Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How can the WNBA break out of the "niche" category?

The New York Times recently posted an article called "Women's Teams Still Struggle for Fans".  The focus was on women's basketball, and its the kind of article where a 95 percent male sports department sticks its collective finger it its nose, says, "Gee, why don't people watch women's sports?" and goes back to devoting 95 percent of its coverage to men's sports.  (In Atlanta, it's 98 percent of the coverage.)

I thought about what I had read, and I began looking on line.  I found an article from The Atlantic written in 2012, written about a different sport, lacrosse.  The question was "Will Lacrosse Ever Go Mainstream?" 

The questions asked in that article are very pertinent to women's basketball.  The writer, Kevin Craft, identifies what he thinks a sport needs to break out of the niche and into popular culture.

1) Is there a crystallizing event that can help the sport get a toehold in the market?  For women's basketball, that event was the 1996 Olympics held in Atlanta.  The USA women's basketball team got great ratings.  The ratings were enough of an impetus to start the American Basketball League in 1996 (co-founded by US Olympian Jennifer Azzi) and the WNBA one year later.

2) Are there sports appropriate venues?  In order for a sport to get buzz, it has to look like its games are well-attended. 

Here is where the WNBA has a problem - its venues really don't work well for it.  Its venues are NBA pro stadiums, which are sized for NBA crowds, crowds that took fifty years to grow.  And this problem can't be solved as long as either a) NBA owners put WNBA teams in their NBA arena or b) independent WNBA owners rent NBA arenas. 

There are only three arenas in the WNBA that don't serve as NBA arenas. One, Key Arena, is an ex-NBA arena.  The other two are Allstate Arena in Rosemont and the Mohegan Sun Arena.  The crowds show up very well on screen during a Mohegan Sun game.  If a core of committed fans can be depended to show up, they can fill small arenas at first, and then larger arenas later.

3) Do the characteristics of the sport mesh with long-term social trends?  The "basketball" part of women's basketball is a plus.  Sports where movement is constant should become more popular as the culture moves more quickly.  As for the "women's" part of women's basketball, women's liberation is still a work in progress and the sport still has to fight the typical male chauvinism.

4) Will parents pass on the love of the sport to their children?  This is the big one.  Women's basketball needs some heavy evangelization.  There needs to be an emphasis at the grass roots level, and I don't mean high school basketball - I mean at the elementary/middle school level.  This is hard, since there is a lot of social pressure on young girls to be "girly" as opposed to "sporty".  There is still some work to do here. 

If I were running the WNBA, my efforts would be focused on the grassroots and attempting to move the games into cozier venues.  Yes, I know that people think that a pro venue adds legitimacy for some strange reason.  I disagree - playing in an empty cavern doesn't do anyone any good.  If financial reality means that WNBA teams are wed to NBA arenas, then the seating/television angles have to be changed in order to provide a real crowd experience that not only shows well on TV but electrifies the arena.

As for the grassroots, I don't know how that piece of the puzzle is solved.  It's one thing to make an occasional appearance at an elementary school, but it's another to grow a culture where girls can succeed as basketball all the way up from elementary school to high school to college.  Philadelphia had that kind of culture with its Catholic Leagues.  Transplanting that culture will be the big challenge.

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