WNBA failure and the NBA

The above information is widely open to interpretation. Some may blame our inane society and some may blame the WNBA’s NBA-gifted existence. Perhaps sexism is holding the league back, and perhaps political correctness is holding the league upright. I’d rather the WNBA thrive, but I wonder a) How much money does the NBA lose on this sputtering venture? and b) Should a women’s league exist under the umbrella of a far more popular men’s league? 

The order of my questioning betrays my myopia: I care far more about the WNBA’s secret financial impact on the NBA than I do about the health of women’s professional hoops. But, perhaps this myopia is a greater indictment of a failing league than of my chauvinistic fixation on men’s hoops? And now we’re back to the chicken and the egg dynamic that fuels a fraught discussion.

Anyway, let’s examine the first question. Weeks ago, there was a rush to defend the WNBA from lockout-sparked criticism. The defense’s case: Since the WNBA pays so little in salary, it’s not a serious money loser for the NBA. I find this argument less compelling than the WNBA itself. If the women’s league is indeed budget neutral, then where is the proof? We’re really going easy on David Stern when the play is to defend WNBA financials, despite Stern’s insistence on keeping them secret.

More to the point, it’s possible to blame the WNBA for money the NBA isn’t making. An illustrative example can be found in the the ESPN oral history These Guys Have All the Fun. The book covers a tense 2002 NBA TV rights negotiation and former ESPN executive Mark Shapiro colorfully recounts how the women’s league factored into the negotiations:

“I told (David Stern) the WNBA stinks, it doesn’t rate, and I didn’t want it. Men don’t watch it. Women don’t watch it!”

Though the WNBA was a major negotiating stumbling block, executives above Shapiro eventually shepherded the deal through at Stern’s (angry) insistence. But this is quite the message to prospective TV rights buyers: Purchase the NBA and you’ll have to take on a poison ratings pill. There is a cost to running an unwatched nationally televised women’s league as an adjunct to a heavily-watched national men’s league–a cost that the NFL and MLB never have to grapple with.

Digressive notes: Really, I should have been a WNBA convert. Back in 2008, I worked for it. The job dictated that I read literally every news story printed on the league that year. “It’s a money makin’ league!” my boss forced while almost apologetically giving the assignment. His cadence seemed a confluence of sarcasm and steak knife hawking.

And I did read every WNBA news story. All of them. Knew the context, had favorite stars, had the schedule memorized. I watched about two games. Reading about the WNBA was far more compelling than actually watching it. And reading about the league was boring enough to make me stagger through streets after work like a wounded zombie.

Follow Ethan @SherwoodStrauss

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