Commentary

Still fighting for recognition

Originally Published: June 11, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

[+] EnlargeCarli Lloyd
Scott Bales/Icon SMICarli Lloyd, who was a U.S. national team member, plays for the Red Stars.
You might have missed it, but two major sports events occurred in the first week of June. You might have overlooked these developments because they happened in the Women's National Basketball Association.

You might have heard about the first event, but only if you read sports business news or snarky blogs. On June 1, the Phoenix Mercury signed a deal with LifeLock to put the security company's name on their jerseys.

To some, this was sports' End Times, another shocking harbinger of the all-around corporatization of athletics. Soon, North American sports will be just like European leagues or, gasp, Major League Soccer.

To Chicago Sky forward Candice Dupree, the news was a sign -- a sign that the WNBA isn't done yet.

"Especially with this country being in a recession," she said. "To see there's a company out there that wants to support the WNBA and give money to it is great."

A day later, the Sky played a group of guys from the Los Angeles-based Entertainment League in an exhibition game billed as a "Battle of the Sexes."

Dupree has been with the Sky since their inaugural season in 2006. She's a double-digit scorer, a strong rebounder and a heady player. She is intelligent and funny and happens to be a dead ringer for actress Sanaa Lathan, whom you may remember from the movie "Love and Basketball." All of this makes her a natural spokesperson for women's basketball in Chicago. So why don't you know her?

Well, you probably haven't been to a game yet.

The Sky have averaged fewer than 4,000 fans a game during their first three seasons at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion on the near West Side. Last season, the Sky averaged 3,700 fans a game. The high crowd of 6,304 was on June 3 of last year, when Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks came to town. (Parker famously has missed part of this season after giving birth a few weeks ago.) The low was two days before, when just 2,276 came for a game against Connecticut.

I went to the so-called Battle of the Sexes on June 2 and was surprised by the turnout. A few hundred people were still waiting outside to get in when I showed up around tipoff. Inside, the crowd of about 3,000, which was mostly African-American, was animated and really into the game. Maybe because it was so excited to see James Lafferty from "One Tree Hill" and MTV legend Bill Bellamy in person. (I know I was.)

"We know a lot of people were out here to see the celebrities," Dupree said. "But they also got the opportunity to see us play, and maybe they'll come out to more games in the summer. That's the main reason for us having this game, to get more people to come out."

The final score was 102-55, and if you have half a brain, you should know which team came out on top.

This was a real game, not Rock 'n' Jock Basketball, despite the presence of Bellamy and faux-hawked Frankie Muniz (DNP: ACL and foot injuries). Aside from some inside shots, the men couldn't do much right against the Sky.

With six new players and an 11-man roster, down from 13 leaguewide, you would think this game would have been important. Sky coach Steven Key tried to draw up plays, but to little success.

"Some of the stuff didn't work because they weren't playing that hard of defense," Dupree said. "So it kind of took away from what we wanted to do."

If you're a guy and you've made it this far in the story without throwing your hands up or commenting at the bottom about what an idiot I am, thank you. I know of your disregard for the WNBA, and in a lot of ways, I understand it. One of the main gripes that sports fans have about the league isn't its existence but the marketing saturation of its early years, the "We Got Next" era. To me, this seemed clumsy and reeked of insecurity. But what other choice did the league have? The product is good and getting better. But when one of your most successful teams, the Houston Comets, folds during the break, it makes everyone wonder when the other high-top drops and the WNBA, tethered to the NBA or not, goes the way of the ABL, the ABA and, possibly, the AFL.

For that reason, this season is important for a league that allows our top women's players to compete at the highest level and live a normal life for part of the year before returning to Europe to make big bucks in the winter. This is the ITE (In This Economy) season.

In a New Yorker story earlier this spring, writer Nick Paumgarten noted that people have started using the acronym ITE in text messages and e-mails. It's a quick way to focus your story before it begins. A good example would be, "ITE, I can't believe the WNBA is still going on!" or "ITE, how did this Greenberg guy get a job?"

Right now, there are three top-level women's sports teams in Chicagoland that are all wondering how they will succeed ITE. Along with the Sky, there are the Chicago Red Stars of the Women's Professional Soccer league and the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch softball league. (The best women's collegiate team is now Northwestern's lacrosse.)

The Bandits, last year's NPF champions, will have a game Friday night at the same time as the Sky's home opener.

"We don't see it as competition," Sky president and CEO Margaret Stender said. "We see it as about growth for women's sports. We want fans to know there are great women athletes in Chicago, and they'd enjoy watching them."

Nowhere is that statement more true, on a wholly different level, than with the Chicago Bliss, the Lingerie Football League team that is supposed to start play on Sept. 4. I'd say there's a solid 10 percent chance of that happening, but that hasn't stopped people from posting pictures or hyping it.

The LFL is an outreach of the Lingerie Bowl, the made-for-TV event that perennially gets canceled during Super Bowl week. Mitch Mortaza owns the league and assures everyone it will take place, but because he told CNBC that the players will earn a percentage of the gate and no salary, I doubt it.

The Bliss are "coached" by ex-Bear Dennis McKinnon and have two games scheduled at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates: one on Opening Day, Sept. 4, and the other in December. Now that's a schedule!

A friend who tried out told me the Bliss' tryouts featured just the right mix of athletes and strippers, and that the top players were invited back for a July minicamp.

But if you can't wait to watch strippers and would-be models master a zone blitz, you can check out the other women's futbol team in town, the Red Stars. The team plays at Toyota Park in the new Women's Professional Soccer league -- which has games on Fox Soccer Channel -- a very cool jersey based on the city's flag and the name recognition around town of a really good beat poet.

Red Star Carli Lloyd is one of the post-1999 World Cup national team members, so she's used to operating in near anonymity. Lloyd, 26, said the team has had good crowds in the few home games it has played, but most of all, she thinks this recast of the failed Women's United Soccer Association is great for the sport.

"I think it's going well," Lloyd said in a phone interview. "It's hard putting together teams with a month to prepare. And some of us were gone a couple weeks with national teams. I'd love to say next year will be better. This year the L.A. team is at the top, they're really consistent and doing well. But it's still anybody's game on any given day. Over a period of time, it will be interesting to see how the league is."

Although name recognition drives ticket sales, Sky second-year forward Sylvia Fowles, the second pick in the 2008 WNBA draft behind Naperville's own Parker, thinks that if the Sky can build a winning tradition, they can start getting attention. The Sky have had three very forgettable losing seasons and a record of 31-71.

"We're still on the verge of growing," Fowles said of the Sky and perhaps the WNBA as well. "It's my second year and the fourth year of the team. It takes a while to build. First you have to win, and when you win, you get a fan base. We don't get much attention as we want to, but once we start winning, you get a fan base. Sometimes it really doesn't matter, because this is our job, and you just have to perform to the best of your ability."

As the clock ticked away on the Sky's pounding of the E-League, Stender praised her team and the WNBA product. I had never been to a WNBA game before. (I also never thought I would hear a PA announcer utter the phrase, "Bill Bellamy is at the line shooting two." So it was a night of firsts.)

"You have to come back and see us again," she said.

I can't say I made any promises, but I surely will try.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.