Is the WNBA on the Way Out? Why the League Should Consider Game Changes

Ben CarderCorrespondent ISeptember 22, 2009

PHOENIX - AUGUST 08:  Tamika Catchings #24 of the Indiana Fever lays up a shot past Penny Taylor #13 of the Phoenix Mercury during the WNBA game at US Airways Center on August 8, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

So the WNBA Conference Finals are set.

In the East, it’s the Shock vs. the Fever; in the West, it’s the Sparks vs. the Mercury.

Hoping to whet WNBA enthusiasts’ appetites, writers pepper their prose with clever word play, like whether the Fever can “Solve the Shock,” or wondering aloud whether it will be CP3 (Candice Parker) or DT3 (Diana Taurasi) that takes home the Western Conference crown.

But WNBA writers would be better off asking their readers the following: Who, other than you, knows the WNBA even exists?

Though ESPN airs WNBA games, you’d be hard-pressed to find a game breakdown on SportsCenter or game recap on their "BottomLine."

Their Web site makes it easy to find columnists and their columns, the big three in professional sports (NFL, MLB, NBA, in that order), and a simple scroll of the mouse wheel reveals links to MMA, horse racing, and Olympic sports news. 

No such luck, er, link on the front page for the WNBA.

Obviously, this lack of exposure stems from the league’s perpetually poor ratings share. 

Last year, when the economy was booming rather than busting, the WNBA saw minor improvements over 2007, increasing their attendance a mere 2.7 percent, and their TV ratings two-tenths of a percent. 

When the 2008 season kicked off in June, the WNBA posted numbers that painted a much rosier view, but the shuttering of the WNBA’s winningest franchise last December due to finances belied those assertions (i.e., Houston Comets).

Defenders of the WNBA will point out the fact that any increase is positive, but not when the bar at which improvement is measured is remarkably low.

How low? 

The average number of viewers last year was 413,000, which amounts to a 0.32 ratings share. Niche news commentary programs like The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity get well over that number on re-runs, never mind live programming.

In this the WNBA’s 13th year of existence, who’s to blame for their lack of limelight? 

Poor marketing is partially to blame.

ESPN2 airs WNBA playoff games, but the highlights are seldom seen on SportsCenter and a majority of the televised playoff games require a subscription if you want to watch (e.g., at least two of the three-game WNBA conference series will be aired on NBATV, more if the series goes the distance).

But the blame really ought to go to the league itself and failing to implement adjustments that would make it more compelling.

Consider, for instance, lowering the basketball hoop, as has been discussed by Bill Simmons in a past podcast of his.

No one questions or finds fault in the fact that women’s basketballs are lighter than men’s basketballs. And they ought to be—men are naturally stronger than women, as dictated by biology. Similarly, men tend to have more spring in their step than women. 

Again, this is a distinction that’s purely biological. 

So it only stand to reason that the women’s basketball hoop be lowered to accommodate this distinction. Slam dunks bring an element of excitement to all basketball games, and the slam dunk would do for the WNBA, what it did for the NBA. 

At the very least, it would put WNBA players on the highlight reel.

Another tinkering worth considering is shortening the shot clock.

To the WNBA’s credit, they shortened the shot clock length by six seconds in 2005, making it the 24-second clock that it is today.  But this is the same length as the NBA, and the NBA game moves at a faster pace than the WNBA game (again, it’s a matter of biology, not that men are preternaturally faster than women).

Shortening the shot clock length by four to six seconds would add a layer of intensity to the game that the NBA could very well wind up adopting.

There are innumerable ways in which to improve the WNBA, and no doubt others have thought of these same changes. So, what’s the hold up?

Perhaps it’s out of fear of feminist backlash that changes made will somehow delegitimize a woman’s basketball savvy. 

Hog wash! 

If that’s the case, then why is there no complaint about a woman’s basketball being lighter than a man’s? Or that women throw a much softer, larger ball on the pitching rubber, catch with a bigger glove, and hit with a longer bat?

It’s possible that the WNBA will garner huge crowds in the coming years without these changes, but based on how the recession’s impacted the bottom-line of leagues once considered recession-proof (i.e. it’s projected that at least 12 NFL teams will not sell out all their home games this year, compared to the three from last year), expect the state of the economy in 2009 to be a harbinger of what’s to come for the WNBA.