Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Future of the WNBA: Update

This post is an update of the post called The Future of the WNBA, which attempted to extrapolate near future events from current trends, much like professional futurists do.

We therefore have to create some scenarios:

1. The most likely case. All current trends continue into the future.
2. The best case. "Everything goes right."
3. The outlier cases. What low probability events could spark high-level disruptive changes?
4. The worst case scenario. "Everything goes wrong".

(* * *)

The most likely case: What kinds of trends will continue, given everything that has happened up to 2009? The most likely case reminds me of a rhyme told about the wives of Henry VIII:

Divorced, beheaded, died,
Divorced, beheaded, survived

For the Detroit Shock, there was a "divorce" - the team relocated to Tulsa.
For the Atlanta Dream, there was a "beheading" - the team was sold to a different owner.
For the Indiana Fever, there was survival. Word had it that the team would be folded by the Simons unless they won a WNBA championship. They didn't, but they came close. The death of Melvin Simon might have changed the ownership picture as well.
For the Sacramento Monarch, there was an unexpected death. The undercapitalized Maloofs threw the Monarchs off the sled.

Following this picture, we expect that 2010 will bring more of the same - relocation or collapse of franchises. I didn't see the 2008 folding of the Comets as part of a trend, but as I wrote, I would see it as a trend if two franchises folded. Now, the other shoe has dropped. The fact of the matter is that in the past five years, three franchise have folded.

This puts the chance of another franchise folding at about 60 percent. Detroit/Tulsa will survive, at least for one year - every relocation gets a one-year honeymoon. Indiana and Atlanta are suspects - if Indiana can't repeat, maybe the franchise can be folded away from the public eye. (A word of warning to weak franchises: win games.) Perhaps Kathy Betty will decide that she's no better at improving the stature of the Dream in the Atlanta community than Ron Terwilliger was. And of course, there's the possibility that we discover that a franchise previously believed to be strong turns out to be weak.

On the other hand, there are some positive trends. Both Phoenix and Los Angeles took advantage of a new form of marketing - jersey space on the front of the jersey, where the team name used to be. In the WNBA, jerseys aren't sacred spaces - no WNBA team has been around long enough for a logo to become iconic, and furthermore, savvy WNBA fans follow players overseas where corporate names on jerseys is a fait accompli.

The problem with the above is that we don't have a very large sample size. If another team manages to sell its jersey space in 2010, expect this to become a trend, with every team scrambling to make a jersey deal.

My prediction for 2010 - franchise stability will still be a very real issue.

The best case: In this case, there are no franchises folding. Furthermore, at least one other team sells its jersey space for the same kind of multimillion dollar deals that Indiana and Phoenix got. WNBA teams lose money, but they don't lose nearly as much money as NBA teams do - a jersey deal effectively insures the solvency of a team for as long as the contract lasts.

In addition, the best case assumes that we'll have another WNBA Finals on the order of Phoenix-Indiana. Phoenix-Indian might not have been the best WNBA Finals, but it was the most notorious - in the good sense. The Indianapolis community rushed out to support the Fever, as Indiana basketball fans were desperate to see a state team take a national championship - even a WNBA championship. The response was strong from Indiana; if Indiana wins the East the WNBA might pick up a real following in Indianapolis.

Revenue at least remains stable. Writers like Ben York, Stephen Litel and Clay Kallam over at SLAM continue the steady work of advocating the WNBA to a skeptical male audience. Connecticut wins the NCAA tournament, which allows the media to follow the story right to Tina Charles's #1 Draft pick. In the best of all worlds, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution hires more women in the sports department.

High impact, low probability:

* The NBA withdraws its support from the WNBA. Generally a pipe dream of chauvinists, this remote probability has increased due to the unstable financial situation of big-time sports. This is the highest impact of all, as a lot of the WNBA (but not all of it) is paid out of the NBA general fund. (Individual clubs have the choice of contributing specifically to the W or not. I suspect most don't.) If the NBA withdrew its support, all sort of legal complications would ensue to continuing the league in its present form, down to whether or not individual clubs could use the same names! What's left of the W might consider it easier to rebuild a new league from square one.
* There is an unfounded rumor that certain WNBA players are being paid by the Russia Superleague A to consider not returning to WNBA play in the off-season. This could be considered a low-key bidding war (a "cold war")? Neither the WNBA nor the European leagues like it much when their players return from the "other season" exhausted and injured. If the Russians decided they had the money to get American players to consider skipping seasons, that would be the very definition of "high impact".
* A WNBA player's strike. Some former Detroit players are supposedly dragging their feet regarding relocation to Tulsa. Rosters were cut in 2009 and the salary cap is being lowered in 2010. Players might decide that it's just not worth it anymore.

The worst case: The WNBA TV deal is assured, come what may, but at least one franchise folds, bringing dismissive commentary from a largely neanderthal sports media. Attendance could also decline across the league as some families can't even find the scratch for relatively cheap WNBA tickets.

(* * *)

Last year, I wrote about the canary in the coal mine - WNBA President Donna Orender. I wrote that if she decides to leave the WNBA, see that as a sign that the powers that be have bet on their own careers over the WNBA.

Bill Laimbeer, for example, left the Detroit Shock to pursue a probable coaching job in the NBA. (He finally found it with the Timberwolves.) However, Donna Orender was courted by the LPGA and for whatever reason, the LPGA chose someone else. Orender didn't resign and she seems as committed to the WNBA's success as she was the previous year.

I expect the 2010 WNBA season to be tumultuous, but always interesting.

1 comment:

friscodelrosario@sbcglobal.net said...

Poor writers cannot be persuasive advocates for anything but remedial English classes.