- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Phoenix Mercury coach and general manager Corey Gaines was not about to second-guess men who bash the WNBA without having ever come to a game.
"I was that guy," Gaines said. "It was just a different sport with me. But I understand. I'm that man, too."
Gaines might be a little hard on himself, as his skepticism had nothing to do with gender. But he was just as biased.
"I was playing basketball in Italy, and I had zero appreciation for soccer," recalled Gaines -- 6-foot-4, 205 pounds and a former third-round draft choice of the SuperSonics in 1988 who played five seasons in the NBA. "But I'm watching games on TV over there, and I'm saying to myself, 'Come on, look how tiny they are. I could run right through those guys. I'm faster, stronger; I can head the ball because I can jump higher.' "
Then, one off-day, Gaines gave it a try. "And they made me look like a clown out there," he said. "I could never touch the ball. I never got my foot on it. But I started playing the game more and appreciating it and fell in love with it."
The Mercury are not suggesting that those who are cynical about the WNBA go one-on-one with Diana Taurasi, though that has been done, too. But they have started a Twitter promotion using the hashtags #ManUp and #CureTheCooties, in which they are offering free tickets to disbelieving men with the simple challenge to come see what they've been missing.
In less than two weeks, more than 100 men have taken them up on the offer.
"It's not even about basketball," Mercury vice president Ann Meyers Drysdale said. "It's 'Don't be critical about something you know nothing about.' It can be science, education. People make comments about things they're uneducated about, but how can you have a valued opinion if you don't see it live?"
This battle is certainly not new, and, as the WNBA looks ahead to its 17th season this spring, some might deem it not worth the effort. But Meyers Drysdale, one of the earliest college stars and true pioneers in the game, insists she has not grown weary of trying to sell women's basketball to nonbelievers.
"I never get weary because it's always new to people, and no matter what race, gender or religion, people want to learn about the game," she said. "It's not just a male game or a black or white game. It's not a game played by men or women in their 20s and 30s. Children as young as 2 years old are learning to dribble a basketball. What I enjoy is the way it's promoted, and most NBA and college teams do that, so it's not anything new."
This particular idea, however, is certainly interesting. Discussed for a while within the Mercury offices, it began with a column on the team's website by Ben York, a longtime basketball writer and women's basketball fan who coordinates the team's digital content.
"We have a lot of men who just kind of dismiss women's basketball but have never seen a game or been to a game," he said. "For us, it's not a ploy to fill seats. We're doing fantastic with sales. It's more of a 'Don't bash it till you try it.'
"We just want guys who won't believe the quality of the game is any good to actually see a game before they talk negatively. We want to cure an epidemic. I have my own friends who have tried it and come away saying 'Wow, I had no idea.' That's the stigma we're up against."
With two WNBA titles in the past five seasons and a team that boasts an Olympian, perennial All-Star and former league MVP in Taurasi -- and very possibly a future All-Star in projected No. 1 draft pick Brittney Griner -- the Mercury would not appear to be a tough sell.
And in fact, team president and chief operating officer Amber Cox said they have seen "a shift" in their fan base, with an estimated 25 to 30 percent male and more of a dad-and-daughter presence.
But the challenge remains.
"I talk to our sales staff and tell them 'Don't ever discount bringing out boys' teams [to games] because, when they're 7 and 8 years old watching us play, hopefully they won't think twice about turning on the TV and watching a WNBA game when they're older,'" Cox said. "It's that continued growth and exposure that legitimizes us to men."
Cox and others within the WNBA have optimistically compared the coming of Griner and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, likely headed to the Chicago Sky, to the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird impact on the NBA in 1979-80, invigorating the league and giving it unprecedented exposure and appeal.
"We're in a society that demands success right now, but Bird and Magic came into the league in Year 38 of the NBA, and we're half that old now," Cox said. "[In 1980], the NBA still aired playoff games on tape delay. So at 17, to be doing the things we're doing with teams breaking even, season-ticket bases growing, the TV exposure we have -- all those things collectively are getting us to where we need to go."
It takes time
Meyers Drysdale also preaches patience.
"The civil rights movement, the women's rights movement -- certain things are slow, but make great strides," she said. "It has been 41 years since Title IX [was enacted], and a lot of positive things have happened. There are still a lot of prejudices out there, and not just gender but against religion, race, age.
"I think the fact that there's an opportunity for young women to be professional athletes and that we're the longest-tenured professional [women's] league in the country at 17 years, we're doing something right."
Some, however, still need to be convinced, and Gaines laughed at the thought of the scores of unsuspecting men who have tried out for the Mercury's practice squad only to crawl out with a newfound respect for the game.
"The mayor [Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton] came out to play with us, and I told him 'You can go through some of the non-action drills, layups, cuts,' but there were enough cameras there that he said, 'No, I play at the 'Y' on weekends with the guys, I can handle this.' I said, 'Mayor, I'm telling you, this is different.' The same way I watch the NFL all the time -- I'm a pretty good athlete, but I wouldn't get out there. It's your living room, it's their career."
Still, the mayor insisted.
"He said, 'I'm ready,' and I'm not lying," Gaines said, "the first drill he goes in and breaks his nose. It was on TV, blood everywhere, and he's done. I tried to warn him. It's physical, it's fast; they're professional athletes."
One current member of the practice squad, which is largely made up of former college players, said it's an annual parade of hopefuls throwing up on their way out the door.
"I was definitely dismissive of [the WNBA] without ever having seen a game and I think of myself as a pretty evolved guy," Mykael Wright said. "I still had the image in my mind of my high school girls basketball team.
"The eye test on TV compared to the NBA -- yeah, it's slower. But to watch [Suns forward] Jared Dudley on TV, I swear I can guard him. I don't know how the dude ever scores. Without seeing a sport in person, it never translates to how fast they're really moving. It was a definite awakening for me [seeing the WNBA in person]."
The fact that the Mercury play in the same building as the Suns and enjoy a symbiotic relationship, Cox said, "is our blessing and our curse. We love our association with the Suns, they're a wonderful organization and they've been incredible, but the comparison sometimes kills us because [fans] expect that. We're two different products, but if you love basketball, you can see the good in both of them."
For free, even.
"We've found no matter what we say or what factual evidence we have, people are going to choose to believe [that the WNBA is boring]," York said. "We just want them to come give it a try. No catch. We just want people to see us because we're confident in our quality of play, and we know they'll come away saying 'Wow, I didn't know they were that good.'
"One live game and they're hooked."
The Phoenix Mercury have a message for men who dismiss the WNBA: Give the game a shot. To encourage that, they're offering free tickets.