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WNBA, Destined For Failure? Not So Fast

Kevin Ray has had a courtside seat as a broadcaster for the WNBA since its inception. Seeing the ups and downs and development of the game and the constant addition of new talented players, Kevin is confident about the league's success.

The infusion of talent in recent years has provided a big boost for the WNBA
The infusion of talent in recent years has provided a big boost for the WNBA

Destined for failure. A marketing gimmick. A joke. These were just some of the words used to describe how some felt about the WNBA more than 14 years ago. I guess the joke's on the so-called "experts" and critics who took every opportunity to the bash the very concept of the WNBA. Along with the critics and experts came the sports fans who were certain the league would fold and be out of sight within 5 years, if not sooner!

Happy 14th birthday, WNBA! Many of these sports fans were the Joe Six Packs who were part of the growing sports talk radio genre. When the NBA Board of Governors announced back in April of '96 they'd approved the WNBA concept, the naysayers wasted no time in trashing the idea before even a single game had been played.

I guess my view was a little different for a number of reasons. I was about to become a Dad for the first time and we knew it was going to be a little girl. How could I mock an idea that gives women a chance to display not only their basketball skills, but also allows them to fulfill aspirations of playing professional basketball in front of their peers and fans here in U.S.?

My perspective was shaped many years ago due to the fact that I grew up in a family with 4 sisters. With 5 women in the household growing up, a woman's opinion was never too far away. My mother worked and my father was always supportive of her job (nurse) and likewise with my sisters in things they wanted to pursue.

For years, once a woman's collegiate career was over she had only a few options. The first was to hang up the shoes. Despite having plenty of ability, there was nowhere locally in the states where they could advance their playing careers or skill set. Sure, there were leagues that popped up from time to time thru the years (WBL-78-80/ABL-96-98/NWBL-97-07), but they didn't offer any real long-term hope of being successful.

If playing professional basketball was their dream, they'd have to follow it overseas. That trend continues even now with WNBA players supplementing their incomes here with sometimes very lucrative deals to play during the WNBA offseason overseas.

Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale, the General Manager now for the Phoenix Mercury, played briefly in the WBL and recalls how and why the WNBA came to be.

"In 1992, the Women's USA Olympic team lost one game and it cost them a chance at winning the gold. They finished 3rd with a bronze. Thus steps were started to not only get a team ready for 1996 to win the gold medal again, but women's basketball took off in the 90s with much exposure and it was a great time to launch another league. The ABL basically beat the WNBA to the punch, but the ABL could not sustain its league. Thus 1997, after the 1996 Olympics and high profile names, such as Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, and Sheryl Swoops were the first 3 to sign into the WNBA."

I'll admit that I had another motive for wanting to see the league succeed. As a young aspiring play-by-play guy, I felt the league would also provide additional jobs for guys like me who were always looking for games to broadcast. Little did I know that 13 years later I'd have had in some ways a front row seat to the leagues growth and change.

Like the players and anyone directly involved with the league, I caught my fair share of ridicule from those who mocked the league, the sport and the women who played it. During the league's early years, I was hosting a morning talk show and oftentimes found myself defending its existence and my involvement.

Women's basketball and the WNBA were obviously not for everyone, yet some of the loudest criticisms and mocking came from those who'd never even seen a women's game. As I countered more times than I can remember, "Why shouldn't my daughter or anyone's daughter have the right to dream of playing professional basketball someday?"

Young boys had NBA players they aspired to be so why should it be any different for a young girl at the park or in her driveway practicing jump shots and dribbling to envision herself being the next Diana Taurasi, Lisa Leslie or Lauren Jackson?

Let's face it, much of the negative reactions stem from ignorance. These same sports fans and "experts" forget that the NBA didn't start out playing in front of packed arenas or commanding huge television contracts.

A quick lesson in NBA history will show them the league had its own issues for years before finally getting on solid footing. Everything from attendance, lack of interest and yes, prejudice. These are the very issues that the WNBA has dealt with from its inception, but they've grown stronger as a result and it certainly hasn't hurt by having the support of David Stern and other influential NBA owners and its Board of Governors. In fact, one of the main voices of support came from the Suns' Jerry Colangelo, who at the time was a member of the board of governors and perhaps the biggest driving force (outside of David Stern) in launching the WNBA.

When the league tipped off in June of '97, there was a great deal of attention being paid for a variety of reasons. For the fans of women's basketball, they finally had a professional league they could follow and support. On the other side, you had the group who looked in hoping to see the failure they'd been telling everyone that would most certainly occur. And finally, you had the casual observer and the fan who just wanted to be a part of something exciting and new.

In the beginning, the league played before packed arenas and enjoyed unprecedented media coverage. These trends would not continue, however. Like any new business, there were bumps and obstacles along the way that made navigating this new entity a challenge. Over time, the euphoria and fan support waned and gave way to much smaller crowds and media exposure that was also greatly diminished.

Before joining the Mercury as the team's GM and VP, Meyers-Drysdale was a broadcaster who worked on the league telecasts. She recalls her emotions upon learning the WNBA would be launched. "I was pretty excited when I knew that the NBA was going to get involved and support a WNBA."

Like myself, Meyers-Drysdale also saw that perhaps the league was trying to grow too fast and, based on the talent pool and team locations, it brought on potential problems.

"The biggest drawback for me, was once the league started and there was GREAT excitment and great attendance for the first couple of years, the fact that the NBA was involved was a positive. It gave the WNBA credibility, but we all found out that the WNBA was a 'different' product than the NBA and needed to be 'marketed' differently," says Meyers-Drysdale.

"That all was a learning process. We got up to 16 teams, and since teams did struggle, and a team would fold or move, the media came at the league pretty good -- stating that we were a fledgling league. I felt we needed some stability with the 8 teams for a few years. That was my opinion from what I saw happen in the WBL".

These problems led ultimately to a handful of teams being dissolved as NBA owners who were also supporting the WNBA franchises simply could not make the model work. Failure for the entire league was sure to follow according to the critics.

Despite these setbacks there were still many positive things happening around the league. Record-setting scoring performances (Katie Smith, 46 points) and, while the sellouts were no longer the norm, the diehard fan base that had been established continued their support and when the 10 millionth fan passed through the gates of the Staples Center in Game 2 of the WNBA finals, it sent a message that failure would not be coming anytime soon.

One reason the league felt confident they could weather the choppy waters was the crop of collegiate players who were on the horizon. Players who would soon be the faces of the league and also be responsible for shaping the way the game would be played in the future.

My own personal feeling when the league was launched was that if it could make it 10 years, it would have a strong chance of sustainability. My rationale was simple. You needed to get a couple of drafts comprised of players who'd been chasing that professional dream, young women who were in high school when the league was launched and saw the league as their ticket to something big. The real growth and stability starts there.

The drafts of 2002, 2003 and 2004 proved significant in many ways for the league because of the talent level this group of players would be bringing to the league.

The University of Connecticut had a major influence not only on the collegiate level, but it was quickly becoming a pipeline to the WNBA for players.  Three players in particular who were all part of multiple title teams at UConn brought the same swagger and winning ways to the WNBA. Sue Bird, Swinn Cash and Diana Taurasi were picked in the top 2 spots ('02 - Bird#1, Cash#2 and '04 - Taurasi#1) of their respective drafts and have all won WNBA championships since coming onto the scene (Bird - '04, Seattle/Cash - '03 and '06 Detroit/Taurasi - '07 and '09 Phoenix).

These players, coupled with some incredible international talent that had migrated to the states (Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor), injected a newfound hope into the league and its fan base.

Since its launch in '97, the league, like any business, has done some great things and they've made some mistakes. But one of the main reasons they've been able survive in some very uncertain times is their willingness to be flexible. From moving their start and end dates, changing playoff formats, allowing outside ownership (non-NBA owners) to operate teams or to one of their most recent and most significant signs of flexibility, which is sponsored uniforms.

This out of the box thinking and action by the league may be what ultimately allows the league to not only survive but also begin to truly thrive. The Phoenix Mercury were the first team to secure a sponsor for uniform sponsorship (Lifelock) and shortly thereafter, the Los Angeles Sparks announced a partnership with Farmers Insurance. In recent months, the Seattle Storm added Bing and the New York Liberty unveiled a partnership with Foxwoods Casinos. All of these deals have created a new revenue stream that didn't exist before with each being at or near seven figures.

While those numbers pale in comparison to other multimillion dollar sponsorships, this is what's termed "new money" and in the current economic climate, it's "big money". Some of those same critics of the league's launch were quick to cut these deals down and say it cheapened the league and made it look even more ridiculous. To which I would counter, "Do you follow NASCAR at all?"

On the heels of their most successful season ever in attendance, TV ratings and overall media exposure, current league President Donna Oreander couldn't be happier about the direction of her league. She's a President who's on top of social media wave and uses it constantly to stay in touch with her fan base as this excerpt from a recent blog shows:

"The 14th WNBA season is off and running, and from where I sit this is one of our strongest starts. Ratings on ESPN2 are up 33-percent, we had five sellouts opening week, and team sponsorship is pacing at a double-digit increase"

With scoring also on the rise and a new breed of long, athletic versatile players (Candace Parker and DeWanna Bonner), the league sees even bigger and better things ahead. So while the WNBA may not be for you or anyone you know, the fans, players and people involved have no issue with that.

But before you criticize, I'd invite you to watch and learn a little. You might be surprised at what you see and just how entertained you could be. As the league's marketing campaigns will tell you, Basketball is basketball and Expect Great. Failure is not in their vocabulary.