Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The WNBA needs to work with Europe and not against it

The WNBA is setting up for two exciting conference finals.  If you like grit, the New York Liberty and the Indiana Fever, helmed respectively by one of the NBA's Bad Boys and a rookie coach, will be playing for WNBA title hopes in the Eastern Conference.  If you like flash, you have the Minnesota Lynx and Maya Moore and the Phoenix Mercury and Brittney Griner playing in the West.  Shots vs. Blocks!

But after the Finals...then what?  The WNBA loses its audience, which goes back to watching women's college basketball.  The logo lady puts down her basketball and takes a deep nap which lasts approximately seven or eight months.  There is no year-long news cycle in the league; the league has to recreate itself every April.

This has been a perplexing problem for the league.  Its players scatter to the corners of the earth, playing for the various pro teams with deep pockets.  (Ekaterinburg's pockets were so deep they paid Diana Taurasi NOT to play in WNBA this season, protecting their investment.)  With the NCAA dominating the women's basketball landscape, the W is reduce to a meek, "us too" in the off-season.

My opinion is that the answer to the problem of off-season interest is right in the league's face. Instead of trying to pretend that European women's basketball doesn't exist, they should embrace it.

There are lots of reasons that fans don't follow European women's basketball.  It requires its own learning curve.  A team from one of the power countries - Russia or Turkey - might have three or four names you recognize (all American) and ten names that you don't.  You need some knowledge of regulation, of promotion, of Euroleague, of Eurocup, and in some cases about who holds what passport.

To top that off, when the games are broadcast - usually on YouTube or some domestic league website - the picture is grainy and small.  You can't identify the players.  There are no announcers.  The games look like they're being broadcast in some high school gym.  (In some countries, the high school gym would be an upgrade.)

Statistics are hard to come by.  The reporting is in foreign languages.  The hurdles appear to be too great to jump.

But what the WNBA needs to learn is that the strength of the league is in its players.  Certainly, we want to know who they are and what they do.  More importantly, we want to watch them on the court playing basketball.  All of the human interest stories in the world won't help the league do that; you can only whet someone's whistle for so long before they want to eat.

The NBA's off-season is so short that they don't have this problem.  College basketball has the drama of recruiting and player evaluation to keep its fans interested.  The WNBA, however, needs to have something to draw attention to itself in the off-season that the NBA and NCAA women's basketball.

And they have it.  The players.  The players don't stop playing basketball in the off-season.  They keep playing it!  The season isn't over after the WNBA Finals!  A new one is starting!
So why doesn't the league show the players playing basketball?  There needs to be dedicated content at least involving the major countries :  Russia, Turkey, Spain, France, maybe Poland.  We need to know what the players are doing in each of those countries, and that involves video. 

How much would it cost to send an announcer to Russia to do an English-language broadcast of a Superleague game? (Available on WNBA Live Access!)  Or (almost) live action from the Liga Femenina, brought to you by LaChina Robinson?  I know she'd love to go to Spain!

Perhaps a "European Game of the Week" placed on the WNBA's website itself.  Want to see Diana Taurasi and Angel McCoughtry battle it out in December?  If not, maybe a WCBA game in China with Maya Moore's team making on Brittney Griner's?

For fifteen years, European women's basketball has benefited from the WNBA's free advertising.  The WNBA is the best women's league in the world and the European powers know that.  They watch our league with great interest, and they use the WNBA as their litmus test for a good player.  You might not like how Samantha Logic is playing, but her French Calais team know that she played in the WNBA, and that's good enough for them.

Now, we need to do to the Europeans what they do to us.  We can broadcast their games, look at their players more closely.  We are still the best league in the world.  Perhaps if we concentrate on a handful of countries, the five mentioned above, we can make ourselves a power.  Laurel Richie would get to ask, "You want us to add more Chinese games, WCBA?  Okay.  But what can you do for us in return?"

The WNBA is not dead when the last whistle sounds at the WNBA Finals. On the contrary, it exports itself to a waiting planet.  The problem is getting people to believe that - the fans, the players, and hopefully the league itself.

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