I like women’s basketball.
I know that makes people like Bill Simmons laugh, but I can’t help it. Yes, most of this attributed to growing up in Connecticut and being privy to the greatest dynasty in the modern era of college sports. The UConn women have done more for women’s basketball than any other entity in the past 20 years.
And that includes the NBA. I know this because I watch the UConn women. I don’t watch the WNBA.
Since its creation, the WNBA has existed mostly as a punch line and summertime diversion. It has never caught on. Its ratings are miniscule and laughable. Many of the sport’s top players still retreat to Europe during the offseason to make real money.
It doesn’t add up. Women’s college basketball is very popular. Women’s college basketball is very exciting. It can’t just be the tie-in to a fan’s alumni that makes it that way. The sport can be successful. It needs an overhaul.
1) Start Season in January, End Season in August
Without a doubt, the worst thing about the WNBA is its gimmicked season, timed to start as the NBA playoffs are winding down. They only play 34 games. They try to squeeze an entire season in a few months. They try to take advantage of the lack of competition for the sports fan in the summer. It makes sense, to a point. I completely agree the season should end in late August, prior to the onslaught of the football behemoth. I disagree with the notion the season needs to start only after the men get done playing.
PGA Tour moving away from a calendar season, there is now no major sport in America that kicks off its season with the New Year. Hello, opportunity. If I’m running the women’s pro basketball league, I target the Saturday before the NFC/AFC championship games – at that point, the first Saturday in 5 months without football – and use that day to tip off the season.
2) Expand to 16 Teams – I know, I know
Expansion? How in the world is that a good idea? Well, for one, the talent level is there. And there needs to be more opportunity for players. Secondly, the league currently has 8 playoff spots for only 12 teams – why even play a regular season?
More importantly, there are plenty of arenas out there that would love to have a winter/spring tenant, even if they aren’t selling the joint out. My suggestion for 4 more teams? Las Vegas, Kansas City, Nashville and Tampa. Each city has a state of the art arena. Each city does not have an NBA team. Each is a major city that could embrace women’s basketball.
The league is not and will not be taken seriously with a 12-team league in which 75 percent makes the playoffs. It’s just not big enough to be a real league. It needs fresh blood. It needs more areas to tap into. It needs to provide a public demonstration of strength and growth.
The league just got a tremendous influx of talent with last year’s draft – hello Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins & Elena Delle Donne. The time is now. Strike while the iron is hot.
3) Eliminate Divisions, Everyone Plays Everyone
Once you go to 16 teams, get rid of the divisions and have everyone play everyone else four times. That gives you 60 games per team – twice as many as they play now. And the divisions, while marginally reducing travel costs, are unnecessary. Frankly, I would like to see divisions eliminated across most American sports, with the exception of football. The English Premier League and other top soccer leagues show the value of having one table. The NHL is moving closer to that direction, by reducing the number of divisions from 6 to 4. Why does the NBA need an Atlantic Division when it can just have an Eastern Conference?
It’s a long way of saying one table would make the league unique in American sports and much, much easier for the common fan to understand and get caught up on. You see one group of standings. The playoffs are seeded 1-8. There are no advantages. Every team plays the same schedule. It could set the league up as a trend-setter, instead of ripping off of bad ideas that don’t work.
4) Lengthen the Playoffs, Make Them Legit
The current WNBA playoffs are Best of 3 for the first two rounds, with a Best of 5 for the Finals. It feels amateurish. Best of 3? What other professional sport decides a playoff series with a Best of 3? Why not just do a one-and-done tournament in that case?
Obviously, the WNBA has established it’s Best of 3 format to condense the season even further so it ends before the next NBA season ends. It’s farcical. The first two rounds should be Best of 5. The Finals should be Best of 7. If you want your sport to be respected and acknowledged, it needs to be treated with respect and acknowledged as a legit professional sport. Preferably, by the people running the sport.
5) Change the Name. The WNBA is a Dead Brand.
The WNBA name needs to be replaced. Like, as in yesterday. The name has become synonymous with mocking the female sports movement. Most of this damage has been self-inflicted, due to the NBA’s insistence on the shortened season during the men’s offseason and the relentless advertising during the NBA Finals, aka the worst possible time to promote the sport. Have you ever looked at Twitter in the minutes after a crappy WNBA ad runs during the Finals? It’s not pretty.
Lose the name. Reinvent the league as a new brand. It can still be operated by the NBA, but the ties need to be scaled way back and rarely acknowledged publicly. By being the WNBA, the league has been treated as the NBA’s charity case to females for the past 20 years. Whether or not that is the case is irrelevant – that’s the perception. You don’t need to be a PR professional like myself to understand that once a perception is locked in, it’s almost impossible to change.
No, changing the name doesn’t cure all the WNBA’s ills. But it’s a start.
6) LEAVE ESPN!!
I said this about the Big East. I said this about the American Athletic Conference. The point cannot be stressed enough – ESPN is not a good place for a minor sport trying to grow. ESPN does not care about minor sports. ESPN is about the NFL, NBA, MLB, college football, college basketball and individual majors for golf and tennis. That’s it. That’s the whole list. That’s why ESPN charges every cable subscribed in this country $5+ per month. That’s where their money is tied up. That’s what their attention is paid. That’s how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future.
And that’s fine.
NBCSN. CBS Sports Network. Fox Sports 1. Those are 3 networks all starving for fresh, live sports programming. Fox Sports 1 essentially created the “new” Big East conference because it had a hole for weeknight programming. The CBS Sports Network airs PBA Bowling and Arena Football. NBCSN basically airs a test pattern on weeknights once the NHL season is over, with the only exception taped coverage of the Tour de France for 3 weeks in July.
You think maybe there’s an opportunity here?
Professional women’s basketball has potential. It’s had potential for two decades. No one has tried to capitalize on it because no one has been incentivized to. The NBA doesn’t care about it. ESPN doesn’t care about it.
It’s time for a change. A new network – one that would care about building up a new sports property to its lineup – could be the impetus for change the women’s pro game has been waited for.
Frankly, the sport deserves it. The game can be great. The game can be exciting. The game can be engaging. It just needs to be noticed.
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