Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tulsa: the WNBA and the D-League

If a team arrives in Tulsa, it will be the only city which currently has both a WNBA team and an NBA Development League team. (I don't count Los Angeles, which is so massively big that parts of the metropolitan area should be rightly considered as different cities, and if you look at a Los Angeles D-Fenders box score, the attendance at home games is inexplicably listed at "0".)

For those who have never heard of the D-League (as it is called), the D-League is an attempt by David Stern and the NBA to develop something akin to a minor league development system for men's basketball. Stern hasn't quite turned the D-League into what he wants it to be - there appears to be very little "development" going on in the D-League even though many successful NBA players have passed through the D-League. Most of men's basketball's development takes place the same way it always has - either through the colleges, or in Europe, or in some cases where a player has natural talent, on the NBA court itself. The D-League simply takes the place of formerly independent leagues like the Continental Basketball Association, a place where a NBA team could grab players for a few days if it was desperate.

If you thought the WNBA's development was bumpy...well, you ain't seen nothing yet. From what I've been able to read on line, WNBA attendance might as well be the attendance of Rose Bowl games when it comes to comparisons with the NBA D-League. Write-ups I've read talk about games with real attendance in the hundreds. As for franchise folds and relocations, the D-League has surpassed the WNBA twofold despite being four years younger.

I have nothing against the D-League. The D-League has some handicaps that the WNBA doesn't have. First, it plays pretty much concurrently during the NBA's season and has to compete with college basketball and sometimes even the NBA in both the local community and on TV. Second, the players clearly aren't the best players in the world (NBA) or players who are going to be (college).

What will be interesting is whether the Tulsa 66ers can survive the comparisons - because they're going to come. With a WNBA team in Tulsa and a D-League team, the two will invariably be compared. I'm looking at the 66ers schedule, and I'm seeing attendance of about 2000, and if Tulsa counts its attendance the way a lot of other teams do, I know that a lot of those tix are freebees and giveaways. Finding attendance figures on a per-team basis for D-League teams is almost impossible, but the NBA D-League home attendance is claimed to be 4,000 per game - and I've also read that Tulsa isn't meeting that mark.

Right now, with freebies, etc, the WNBA feels strong enough to claim average attendance of 8,000 per game. (All attendance figures are statements of "how confident do we feel as a league?") Given that the WNBA will be a novelty and not have to compete with D-I basketball in Tulsa, it is very likely that the WNBA team in Tulsa (and I think there will be one) will outdraw the Tulsa 66ers.

The question in my mind is how this will affect the perception of both leagues. Among the gatekeepers of those who define their sports as masculinity and their masculinity as sports, it is taken on faith that anything women do must be inferior - which would put those gatekeepers into the position of having to move a men's basketball team to a position below that of a women's basketball team. The WNBA has, to paraphrase Quentin McCall, been "demeaned and dismissed as some sort of irrelevant sideshow" whereas the D-League has been peacefully ignored - despite the fact that one league is clearly more successful that the other.

If the WNBA Tulsa team outdraws its D-League brothers, will that prove anything to the haters? Probably not. Nothing will prove anything to the haters, their critiques are more matters of faith than reason. However, it might indicate to some that the WNBA has not been as unsuccessful as the haters claim it is.

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