Commentary

Disappointment meets pragmatism

Shock's uncertain future no surprise with local economy, Laimbeer's exit, owner's death

Originally Published: October 20, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

I know, I know. I'm probably supposed to be wearing black and playing a funeral dirge today, lamenting the loss of a three-time WNBA champion franchise and what that means to the league.

[+] EnlargeNolan Richardson
AP Photo/Beth HallIf the Shock relocate to Tulsa, former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson would serve as the WNBA team's coach and GM.

I'm probably supposed to fret about the future, to rail against the various forces of economics that have done in the Detroit Shock and changed them to the Tulsa Shock … or whatever the franchise will be called when it relocates to Oklahoma, as was announced Tuesday.

I'm probably supposed to rip the WNBA for handling this development like it has most things it perceives as "bad news." That is, by not staying in touch with media or fans through reality-based updates, and instead leaving it to be speculated about and leaked out slowly on Internet message boards.

I could do all that, but it's not really what I feel most like writing about in the wake of Detroit's demise. Rather, there are two main themes for me: expressing condolences to the real fans of the Detroit Shock, and expressing pragmatism to fans of the league.

First, to those who really did care deeply about the Shock, went to games and feel like you've lost something important … I'm sorry. As I wrote last year when the Houston Comets folded, I know what it's like to lose a team. Growing up a passionate St. Louis Cardinals football fan, I went to that franchise's last game in the Gateway City before its move to Arizona.

On that gloomy December day in 1987, my best friend from college and I watched our team beat the New York Giants, then the defending Super Bowl champions. And while we cheered with everyone else in a half-full Busch Stadium, we knew we were saying goodbye to something from our childhoods that would never be replaced.

The Detroit Shock came into existence in 1998, the second year of the WNBA. They almost had a very quick exit, but the involvement of former Detroit Pistons player Bill Laimbeer as coach and general manager in 2002 saved the franchise.

Laimbeer's keen ability to evaluate talent and put the right pieces together, plus his force of personality and popularity in Detroit, provided a winning formula. And it extended the life of the franchise seven seasons longer than it would have lasted without him. During those seasons, the Shock won three championships (2003, '06, '08) and were runners-up in '07.

When the Shock filled up the Palace at Auburn Hills for Game 3 of the 2003 WNBA Finals, it was a big moment for the league. But one of the things I've written and said over and over in the 25 years I've covered women's hoops is that progress doesn't move on a linear line.

It can jump way ahead, it can fall back, it can zigzag, it can stand still. That's not an easy thing to tell a kid who might have grown up with the Shock and doesn't understand why this is happening. But it's the reality of all businesses, and that's where we get to the pragmatism part.

Bill Laimbeer Bill Davidson, chairman of glass-manufacturing giant Guardian Industries Corp., and owner of the Pistons and Shock, died in March. Bill Laimbeer, who had been looking to get into the NBA for a while, left the Shock a week into this past season and ended up with an assistant's job for the Minnesota Timberwolves. So the forces that had combined to keep the Shock in Detroit were gone.

Detroit and Michigan in general have been decimated by the economic failures that have changed millions of Americans' lives in the past two years. That's the principle domino that contributed to the end of the Shock in Detroit, but others fell, too.

Bill Davidson, chairman of glass-manufacturing giant Guardian Industries Corp., and owner of the Pistons and Shock, died in March. Laimbeer, who had been looking to get into the NBA for a while, left the Shock a week into this past season and ended up with an assistant's job for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

So the forces that had combined to keep the Shock in Detroit were gone. The Pistons aren't exactly in great shape themselves, and it so happens the buyers interested in the Shock are in Oklahoma, not Michigan.

The WNBA began with eight teams in 1997, and the ownership model was that franchises had to be owned by NBA teams. That changed in 2002, and the Connecticut Sun franchise began the next season as the first WNBA team without an NBA affiliation.

There now are independent owners in Atlanta, Chicago, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Tulsa is kind of a different mix, though, as lead investor Bill Cameron also is part of the ownership group of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder.

Atlanta is the other WNBA franchise that eyes have been on since the end of this past season, because Ron Terwilliger has made it known he doesn't have the finances to continue as principle owner.

The Dream at least have the potential of an interested buyer in Atlanta in Kathy Betty, but at this point, that's not a done deal. If it happens, the WNBA will continue with 13 teams; if not, it will go to 12.

Indiana, New York, Minnesota, Phoenix, San Antonio and Sacramento are the WNBA franchises still under NBA teams' ownership. Indiana was thought to be in the most danger before this past season, but the performance of the Fever in making the WNBA Finals re-energized that franchise and saved it at least for 2010.

Beyond that, the Fever simply have to keep winning games to maintain fan interest built in 2009.

Again, we'll go back to pragmatism. Women's professional basketball is a niche form of entertainment that continues to refine its business practices and grow its market. It doesn't appeal to everyone, and it never will. But an audience is out there, and things like the extremely well-played 2009 WNBA Finals give the league the boosts it needs as it keeps finding its way.

[+] EnlargeTaj McWilliams-Franklin
Garrett Ellwood/Getty ImagesIn 2008, Taj McWilliams-Franklin helped Detroit win its third title in six seasons.

As mentioned earlier, I don't like how the WNBA tends to not communicate with its existing fan base during times of uncertainty, but that's hardly unique to the WNBA. Most businesses really don't know how to handle that.

And, yes, the WNBA has its "haters" -- men whose enmity for women's basketball is drastically out of proportion to what impact the league actually has on their lives (zero). Just look in the comments section of this and other stories on women's hoops, which they vociferously claim to not care about … yet still read and comment about.

I'm always tempted to tell these fellows they're on to the secret, intergalactic, supernatural plot of feminists, lesbians, Venusians, witches, phantoms, Indigo Girls devotees and not-manly-enough men to overtake the world and institute mandatory (a word that then will be changed to womandatory) attendance at women's sporting events.

However, these guys tend to be hothouse flowers -- "Stop shoving the WNBA down my throat by mentioning it! I simply can't bear the thought of its existence!" -- and I don't want to further upset such delicate constitutions by teasing them. Instead, I usually just say, "Um, try not clicking on stories you're not interested in … it really isn't that hard."

Seriously, I don't think the WNBA's primary concern is with those whose hostility is so extreme it's comical. Rather, it's with the potential spectators who really don't care. Meaning they don't like or dislike the WNBA. They're just not interested. It's not on their radar. That's the majority of people.

Getting a few more of them interested and maintaining the fan base that has been consistent -- those continue to be the WNBA's chief objectives. The expected move to Tulsa will be about more than just that city or even the state of Oklahoma. It would be the first WNBA franchise in the middle of Big 12 territory, and that league has led the nation in college women's hoops attendance for the past 10 seasons in a row.

Are there WNBA haters there? Of course. And, like everywhere else, there are people who have to be negative about everything; it's how they get through the day. But Tulsa is a perfectly fine place to live and to visit, and there are practical people there. The hope of the investors is that enough of them will see WNBA games as a good value in summertime entertainment options, and will appreciate that the WNBA players invest in their community and appreciate their fans.

There will be talk of Tulsa's being a smaller marker and not as appealing to television, but we're used to hearing that here in flyover country. The WNBA isn't going to deliver huge TV ratings, but it strives to be a viable programming option. It's still establishing itself after 13 seasons in business, where some places it has worked and some places it hasn't.

The league has been in and left Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Orlando, Miami, Portland, Salt Lake City and now Detroit. In some of those cities, the team took root and had success but then met with economic hard times and folded or moved elsewhere. In other cities, the ownership commitment was never solid enough to withstand difficulties, and so no real roots even began to grow.

As the WNBA transitions away from the disappointment of Detroit to a new hope in Tulsa, it's in the same boat it has been: It's not going to sink, but it's also not close to smooth sailing. Like many other businesses, it must work to keep afloat and expect that the water always has the potential to turn rough.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

ALSO SEE