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League's growth could include two new teams within five years

10/17/2008 - WNBA

Sometimes, WNBA President Donna Orender makes her "state of the union" addresses at the league's WNBA Finals or the All-Star Game or the draft … and what she is selling is met by the reporters present with a respectful attitude of, "We're not entirely buying this."

At least not hook, line and sinker. We want to pick and prod a bit, get past the PR glitz and delve more into the substance of issues. This is not because we're jerks or overly drawn to the negative. Rather, those in the media who regularly or semi-regularly cover the WNBA in a responsible way not only believe that the league can stand the scrutiny, but that it's ultimately beneficial.

I don't fault Orender for being a sunshine peddler because I don't see why she should be anything else. It's my job to notice the clouds if they are there and at least ask about them.

At the recent WNBA Finals, however, I found myself thinking that the picture Orender was presenting actually seemed pretty legitimate and realistic. After sitting on that feeling for a while, I still think that way.

The season as a whole was enjoyable, even if the Olympics -- which are now a kind of bonus feature to the WNBA every four years -- ended up being a USA runaway, and the finals were not as compelling as hoped for.

But I was curious about Orender's point of view on how the league was positioned in light of the current global economic woes. Having been through similar tough market times during her previous role with the PGA Tour, she has a perspective about this topic that is broader than just the WNBA.

I wondered if the league's cost management and general practicality -- traits that might suggest stagnation in better times -- were actually strong points in these economic conditions.

"We're about affordability and attainability," Orender said. "We're about community. We are actually structured in a way that is mortal."

Meaning the league is less the super-heroic Wonder Woman than it is the more realistically heroic Diana Prince.

"There seems to be a tremendous sensibility now about the preservation of Main Street, and the values that Main Street is about," Orender continued. "I think the WNBA sits at the intersection of Main Street and the sensibilities of business today. We are as well-positioned as ever to continue building success."

However, not all things about the league are -- or will be -- a success. Like every business, there are problems that can't necessarily be fixed to everyone's satisfaction.

Houston is a four-time WNBA champion, but short-time owner Hilton Koch announced in August that he wanted out. The Comets' future is uncertain, but Orender correctly points out that some degree of franchise instability has been an issue with all sports leagues.

"Listen, we're probably going to have teams move at times," she said. "I don't know where they are, and it's not that I'm planning on any of them moving. But as I've studied up on the history of leagues as they've grown, I know this happens.

"Even today … is the NFL going to move back to [Los Angeles] without moving a team from another city? You've got to find your markets. The anticipation is that things will happen. The teams you have, you want to make them as strong as they can be and learn what a good business model is. And build on that."

The NFL and WNBA are not in the same universe of sports-entertainment businesses, of course. But like all leagues, both have to find markets that really support them and are more likely to weather bad times in terms of results.

In the end, though, there have to be at least some good results to keep the market vibrant.

Early on, the style-over-substance criticism came even from those not necessarily looking to criticize the league. In the course of the WNBA's dozen seasons, though, the talent level has risen and the commitment to better coaching/talent evaluation has proven to be the only way to consistently win.

If the league took a misstep this year, it was with its "Expect Great" promotional campaign that wasted time targeting those spectators who have no interest in watching the WNBA.

The league has some terrific individual players to build advertising campaigns around -- talented athletes who, for the most part, all have their college degrees. They are bright, well-spoken and a lot of them are quite funny. Ads highlighting all aspects of their athletic ability and personality will show anyone who is open to being interested why these players are fun to watch. (Oh, and if Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig would do a WNBA promo, I'm not sure I could ask for anything else in life. I think they are the three funniest people on the planet right now.)

And the stronger the links to the college game, the better. Not all Tennessee fans might have become Los Angeles Sparks fans this season because of MVP/Rookie of the Year Candace Parker, but a significant chunk did.

As the college game grows (slowly but surely) with its parochial fan bases becoming followers of the sport more on a national basis, those spectators' interest in the WNBA will increase.

To that end, the WNBA itself might increase its size -- slightly -- in the coming years. Expansion is a tricky subject because the league has to guard against over-extending itself, even when it's a deliberate and thought-out process.

"I would say we're looking at two franchises in the next five years," Orender said. "Some of that is market conditions. We do have a lot of communities that see the value of the WNBA. Both in the political sector and the private sector. Then the question is putting those two together and getting those deals done."

Orender did not say that in a gung-ho way, but rather with the acknowledgement that those deals are difficult to do. But that's OK. Because then if they do get done, there's a better chance they'll stay that way.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.