With its playoffs set to start Sept. 16, the WNBA is closing out season No. 13, eliciting thoughts, at least here, of the '70s pop group the Bee Gees and "Stayin' Alive."
Yes, the WNBA is still alive -- when some skeptics earlier had predicted a short life span. Still enticing fans into arenas, showing up from time to time on national television and providing a playing platform for the best women’s basketball players in the world.
But when talking WNBA, finding a starting point for conversation is tough for some. The season lasts just over three months during summer, gobbled up by fervent attention to Major League Baseball, NFL training camps and Tiger Woods. No mention hardly on sports talk radio, scant media coverage (sometimes you can’t find the standings in the paper) and limited overall fanfare. Beyond a supposedly core cadre of fans, the women’s professional basketball league seems largely unappealing and invisible.
But still alive, and that has to be a good thing for women’s sports. Many associated with the WNBA contend the league is starting to find its long-term footing.
From this column, in finding a place to talk WNBA, let’s start with Angel, Marissa and Kristi and go from there. That's Angel McCoughtry, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Tolliver, three fairly well known players from the Baltimore and Washington women’s sports scene. Remarkably, all three went 1-2-3 in the 2009 WNBA draft.
So soon we forget: McCoughtry of Baltimore took her University of Louisville team to the NCAA women’s title game, losing in April to Connecticut. Coleman and Tolliver rate as two of the greatest women’s players to come out of the University of Maryland, winning the national title for the Terps as freshman. Those are some deep credentials for young women who grew into professionals playing out of this area, but the trio probably could walk along streets of places like Omaha, Peoria or Fort Lauderdale and not get a notice.
That’s an issue with the WNBA – recognition -- except perhaps for the likes of Candace Parker, the new face of the league, veteran champion Lisa Leslie or the dynamic Diana Taurasi. Who but die-hard WNBA fans have heard of Cappie Pondexter, Katie Douglas, Deanna Nolan or Sylvia Fowles?
But the lack of general awareness notwithstanding, McCoughtry of the Atlanta Dream, Coleman of the Washington Mystics and Tolliver of the Chicago Sky should give WNBA aficionados from Baltimore-Washington a boost of good feeling. All three have their clubs within earshot of the playoffs as the season winds down.
The exploits of Maryland grads Coleman, a 6-1 guard/forward from Cheltenham, MD, named the 2009 ACC tournament’s Most Valuable Player, and the 5-7 big-shot point guard Tolliver of Harrisonburg, VA (remember the pressure three she drained at the end of regulation in the 2006 title game vs. Duke) are well chronicled because NCAA women’s basketball seems a better play than the WNBA.
But for those from Baltimore, the 6-1 McCoughtry is the one. Up and coming girl players owe her. Baltimore’s rep is one of a gritty, blue-collar town. It also is a basketball town – contemporaries Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay and Juan Dixon and former greats Marvin Webster, Reggie Williams, Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Lewis and David Wingate, just to drop some names.
McCoughtry, the WNBA’s adidas Rookie of the Month for July and odds on favorite for Rookie-of-the-Year, fits the Baltimore mold. Now 23, it was evident from watching her come up the ranks of AAU ball under Wardell Selby and the Baltimore Cougars and high school under coach Jerome Shelton and St. Francis Academy that she arguably is the best girl player to come out of Baltimore. She showed it at Louisville and now in the WNBA, scoring 12.4 a game as a rookie.
Even as a kid, McCoughtry could do everything on the floor. Most importantly, she "just never loses." And that same intense, intimidating non-plused Baltimore scowl (Maryland-area AAU and Baltimore IAAM A Conference coaches know it well) rightfully has moved to the WNBA. How could a player whose high school gym was across the street from Baltimore's maximum security penitentiary not be good?
Yet, McCoughtry, Coleman and Tolliver, as 2009’s top draft choices, hardly will be the salvation of a league that has seen up-and-down attendance over the years while trying to stay relevant to TV-watching fans and attract and keep sponsors and advertisers. NBA Commissioner David Stern, the WNBA’s financial "godfather," remains optimistic, hailing the league’s progress this season and pointing to possible future expansion.
If only the WNBA can figure out how to present itself on TV. Not just surviving, but thriving will depend on it. Maybe receiving its first television rights fee deal earlier this season through 2016 with ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 will help. The multi-million deal should provide cash for the 13 WNBA teams to pay bills, though whether the average player salary of $55,000 would rise was in question. But TV is the key because more fans, of course, can watch from home than go to the arena. If TV ratings are there, advertisers will joyfully buy in.
But the question for the WNBA is whether the product can be as exciting from the tube than from the arena and get people talking. Starting from 10-under through high school and college, the girls game is fun, especially watching courtside in gyms. Of course, no slam dunks, few behind-the-back passes and a pace of play that is slow-motion-like compared to boys -- but still a good game that is focused on effort, emotion and fundamentals. In fact, the WNBA describes itself admirably as "a unique global sports property combining competition, sportsmanship, and entertainment value with its status as an icon for social change, achievement and diversity.
Excellent, but that just doesn’t come across watching the game on TV. Hopefully, it will someday.