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Tuesday, September 6, 2005
WNBA feedback

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Part Two: Disappointed by the column

Why do you hate the WNBA so much? I know you tried to give a good explanation for this in [your] column, but I'm not buying it. Take this example: I absolutely could not care less about "American Idol." The one time I was forced to watch it by being in the company of a fan, I didn't think any single person on the show had a lick of talent, and only a couple of the women were very attractive. Sounds familiar, right? Since "Idol" and the WNBA both want every 12-year-old girl in the country to watch them, that seems like a good analogy. So what's my reaction when I see a commercial for "Idol" during one of Fox's baseball games or NFL broadcasts? Well, it's not "Dammit! I'm gonna write 4,000 words that basically boils down to, 'Idols, leave me alone!'" It's something more along the lines of, "Well, whatever, I guess there's an audience for that sort of thing, even if they're just wasting their time on crappy music."

You'll get no argument from me that the WNBA is excruciating to watch even compared to a mediocre Division I men's college game. But why get all angry about it? Maybe if the NBA was suffering because of the money being showered on the WNBA, I could buy your arguments. But it's not; if the NBA is suffering for any reason, it probably has more to do with the Pacers-Pistons fight and stiff centers getting $7 million a year, than anything Stern or the women are doing. So what's the deal? Where is all the WNBA outrage coming from? I just don't get it.
-- Mark Young, Washington, DC

You brought up some very good and very valid points in your WNBA column. I don't like the WNBA. I don't watch their games on TV. I've only been to one game in person, and only because the air travel there and the tickets were free. But indulge me for a moment and let me tell you why the WNBA does have the potential to be a legitimate part of the U.S. pro sports landscape.

While a student at the University of Tennessee, I had the opportunity to work in the Lady Vols' media-relations office where part of my job was to help with the media requests for the Lady Vols' basketball team. I went to nearly every practice for four years. I went out on the road. Shared in the glory, shed tears with the Final Four losses. But over that time I realized why women's basketball has a future on the professional level. When I started in 2001-02, the WNCAA tournament early rounds were either not televised or were on local cable. Now, thanks to your employer, not only is every game shown, but the ratings are growing slowly year by year. Sports fans in general are beginning to care about schools other than Tennessee, Stanford and Connecticut.

The NBA has gone about promoting the league in the wrong way. As you said, they have tried to shove women's basketball down the throats of NBA fans. We did a study at Tennessee that showed less than 10 percent of people who attended men's basketball at UT went regularly to Lady Vols games. A similar amount of Lady Vols fans said they went to men's games. When you consider that both programs averaged 14,000 fans per game the year of the study, it shows that there is a market, it's just not the same market. Colleges have figured this out. The NBA, clearly, has not.

You may laugh at this, but I believe the WNBA was five years ahead of its time. If it debuted now, I believe the results may have been different, for a lot of reasons.
-- Brian Rice, Knoxville, TN

Let me start by writing that I love your column. But your last column about the WNBA made you sound like some of the fat, loudmouthed, central-Mass. trash I grew up with. I'm not a fan of the WNBA. In fact, this past week, I passed up on courtside seats to a Liberty playoff game to go get drunk with one of my co-workers who was leaving for another job. However, I've been to several games, and I must say, I'm pretty happy with what I've seen. When there, the game does actually pull you in (admittedly, it sucks on TV) -- and also, I cannot overlook the fact that there are a lot of kids there (boys and girls) having a good time, all of varying economic class. As for soccer, for a time in this country, the women were better than the men. If you're a soccer fan, just like a true tennis fan, you could see that there are subtle nuances particular to both sexes as they play. Sure, I liked staring at the hot bodies on the women soccer players, but since I like soccer in general, I was able to enjoy the game as well as the soft-porn by-product.

Anyway, you can't sit there and denigrate the WNBA because of its charity aspect. Yeah, it's kinda stupid sometimes, but come on. In this country, sometimes sport is the best venue for social change. Look at black players in major-league baseball. Are you going to tell me that their presence didn't do a little something in the civil-rights movement? It's easy to say they did 50 years later, but I doubt that nine years after Jackie Robinson came into the league that people were able to easily quantify the results

. With the WNBA, you won't see the impact for several more years, maybe decades. And don't give me those nine-year crap stats you threw in. I'm an editor for an extremely well-known publication that deals entirely with statistics, and nine years of numbers cannot accurately measure cultural impact.

So we're left with whether or not it's a good league or sport. Well, that's opinion. Personally, I think the NBA sucks in a lot of ways. I haven't watched an entire game in years. College rocks. As for hockey, I prefer college and Olympic to pro. But does that mean I think the NBA and NHL should go down in flames? No. Do I care that I see ads for the NBA everywhere? No. Do I mind that sometimes in your columns it seems like you're trying to stick up for the NBA (speaking of charity)? No. Who cares? It's just more ads, more crap. So why do you care so much? Why the harsh opinion? I know, you're a sportswriter, and most of you guys have to come out with strong opinions on otherwise pointless subjects to earn your pay. So yeah, in some ways we can overlook this. But at the same time, many people read your column and your words do have weight. I find that most writers don't realize that.

I'm a fanatic when it comes to the teams I love (Pats, Sox, etc.) and like I wrote, I'm not a fan of the WNBA. But at the same time, I'm happy to see that at least some effort is made to make it work. Considering you have a daughter, I would think you'd want there to be a better level of equality in sports, and in the world, than there is.
-- Vin, New York

I know you really don't care, but as a WNBA fan (and a straight male, may I add), I just wanted to respond to your WNBA article. Now, I'm not going to just irrationally defend the league or its ability to work. I'm also not going to ask you how the Chicago Stags, the Indianapolis Olympians or the Providence Steamrollers did last year, or who they drafted this offseason. I also won't mention that I went up to Syracuse to see the Nationals play this season but they weren't there. Nor were the Rochester Royals. See, I'm not going to go that route.

What I am going to do is to explain why the league can work if some changes are made. I agree with you that as it stands now the league is going to struggle and may eventually have to fold. However, simple changes to the game itself and its marketing can save the league.

The first changes that have to be made are to the structure of the game. They have to adapt the rules and setup of the NBA. They have to play four 12-minute quarters with a 24-second shot clock. This will do wonders to increase the scoring in the league. No, it won't help the shooting percentages, but if the teams were scoring in the 80s and 90s it would be much more interesting to fans. Remember the NBA in the '90s struggled to put up 90 points a game.

They also have to go to the full-sized basketball. In watching many women's basketball games, both pro and college, I have noticed that the smaller ball is a hindrance to the game. By making the ball smaller but keeping the rim the same size it changes the way the ball reacts to hitting the rim. Shooters do not get the same types of bounces that they do when shooting the full-size ball. Too many shots go in and out with the smaller ball because of the way it reacts to the rim and because it is lighter then the full sized ball. The fact that it is lighter also effects the way the ball reacts with the backboard, causing bank shots and even layups to be more difficult. By changing to the full-size ball, which was used in women's FIBA up until this year, the shooting percentages would go up, as would scoring.

The final change they have to make is in the way they market, or present, the league. The league is marketed too much towards women. Women do not watch sports. They don't watch men play, they don't watch women play, they wouldn't watch monkeys play. If the league is going to grow they have to start marketing it towards men. By that I do not mean using sex to sell the league the way tennis does. I mean having more promotions that are not targeted towards women. No more "win a free makeover" contests and stuff like that. They have to promote the league and each team the way the NBA does. Also, by presenting the team to men they have to treat the league as if men are going to follow it the way they do other leagues. Which means they need to be able to get info easily and as soon as it's available. Things like roster moves and draft analysis and offseason moves should be readily available. For example, when the Phoenix Mercury, my favorite team, released Kayte Christensen, the Walter McCarty of the team, it was never mentioned on the team's Web site. Information about the teams is hard to locate and stay on top of.

I believe that with these changes, along with some other minor changes, and some time for them to have an effect, the league can grow. Will it ever be as big as the NBA? Probably not. But it can be a stable pro league in this country.
-- Vin Furia, Johnston, R.I.

I know it's difficult coming up with that many things to write about, but there was truly no reason to rehash your grievances against the WNBA. I suppose your in-box still occasionally gets e-mails griping in defense of the league, but for the most part the only ones behind it are those invested in it -- the players, a few sponsors and especially the NBA. That's exactly what you said, and it's true. But that also means there's no reason to rattle on to your readers about it, unless it's to get more slaps on the back and one or two e-mails with funny enough WNBA comparisons to run in a mailbag. What's the point?
-- Lars, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Let me first say that I am a big fan. As a born and raised Red Sox and Patriots fan, I love your take on New England sports. I'm also generally willing to look past the fact that you're often one of the most sexist people in the world, or at least you'll pretend to be sexist in your writing to get the laugh. But I really can't ignore some of the stuff you said in the WNBA article. I agree with you that the WNBA is boring -- then again, I think that the NBA is boring, so take that as you will. However, there was a line in your article that I found unacceptable. You said that the WUSA folded because the players were "less talented" than male players, so even fewer watched then watch MLS.

As a female athlete, I feel I need to step in before your daughter gets much older. Women play sports differently, they have different talents, but they are not less talented. Men may be able to do more flashy moves, but they are often less skilled at the fundamentals. Compare apples to apples, not apples to oranges. People like flash in their sports, that's why men's sports are often more popular, but it's not that women do not have the talent.

There is a counter-example. Women's tennis is not simply more popular because of Maria Sharapova, not matter what you think. It's also more popular because it's more fun to watch. Matches with good baseline play and exciting net points are more interesting than matches with 100 aces, hands down. The same can be said for some other, nonprofessional sports in the Olympics, but I won't get into that. Also, I won't comment on society's inherent sexism and how we respect athleticism less in women, that would just be too much too soon for you.
-- Erin, Washington, D.C.

Why would I care that no one in the WNBA can dunk or play above the rim? As a true basketball fan (from Indiana), that's way overrated. I want to see people set screens, move without the ball. If women's basketball and the WNBA is good enough for John Wooden, it's good enough for me.

Why would I care if the WNBA is being promoted? Don't watch the games, TiVo over the promotions. Don't get your panties in a bunch over it. Geez. You don't remember the NBA when it was starting out (I don't either) but there was way more franchise turmoil. My beloved ABA had more franchise turmoil. In this era, we're way too spoiled regarding start-up sports leagues, and the WNBA is still a start-up based on the history of the NBA. The NBA has sucked the life out of pro hoops. It used to be fun to watch (like the ABA), now it's dreadful. At least the WNBA has the best players playing hard all the time.
-- Scott F., Crawfordsville, IN

A quick word about women's sports. Couldn't agree more about your point on the WNBA. Never got interested, never will. But I thought you were a bit harsh (indirectly) on women's tennis, as I actually think there are a few reasons that this sport survives (and thrives) that have nothing to do with sex appeal. Don't get me wrong, sex appeal is a big part of it, but I actually think the game itself has something to do with it all.

Unlike basketball, hockey or many of the other sports where women's leagues have failed to capture the imagination, tennis by definition provides an exception to the notion that "the best" is always the best to watch. I have thought for years that men's tennis is simply played at too high a level, if that makes any sense. At Wimbledon, for example, the men have gotten so powerful that rallies last about three seconds. It is nothing more than a power game, and, in effect, the men are just too good at it. This is especially true when the serve comes into the equation, like at Wimbledon. The men have gotten extremely powerful (along with equipment advances), and at some point, there will have to be rule changes to dilute the power of the serve, as this is not what people really go to see.

The women's game, in contrast, loses 10-20 percent of the power (depending on which women are playing), and consequently, the flow of the game improves. I strongly believe that the Capriati-S. Williams match at the U.S. Open a few years back was one of the most entertaining matches I have ever seen -- not just for the drama, but for the actual talent on display. Taking 20 percent of the power out of the equation actually assisted in equalizing the natural balance the sport is designed to achieve.

Offhand, I cannot think of another sport in which you could actually make the claim that optimal conditions can actually detract from the sport, and consequently, it's hard to see women succeeding in the same way as men do. As your column points out, we pay to see the best -- most of the time, anyhow.

-- Peter, Auckland, New Zealand

Wow. You give the WNBA a whole nine years to prove itself. Do you have any idea where your precious NFL was after nine years of existence? Or the NBA? Nine years of existence proves only that a pro sports league has a chance to survive and thrive. It doesn't establish the fate of the league either way. You are as shortsighted as you are ignorant of history. I dare you to put this in your next mailbag, but you won't because you are also a coward who is afraid to answer the mail of anyone who does not drool all over himself at the sight of your chinless picture. BTW, Lauren Jackson is the walking definition of sexy.

You wrote a long article trashing the WNBA and I'm not sure why. Is the league's very existence bothering you? Is the fact that the NBA is pumping money into the league when it could be better served spending that money on drug-rehab clinics or birth control for NBA players? My point is what's the harm of the WNBA? Is it causing crime in the streets? Are the suicide rates of 30-something sports columnists suddenly on the rise because of women's sports?

I have a surefire way for you to get sleep at night and handle getting up in a world where women can play professional sports: Ignore it! So it's niche, big deal. Is it the end of the world for David Stern to float a league for women? Is it wrong to extend a little charity to young girls by way of providing role models? Hey, why stop with the WNBA, let's gut the universities of all sports besides football and basketball because nothing else in the world matters and the other sports certainly don't bring in the kind of revenue that the Big Two bring in. You just wasted time and bandwidth on writing an article trashing something that you rate somewhere between pond scum and dryer lint ... so tell me again, who's a fool?
-- Carlos, Seattle, WA

You are mixing finance with marketing. The WNBA is marketing the sport poorly, since you or I would never go to a game. Why antagonize us with those ads? But the WNBA does make sense on an economic level. The NBA owners also own their stadiums. Stadiums are entertainment retail chains. These places are empty over the summer. Why not host WNBA games? Why not reach a profitable market, like the lesbian community and families? Why not give Nike and adidas the opportunity to bet on the next big athletic sensation? They pay in American dollars, too, no?
-- John Reilly, Washington, D.C.

My name is Paul Rabaut and I have been an avid reader of your column for two years. Last February I took a job as a sales and marketing coordinator with the Detroit Shock. Before this season I had never watched (let alone attended) a WNBA game and couldn't name one player in the league other than Lisa Leslie. It is a good thing my boss was hiring on sales skills and prior industry experience as opposed to league knowledge.

My comments on [your] column:

1. I went to a D-II school and played intramurals. I've also played morning pickup games with some of our Shock players. Trust me when I say that there is no comparison.

2. I noticed that you quoted Johnny Buss in your column. Johnny Buss as a credible source! If you guys starred in "Mallrats" together I would imagine he would say something to you along the lines of, "Haven't I made it abundantly clear during the tenure of our friendship that I don't know [expletive]."

3. I agree with your assessment of women's college basketball, but think that you missed one of the biggest reasons why most people, like yourself, view the college game as being successful. I've learned a lot about perceived demand as a result of working with the Shock. In sports, you need it. We don't have it here in Detroit with the Shock. Our arena holds over 22,000 people, so even with our top-three league ranking in attendance, the stadium looks deserted. This is bad for attendees and for any potential TV channel surfers. Organizations like Connecticut (which has no direct tie with an NBA team) and the 2006 expansion Chicago team (which will play home games at University Illinois-Chicago) are using smaller arenas to their advantage by creating a much greater perceived consumer demand.

The answer to your "should I be sad?" point, quite simply, is yes. I know you've claimed not to be against the concept of the league given the recent addition to your family, but as a father I would imagine that in the coming years you would want to blindly support anything that has the potential to build up, encourage, empower and bring joy to your daughter. The fathers that do are what I have to remind myself of after a 10-hour day of cold calls averaging at least one angry hang-up per hour. I would think you would celebrate the fact that WNBA players don't obtain sponsorships like female tennis stars. What is someone like Anna Kournikova (and believe me I've been a Kournikova fan ever since the Federov era) teaching your daughter?

An average ticket to a WNBA game is somewhere between $12-$17. In less than six months I sold roughly $75,000 worth of tickets to people who had either never been to a game before, or only been to one or two games in the past one or two years. The average Joe or Jolene basketball consumer has far from made up their minds about this product.

Are you a die-hard sports fan? No question. But is it basketball that you truly love, or rather, the NBA? You prefer the high-flying, fast-paced, above-the-rim, corporate-friendly style of the Goliath that is the NBA. It is probably pretty safe to say that you, like most, have never been to a WNBA game. If the Shock can somehow dig themselves out of a hole and advance to the Eastern Conference finals, I invite you to join me for Game 1 here at the Palace where you can write the running diary you passed up. If after that you still want to, metaphorically speaking, pick on the one kid in class just because he has a rich uncle who in the fourth grade buys him Reebok Pumps for his birthday and your mom would never spend that much on tennis shoes, by all means go ahead.
-- Paul Rabaut, Detroit

I have enjoyed reading your column for some time. However, when you took such an unwarranted swipe at the WNBA, a league I like very much, I started to wonder if the occasional laugh you provide is worth it. I know your distaste for the WNBA isn't really about money. The Pistons spent more last year to have Amal McCaskill not play for them than they lost on the Shock. If Bud Selig is to be believed, the average MLB team loses far more money in a year than the WNBA has in all nine of its seasons combined. The cost of the WNBA is tip money to NBA owners.

I also know that it isn't really about having the league "forced down your throat". Fewer than 25 games were televised outside of NBA TV all season, and there have been more ads for the Subaru Tribeca than for the WNBA on ESPN this summer. It's certainly not jammed down our throats the way the X Games are, and I guarantee that neither of us knows anyone that watches that.

I don't know what your problem with the WNBA is and I don't really think I'm interested in finding out. I know you have several readers, so you won't miss this one.
-- KB

Why do you care so much about whether or not Stern wants to bankroll the WNBA? How does this affect you? So the NBA wants us to like the WNBA -- so what? Maybe Stern really thinks that it will catch on. Maybe he thinks it's socially important for the nation. Maybe he thinks he's building a new and different basketball fan base that will gravitate to the NBA over time. Maybe he's just making a bad business decision. I don't know what his motivation is, but since he's been the shrewdest professional sports czar for more than 20 years, I think he deserves some latitude. Yes, nine years is plenty of latitude, but it's still his money.

More importantly, why do you care so much? You've whined about the WNBA something like 10 times this summer. Just quit it already. It's not fun to read. I can only guess that you harp on this because you feel threatened, and I can't guess as to why that is. Your sports dominate -- football, baseball and basketball. Just let it be. Let the WNBA fans have their WNBA. I don't watch it, but I don't care that someone else does. Why do you care? You wrote, "Let's end the charade that this is a mainstream sport." Who thinks it is? Are you saying that because Stern advertises widely that they're actually telling you the WNBA is a big sport? That's just advertising. Even people that like it don't think it's mainstream -- it's probably a distant 10-15th in popularity at best, behind tractor pulls and demo derbies. Do you meet a lot of people who demand that you watch the WNBA? No one thinks it's popular. But NBA execs would like it to be, so they advertise. Maybe they're wrong. So what?

One of your strengths as a columnist is your ability to put things into proper perspective, both comedically and socially, but I really think you're mistaken to pursue this. You sound like a shrill little boy who's upset about the attention being given to another kid in the class, even though no one's really looking at the other kid, and you're getting all the attention all the time already.
-- Jeff