Whither The WNBA?S

Despite claims that the WNBA is gaining popularity, Slate's Josh Levin argues that the league is in big trouble. His solution: quit trying to court male fans.

As evidence that the WNBA is still struggling, Levin cites the demise of the Houston Comets, and the fact that the Phoenix Mercury had to give away free tickets in order to fill the stadium for its championship series. The league is also a target of insults. Levin writes,

As the finals wound down, ESPN.com's most-popular writer, Bill Simmons, mocked his own network's coverage of women's hoops. "Tweets you won't see tonight," Simmons wrote. "Flip over to ESPN2, the 4th quarter of the climactic WNBA Finals game is on right now!" A few months earlier, Simmons encouraged one of his readers to go to a WNBA game wearing a T-shirt reading "EXPECT LAYUPS." And last month, the desperate-to-be-edgy Foxsports.com video series "Cubed" played host to a debate about which activity was more palatable, women's hoops or gay porn. (Fox Sports later cut that bit, explaining in a statement that it had been "experimental.")

Leaving aside the question of what's more "palatable," sexism or homophobia, it remains uncertain whether the WNBA will ever be able to pay for itself. As of 2007, Levin says, the league was losing between 1.5 and 2 million dollars a year. Explaining why, he writes,

The fundamental problem is that the sports world's primary spenders-adult men-have never shown much interest in watching women play basketball. For all the people like John Wooden who enthuse over the superior fundamentals of the women's game, there are thousands more who focus on what women can't do on the court. Dunking is not all there is to basketball-as your high school coach used to say, a slam is worth just as many points as a layup. But it's also true that nobody pays $1,000 for courtside seats to watch a layup line.

Of course, the lack of slam dunks may not be the only problem — there are probably many men who simply don't want to watch women play basketball. Fox's "gay porn" comparison may be revealing. The WNBA is popular with the gay and lesbian communities (as Levin mentions later), and some men who consider themselves red-blooded American sports fans may be uncomfortable with this association. Other RBASFs may not want to watch women play a sport they think of as masculine (as opposed to, say, gymnastics). Slurs about the "manliness" of female athletes were around long before Caster Semenya, and some viewers may think of WNBA players as like men, but worse. While some fans probably disdain the WNBA on gameplay alone, it's important to note that there may be other issues at work here.

Levin says the solution for the WNBA isn't to resolve these issues, but to concentrate on its base:

The audience for the WNBA is, by various accounts, between 60 percent and 80 percent female. The league also has a major following in the gay and lesbian community, a community that some franchises court and others aggressively alienate. If the WNBA focuses primarily on these fans, they can still have a large enough customer base to survive and succeed.

According to Levin, the WNBA will never score big TV or merchandising deals like its male counterpart does, and must instead maximize ticket sales by appealing to existing fans and possibly moving "toward smaller markets that are more likely to come out and support a professional women's basketball team." He cites as a model Women's Pro Soccer, a "grassroots-focused league that appears committed to sensible growth" and whose "core audience is 8-to-18-year-old girls who play soccer, their families, and 'fitness-minded women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.'" The idea of the WNBA succeeding on female support alone, simply ignoring male RBASFs, has a certain sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves appeal. And Levin's statement that "you're more likely to succeed by marketing your product to people who already like it than by trying to win over people who don't" makes good business sense. Still, it's sad that in a country where so many women watch men play sports, we have to accept that men will never watch women.

How To Fix The WNBA [Slate]