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The WNBA: Another voice backs the league

September 26, 2008 |  2:49 pm

I logged online Saturday morning to see what The Times had written about the Sparks' first playoff game the night before. Not only was there a game story, there was an accompanying free-lance "commentary" piece on the entire league -- namely, explaining why she isn't a fan of the WNBA.

The young lady, a recent graduate of Palisades High School, not only denigrated the whole league, its players and its game, but she also took a shot at gay people. The piece was entirely disappointing, to say the least.

My first reaction was puzzlement. The Times has not covered women's basketball well, whether college or professional. Yet the staff randomly attacks the sport in print once or twice a year, for no apparent reason. I don't like the NBA or hockey, but I don't feel the need to continually tell others that or explain why.

So the Times' women's basketball story choices are odd.

One clue as to why the column was written lies in the writer's closing lines, which begin with, "If the WNBA hopes to survive." Perhaps Times sports staffers think the 12-year-old

league is about to fold. If so, I would think that a news organization of its caliber would seek out some facts. A bit of research would have revealed that WNBA attendance increased in 2008 for the second year in a row, and there were three times the number of sellout games this season than last. WNBA ratings and viewership on national television were up 19% this year. League merchandise sales were up 36%, and WNBA jersey sales, 46%. Page views on wnba.com saw a 20% increase. And personally, I haven’t heard rumors of a league collapse for eight years.

Candace Parker dunks on the Fever.The column writer was trying to make a case for how supposedly unpopular the WNBA is and

to do this, she went back to Palisades and interviewed 12 girls who "hope" to make the basketball team there this year. Because only one girl said she watched the WNBA regularly, the columnist assumed that all girls in the Los Angeles area feel the same way about the league.

The Times would have done better to take a larger survey to get a more accurate representation, as there are about 700,000 students in hundreds of high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District alone.

WNBA research has found that of girls aged 15-17, 22% watch WNBA games on TV occasionally, and 7% watch frequently. When they asked female basketball players of the same age, 40% reported watching occasionally and 14% frequently. This coincides with my experiences as a coach and teacher.

I have never had trouble giving away WNBA game tickets to female basketball players at my school. When I go to Sparks games, I see numerous players from other high schools there as well. And I can talk to several of my students of both genders about games, because they watch them on TV. This matches up with league statistics.

The WNBA reports that while 53% of its TV viewers are males, 58% of its attendees are females. Of those females, the 18-34 age group attends most, followed by the 12-17 age group, and then ages 35-54. It's too bad they don't include the under-12 age group, because I see a lot of young kids at games too.

The column writer stated that the WNBA is “virtually absent from the media,” and in this she is not entirely wrong. Coverage of the league in the L.A. Times is usually relegated to small articles on the bottoms of pages buried far back inside the sports section.

But the San Antonio Express-News has its own page for the Silver Stars; the Seattle Times assigns a reporter to travel with the Storm and cover games, and she also writes a daily blog about the team. The Sacramento Bee, the Hartford Courant, the New York Daily News and New York Post, among other newspapers, also regularly cover their respective WNBA teams. Nationally, WNBA coverage can be found often in USA Today, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Strangely enough, while the writer alleges that the WNBA is missing in the media, she mocks the attention Sparks forward Candace Parker got for her two dunks in June. The day after the first dunk, there were 95,000 downloads of the video of the event from wnba.com. Yet the writer downplays it, asking, “Could you imagine if each player in the NBA received that kind of attention after a dunk debut?”

Since neither the young lady nor I were alive in 1945, when that first dunk took place, we don’t know how excited everyone got. But since the dunk was banned in the NBA from 1967-1976, it is safe to assume that it generated a lot of excitement. What the writer really reveals here is her true motive in writing the piece, and that is to compare the women’s game to the men’s game so she can degrade female ballplayers.

The writer said she is attracted to the physicality of the men's game, and to their abilities to jump higher and run faster than female players. That is a fair enough statement in that everyone has preferences. Obviously males are faster in every sport. But to expect the women’s game to be the men’s game is unrealistic; it’s never going to happen.

The Los Angeles Sparks held a basketball camp in August for middle- and high school-aged girls. In a question-and-answer session with head Coach Michael Cooper, he told parents and coaches that girls were far more aggressive than boys.

"On men’s teams, maybe three of them will be aggressive," Cooper told the room. "Think about the Lakers. The strategy is to get the ball into Kobe's hands, and then everyone stands around watching Kobe.

"With women you have a lot more teamwork and fundamentals. They make better passes than the men, have better offensive sets than the men, and they play defense."

Cooper said people are beginning to recognize that about the women's game, including some former NBA greats. He is right; Bill Russell used to come to Seattle Storm games often, and he commented that "this is the way we used to play the game."

The WNBA isn’t for everyone, and clearly the NBA has higher viewership and attendance. It has, after all, been around far longer than the women’s league. But a far greater percentage of fans than The Times wants to admit will watch both men’s and women’s games (see the 2002 NCAA study, “The State of the Game). They’re my favorite kinds of fans; they say, “basketball is basketball.” It’s unfortunate that The Times columnist and her friends can’t join so many others in that perspective.

If the weak arguments of the writer’s friends as to why they don’t watch the WNBA (“I can’t find the game schedule on the Internet” and “my male friends don’t watch it”) weren’t bad enough, the end of the column was. Though none of the interviewees mentioned it, the writer asserts that “some” heterosexual players are afraid of being mistaken for being gay if they watch WNBA games.
What? Characterizing an entire sports league as gay is a stretch. Implying that watching any sport dictates a person's sexuality is equally outrageous. The net effect was offensive.

The thing that struck me most when reading about the views of the columnist and the ballplayers was that we still have a lot of work to do as parents, teachers and a society to help raise the self-esteem of young women. Perhaps then, more young ladies wouldn’t feel the need to attack one another. And I wish the columnist had studied the WNBA instead of the NBA, as she said she did. If she had, maybe she would still be playing ball, having fun, and even going to a Sparks game once in a while.

-- Sue Favor

Sue Favor is a Los Angeles Unified School District high school teacher, coach, avid basketball fan, athlete and writer of  a women's basketball blog.

Photo: Candace Parker dunks against the Indiana Fever in June. Credit: Gus Ruelas / AP

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