiculous talent of superstars like Elena Delle Donne, Diana Taurasi, and Candace Parker.
Aside from on-the-court gripes, the anti-WNBA crowd often alleges that the league itself is some sort of unprofitable, affirmative action charity venture perpetuated by the NBA and the respective owners of the twelve WNBA franchises. While it is fair to say that the WNBA likely could exist in perpetuity so long as the owners were content with their respective monetary losses per annum, it is hardly the case that the WNBA itself is clearly unprofitable. As a whole, and contrary to common narrative, the WNBA actually turned a profit in 2012. The WNBA finals managed to draw higher television ratings than Indy Car, U.S. Open Series Tennis, and Major League Soccer. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, in September of 2013 fewer viewers tuned in for a local broadcast of a Houston Astros game than did for an out of market Chicago Sky versus Minnesota Lynx WNBA game during the same time slot. Make no mistake: the Astros were atrocious last season, but it is hard to believe that more Texans watched the WNBA than their once beloved ‘Stros. And according to Forbes, in the WNBA’s 17th season, viewership was up 86% on NBA TV and 41% on ESPN2; attendance was up .3%; gate receipts were up 18%; and merchandise sales were up 36%! ESPN surely paid attention to those numbers, as the sports juggernaut recently extended their TV rights contract with the WNBA until 2022—paying the league $12 million per season. Feel free to argue that $12 million per year is pocket change for ESPN/ABC/Disney; it most certainly is, but one must also realize that ESPN has a legal fiduciary duty to shareholders of Disney to make profitable decisions. To be sure, ESPN president John Skipper is not merely throwing pity money at women’s basketball.
Apart from the sophomoric playing style jokes and the misguided revenue jabs, many have attacked the legitimacy of the WNBA for its current athlete pay. Here, they might have a point. Whereas the best players in the NBA sign $100+ million contracts, the maximum salary for a WNBA player in 2012 was only $105,000. And with a salary cap set at just $878,000 per team, some women made the league minimum—$36,570, with the average player earning $72,000 per season. It is a bit odd in a country with yearly personal earnings averages well below $72,000 that some would hold a presumed lack of adequate athlete compensation against the WNBA as an entity, but as John Steinbeck astutely once pointed out, Americans generally “see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” But I digress. The fact remains haters of the WNBA like to use WNBA athletes playing overseas to increase their yearly earnings as an indictment against the viability of the Women’s National Basketball Association itself. The logic is in effect that Lebron doesn’t need to play in Istanbul during the offseason, so why should Tamika Catchings? Okay. Fair enough, I suppose. Duly noted.
I will admit that it is a little strange and unfortunate—purely from a talent scarcity perspective—that female professional basketball players are making less money than many accountants, attorneys, doctors, and managers. But that is hardly reason to belittle the very fabric of the WNBA. Yet despite putting forth a fun product and defying the odds in terms of profitability, there are still people out there that laugh at the league and want it to go away. These people are fundamentally questioning the WNBA’s value.
Throw actual numbers out the window. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the WNBA is not just in the red every year, but also insolvent. Let’s assume the on-the-court product does not at all translate to television. And let’s assume absolutely no one but for the die hard fans are attending live games. Even in this bizarro world WNBA hypothetical, the league itself still has an incredible amount of inherent value.
When I had the opportunity to sit down and interview Minnesota Lynx guard Monica Wright, I honestly did not know what to expect. The problem with interviewing elite athletes is the same problem with interviewing anyone: assuming time not unlimited, you simply can’t afford to have an organic conversation with the person—even though this is what interviewer and interviewee would usually both prefer. Instead, the interviewer’s task is to get the interviewee to produce as many “buzzworthy” and interesting things as possible, and the interviewee’s job is to promote whatever she might be promoting and to come across as likable for current and potential future fans. Needless to say, I did not go into my interview with Ms. Wright expecting to hear, in my opinion, the single greatest argument in favor of the existence and longevity of the WNBA. But I did in fact hear such an argument.
Although admittedly cliche, Monica Wright is a winner on and off the court. She grew up playing soccer and basketball, eventually deciding to pursue the latter collegiately. She graduated from the University of Virginia—one of the best academic institutions the United States has to offer—and starred for the Wahoos for four years. Wright was then drafted second overall in the 2010 WNBA Draft and has since become a two time WNBA champion with the Minnesota Lynx, the team that drafted her.
I could tell that Ms. Wright was very bright, and I had permission to ask her virtually anything, so I wanted to get her thoughts on the WNBA in general—the status quo, its popularity [or lack thereof, depending on your perspective], and its future. I asked Monica, who really enjoys utilizing her career as a professional athlete as a platform for working with kids, if she has noticed any differences in how excited younger girls are in meeting a WNBA star like herself. Monica replied:
“Yeah, especially with younger girls. I think parents know that it’s clean fun, a clean form of entertainment, and for those parents who have daughters that are athletes, I think it is a great way to show your young daughter that women are doing this too. I mean, everyone knows about the NBA players and the freakishly athletic things that they do, but to see a woman go out there shows all of what women stand for—positivity, and all of the things that women stand for in our society.” — Monica Wright
The WNBA as a vehicle for promoting good, strong female stereotypes to young girls? Wow. Such an important concept seems rather self-evident and obvious, but it nevertheless struck me as almost foreign in today’s sports climate. Maybe it was the classic Charles Barkley “I am not a role model” ideology, or perhaps it was just my own ignorance and biases, but I had wholly forgotten the notion that professional athletics should function as something more than capitalist entertainment. Before I could ask another question, Monica continued:
“Seeing women play basketball professionally still kind of blows my mind, and even seeing black women playing basketball professionally or even in college— thinking about 60-years prior when, really, you know a lot of times the only jobs for black women were being housemaids and hairdressers. Now, it’s a drastic change and a rapid change at that.” — Monica Wright
Housemaids and hairdressers. Let that truth ruminate for a moment. I grew up in this waspy, Horatio Alger-like dime novel fantasy world in which I could just work hard and then magically become anything that I wanted. Black women in the not-so-distant past? Not so much. Women in the not-so-distant past and to a certain extent even today? The last time I checked, the proverbial glass ceiling has yet to be broken.
The WNBA is more than just a professional basketball league for women; it is a symbol. A metaphorical beacon of hope. An important piece of social justice history somewhere in between the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the eventual election of our nation’s first woman president—not that the latter will necessarily or even realistically be the actual finish line for gender related social justice.
Ms. Wright might come across as a bit idealistic, but she is no dummy. She is well-aware of certain current negative perceptions regarding the WNBA, and she did not shy away from commenting about them. Ms. Wright explained:
“The WNBA is in a process, it’s in an identity crisis right now—especially with our society in America where people aren’t sure where to put it. It’s had its growing pains and it still is having some growing pains, but I think the NBA went through the same thing early on in its adolescence. It’s just going to take some time and we are going to have to watch it play itself out. But I think it’s proven to be a strong league, and just like any other league it is going to have its ups and downs based on things it can’t control.” — Monica Wright
Monica is absolutely right. The WNBA is in its 17th year of existence; the NBA has been around since 1946. The WNBA is still in its infancy; the NBA, meanwhile, is past the age of retirement and still experiencing growing pains. The Tim Donaghy officiating scandal in 2007, anyone? The NBA Playoffs still airing on tape delay in 1986? 1986! All throughout the ’80s, some 30-years after the creation of the NBA, the likes of Doctor J, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic Johnson were not being broadcast on live television in favor of reruns of The Incredible Hulk. With apologies to Lou Ferrigno—who at 62-years-old could almost assuredly still kick my ass—a rerun of Lou “Hulk Smashing” random bad guys should never have taken center stage over the 1980′s NBA product.
Crazy things happen during the early years of professional sports leagues. Let’s embrace historical realities and give the WNBA the benefit of the doubt, at least until its personified self could legally drink in a bar.
By the end of my interview with Monica, I got the impression that she is more concerned with playing the game the right way and being a good role model for children than she is at attempting to be some sort of WNBA savior. And why wouldn’t she be? It’s not like the WNBA even needs saving in the first place. For Monica, it’s all about the kids and giving back:
“Recently, we did WNBA Cares during our finals in Minneapolis, and we had a chance to do a camp for kids and talk about healthy eating and do some basketball drills and exercises, and something about being there really resonated with me. I really enjoyed myself and realized I got more out of that than those kids did. And I really felt drawn to doing my own camp, which I am doing March 29 and 30 in my home town in Woodbridge, VA. I really dont think pro athletes realize the platform we have and the impact we have in kids’ lives, and I really want to take advantage of it. — Monica Wright
If anyone happens to need a new favorite athlete, let me be the first, and definitely not the last, to nominate Monica Wright, guard of the Minnesota Lynx.