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WNBA Opens New Season with Viability Questions


As it has for every summer since it opened for business in 1997, the WNBA showcases the talents of more than 140 of the world’s best women’s basketball players.

And, as it has for seemingly every summer since the league opened, WNBA officials, coaches and players will face questions about the league’s viability and even whether it should exist when the new season opens in just under a month.

Just last week, Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, which operates the WNBA, gave less than full-throated support to the women’s league.

In a Friday interview with ESPN, one of the league’s television partners, Silver expressed disappointment that young women have not embraced the WNBA.

He noted that older men still form the most sizable demographic and that women in the 21-34 year old age range do not support the league.

Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics was quick to counter Silver, challenging him and the NBA’s marketing machinery through Twitter to do more to promote her and other players.

Silver also posited that the league’s perceived attendance problems may stem from the fact that its games take place in the summer, which is apart from the usual hoops season of late fall, winter and spring.

If Silver is serious about moving the WNBA to align with the rest of the basketball world, then he’d better be prepared to pony up bigger salaries for the players, many of whom spend their winters playing in Europe and Asia, where they make, in some cases, 10 times what they earn here in the WNBA.

On Sunday afternoon, three well-known American natives, Brittney Griner, Kristi Toliver and Maya Moore were leading a Russian-based team to the Euroleague title.

The trio, all of whom have won NCAA championships, will head back to  play in the States, but all of them and many of their sister players would skip the WNBA if it played in the fall, unless the salaries here were boosted and significantly. 

And given the WNBA’s average attendance of just under 7,800 per game last year, that’s not likely to happen.

Much of the WNBA’s difficulty in piercing the American male sports hegemony is in perception.

The league’s attendance figure for last year is about 1,000 per game ahead of where the NBA was at a similar point in its development.

That’s true, but that argument would be a tough sell for a skeptical, almost entirely male audience, many of whom are predisposed to be hostile to the idea of women playing sports.

So, why bother trying to win over men, or at least the troglodytes who traffic the sports pages and talk radio?

The WNBA can survive on the same level that men’s professional soccer and minor league baseball do, by identifying the audiences that might be receptive and maximizing the efforts to bring them in.

It probably wouldn’t hurt if the league’s 12 teams followed Major League Baseball’s formula of the past two decades and downsizing to smaller arenas to make their games more of an event.

Women have thrived for thousands of years without letting men define what success is for them. Why should the WNBA be any different?

And that’s how I see it for this week.

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.