Women's Hoops Blog

Inane commentary on a game that deserves far better

Thursday, October 21, 2004

How are we to greet the news of Val's departure? With mixed feelings, I suppose.

No one can question her devotion to the game. She has spent the last eight years working her butt off, traveling the country, fighting for the league. As fans, we owe her thanks for her service. But I can't help wondering if the league could have been run better over that time.

I am one of those people who often wishes the ABL would have survived instead of the WNBA. I would have preferred to have women's pro ball during basketball season rather than the summer. And I would have preferred a league unaffiliated with the NBA.

The standard wisdom is that no women's league could have survived without the financial support of the wealthy male counterpart -- put differently, that the ABL would have died even without the WNBA's competition. Maybe that's true. But as much as the NBA's millions have bouyed the WNBA, the affiliation may have hurt us as much as it helped.

The NBA affiliation has meant that we've been put mostly in crowded and competitive sports markets. It's meant that we've been put in too-large arenas. Worst of all, for much of the WNBA's history, it meant that we were saddled with owners whose primary concerns were elsewhere, whose support for the women's game was built more on David Stern's strong arm than on any love for the game.

The organizational ties have at times seemed to produce an unhealthy tendency for the WNBA to focus on imitating the NBA's model rather than fashioning its own. Awhile ago I emailed Mark Cuban, who knows as much about the business of basketball as anyone, and asked him what he thought of the WNBA. He said the biggest problem is that the WNBA tries to be NBA Jr., rather than recognizing that it has a fundamentally different market niche, and thus that it needs a fundamentally different business plan.

The WNBA has, for example, spent too much time trying to replicate the NBA's revenue base -- major-network TV contracts -- and in the process, it has ignored other media outlets (the internet, public TV, etc.) that could have better served its fans and grown the game.

The WNBA has made other mistakes as well. It made the near-fatal mistake of expanding too quickly, before it had figured out how to make money. And throughout its life, the league has pursued a marketing strategy that has been occasionally demeaning, often schizophrenic, and always pretty lame.

Despite all the problems, Val was always relentlessly optimistic -- every year in scores of interviews she'd say that attendance will rise next year, that the league will be profitable in a year or two. I understand the importance of putting on a happy public face and projecting confidence. I always worried, however, that her public statements suggested a deeper inability to recognize and fix the league's problems.

The situation got pretty dire. Attendance fell year after year. Expansion turned to painful contraction. A growing number of NBA owners wanted to quit the experiment.

Only then did the league make some fixes. It signed the cruel, but by then necessary, collective bargaining agreement. And it restructured the team ownership, making situations like Connecticut and Phoenix possible, which hold out great hope for the future.

The WNBA is now, finally, headed in the right direction. A year ago, in the wake of the Rockers' collapse, I would have said the league had a 50-50 chance of surviving long-term. Now I would say the odds are much better.

Val deserves credit for guiding the league through rocky times and getting us on what seems to be a reasonably stable path. But I believe the league could have been healthier if it had been run better. Of course we will never know how much power she really has over any of this -- maybe Stern and the NBA Board of Govs made all the big decisions, maybe the league's success or lack thereof is just a product of inevitable market forces.

Maybe none of the problems were Val's fault. Still, I hold out hope that a new commissioner will mean that even happier days are ahead.

I am thankful to Val for her years of service. I am happy she's stepping aside.