WNBA should showcase real games

Updated: July 13, 2006, 12:06 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The WNBA All-Star Game remains uncomfortable in its own skin.

Perhaps the loudest cheer in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night came during a third-quarter timeout, when former New York Liberty stars Rebecca Lobo and Teresa Weatherspoon were honored as part of the league's celebration of its 10th anniversary.

It was a touching moment, as New York fans had a chance to salute two long-time favorites.

And it's those moments that make the All-Star Game a memorable event. The game is a chance for fans who love and appreciate the league to savor moments that have little to do with the final score.

It's subtle things like former Minnesota star Katie Smith checking Seimone Augustus, the rookie who essentially replaced her on the Lynx. It's light-hearted moments like players on the West's bench holding Tamika Whitmore's shorts as the Indiana forward made an inbounds pass, slowing her progress up the court. And its displays of skill like Cappie Pondexter throwing a no-look pass over her head to Augustus or Snow going up for a dunk at the end of the game, with both offense and defense clearing out to watch.

But it's hardly the best the WNBA has to offer. And given the timing of the event, and the opportunity the summer sports schedule affords the league, that's unfortunate.

The All-Star Game is a great show for the league's current fans; it's not a great showcase for potential fans.

Unless they involve the Harlem Globetrotters, exhibition-style games lack the very essence of competition that makes a sporting event exciting. It simply doesn't matter who wins, and no matter how hard the media and league executives try to pretend otherwise, everyone from the players on the court to the fans in the stands knows it.

"After 10 years, the influence of the WNBA in profound," WNBA commissioner Donna Orender said before Wednesday's game. "It is an iconic brand. Tonight is a showcase for the WNBA."

I happen to agree on basic truth of the first two statements, even if Orender's hyperbole can be tough to swallow. But while the third is also technically true, it's not necessarily in a positive manner.

With a national television audience on ESPN and no other major sporting events taking place as baseball takes a day off, the night is a showcase for the WNBA. The game isn't going to suddenly draw a 5.0 rating, but it stands to reason that at least a few eyes that wouldn't normally watch the WNBA will see a live game on the screen and put down the clicker for at least a few minutes.

And that's exactly why the All-Star Game is precisely the wrong thing to showcase.

It's as if the WNBA has fallen hook, line and sinker for the suspect reasoning that the NBA blossomed because it successfully promoted its stars as individuals who fans wanted to watch.

But casual fans aren't going to fall for the WNBA because of Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi. For one thing, it's not a league built on isolation plays. The league's great players thrive in team systems, stepping up when they need to but also getting the most out of their teammates (just like Magic, Larry and Michael did).

To truly showcase itself, and build the kind of following that will make the All-Star Game important, the league needs to highlight its teams. Instead of collecting the top individual players for a game short on defense and intensity, why not plan a doubleheader, like the NBA on Christmas or the NFL on Thanksgiving?

Have Sacramento play Connecticut in a WNBA Finals rematch and then follow it up with Phoenix and Los Angeles. Plenty of stars will still get the spotlight, but fans will see them competing at full speed with the playoff push starting to take shape.

"All 14 teams are averaging more points per game than the league average last season," Orender trumpeted in the same news conference. "That's pretty significant. The number of possessions, the speed of the game have all increased. These women can flat-out play."

She's right. The regular-season product in the WNBA has never been better. The new rules have increased offense, and a new generation of players who were raised with the WNBA in the background are taking the game to new athletic heights ... sometimes literally.

But it's a lot more fun to watch Katie Douglas checking Augustus in a game that matters than watching her play defense in a game that doesn't.

"It's going to be a great game, and not only is it going to be fun to watch, it's going to be a competitive game," Tina Thompson said before Wednesday's game while defending the competitive spirit on display. But then she added, "So it's almost like the fans are going to get a regular season WNBA game."

Give the players the All-Star Game; they deserve recognition as the best in the game. Give fans the All-Star Game; they deserve a chance to see their favorite players in a fun atmosphere.

But when it comes to showcasing the league on a night when it has the national stage to itself, give everyone else the best teams playing the best women's basketball in the world.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.