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Brittney Griner and Fellow Rookies Have Tough Task of Renewing Interest in WNBA

Ethan Grant@DowntownEGAnalyst IMay 28, 2013

May 27, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Chicago Sky guard/forward Elena Delle Donne (11) drives to the basket as Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) defends during the second half at US Airways Center. The Chicago Sky defeated the Phoenix Mercury 102-80. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Brittney Griner's WNBA debut was one for the books—18 points, two dunks and a large crowd for the Phoenix Mercury's season-opener against the Chicago Sky. 

Griner, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 WNBA draft, has been at the forefront of women's basketball during her four-year career at Baylor, earning All-American honors, publicity for dominating performances and even an invitation to NBA training camp from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. 

With Griner now having a WNBA game under her belt—albeit a 102-80 loss to the Sky—she and her fellow WNBA rookies must captain another effort that is near and dear to the league's heart entering its 17th regular season. 

That effort is renewing wide-scale interest in the WNBA itself. 

College stars Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins were the top three picks in the 2013 draft, headlining a list of players looking to take women's basketball into a new era. They were top stars at Baylor, Stanford and Notre Dame, respectively, and they kept their teams relevant with respect to the NCAA tournament each year. 

Griner stole the show on Monday by jamming home two dunks (as noted by the league's Twitter account) in the loss to the Sky:

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As ESPN's Stats & Info later reported, Griner is already tied for the all-time lead in dunks in a league in which she just joined officially on Monday:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

In one WNBA game, Brittney Griner already has as many career dunks (2) as any other player in WNBA history.

And as Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated points out, Delle Donne and her 22 points on Monday are also important for the league. She and the Sky got the better of the Mercury on Monday, and Delle Donne herself has a chance to be a star in the sport for years to come:

Diggins, who had 12 points in her debut, is also expected to help the Tulsa Shock turn things around rather quickly alongside Angel Goodrich and company. 

The looming question for their futures—and the future of the sport—remains: Can the WNBA continue to survive with dwindling viewership, ticket sales and interest not close to what it was in the late 1990s?

Expect this year's rookies to play a big role answering that question. 

As noted by Sports Business Daily last September, the 2012 season marked record-low numbers for attendance on a per-team average basis after all the numbers were in. 

Granted, the season was interrupted by the 2012 London Olympics, but the averages and television viewership don't reflect a league that is growing—especially when you consider that four franchises have folded over the past decade. 

And it's not as if the league doesn't already have marketable, talented stars to carry the load. 

From reigning scoring champion Angel McCoughtry to more recognizable names like Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, Tamika Catchings and Maya Moore, the WNBA has the talent to say that the world's best players are all together under one roof on any given night. 

The problem so far, though, has been sustaining interest in the sport after the initial excitement of a women's league wound down around the turn of the century—right around the time Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie were carrying the league and collectively winning the WNBA finals for the first six seasons of its existence (Houston Comets for Cooper and Swoopes and Los Angeles Sparks for Leslie). 

Since the initial wave of excitement surrounding those teams and others that were standouts during the league's heyday, a series of coaching changes, franchise relocations and foldings, and uncertainty surrounding the future of current teams have watered down what has the potential to be a high-quality product. 

Just think—the WNBA season is in the middle of the summer, and the NBA, NHL and NFL have no regular seasons to compete. Only Major League Baseball's 162-game marathon, summer soccer and obscure sports of interest stand in the way of the WNBA picking up the pace with respect to its paying customers. 

It's with good reason that the league is aiming to change perception heading into the 2013 regular season. 

As Scott Gleeson of USA Today reported on May 23, the WNBA is hoping a new logo, the infusion of these top-tier rookies to rosters and the added element of a rim-rattling star like Griner will help turn things around. 

You get the sense that the league understands that it's running out of time to take hold of its place in professional sports. 

Heck, even big brother NBA is chipping in with efforts to get fans to take interest in the WNBA:

NBA @NBA

The @WNBA's 17th season tips off 8pm/et on @NBATV! #WNBATipOff presented by @BoostMobile, the Battle Begins! http://t.co/j1VdHItlqE

One thing is clear: The league is at a crossroads with respect to its popularity, its marketability and a reason to keep pushing for a place in the national spotlight each time a new season begins. 

For the first time in a while, it starts with these rookies, led by Griner.

If there's a group of players who can turn things around in the WNBA, it's this group of women. Griner has her height, the intrigue around her game and the fact that nearly every basketball fan saw highlights of her games at Baylor in her corner. 

Delle Donne and Diggins are aiming to prove they are the best players from the 2013 class. Other rookies can build up the reputation by being solid role players and teammates to the list of established stars already mentioned and others who remain nameless in this piece. 

Add it all up, and the summation is quite simple: This is make-or-break territory for the WNBA. Sure, fans who are already established supporters of the sport will continue to make up the roughly 7,000 people who head to stadiums on any given night this summer. 

But success is partnered with growth in most cases—just look at the NBA. Growth can't occur without Griner and these rookies taking center stage to usher in a new era of women's basketball in the United States. 

The stakes are higher than ever. 

We'll see if the results lead to a new following of WNBA fans in the near future. 

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