This Just in: The WNBA is Still Boring
Towards the end of June I decided to follow the WNBA. I told my parents. They laughed at me. I told my friends. They laughed at me. I told my therapist. She grew worried. “The WNBA, really?” they all asked, in the same tone the Bluth family used when asking George Michael if Anne was really his girlfriend (“Her?”). “Oh I get it, you’re being ironic,” the tone implied. “This is all for humor purposes, right?”
But I was being earnest—and ultimately these sentiments were the very reason I’d decided to follow the WNBA in the first place. Where had all this stigma come from, anyway? As a self-proclaimed male feminist, I wanted to know if watching enough games would substantiate or undermine such paltry biases.
Plus, regardless of any unintentionally inherited sexism, or misogyny, or arrogance, I genuinely believe that the WNBA deserves attention as a cultural institution—especially this being its 15th year anniversary.
I began following the New York Liberty eight games into their season—a little late, I know, except I soon found I could watch any of their previous games on free software. This seemed a little desperate in terms of a publicity stunt—was the point to get absolutely anyone to watch, and would the NBA pull such a stunt? I brushed the notion aside as premature—perhaps some vestige of adopted stigma. But the feeling was later substantiated when watching the games themselves, which were characterized less by the seeming focus (athletics, sport) and more by a sense of ambient sadness and mediocrity.
Don’t get me wrong; the New York Liberty’s players are amazing athletes. They could school me easily—even if I rounded up a gang of my most athletic male acquaintances. But their performance was overshadowed by low-cost production and half-hearted fan-fare. The announcers, for their part, were incredibly over-eager (which is saying a lot for any sports announcer)—but their proclamations and enthusiastic play-by-play felt almost condescending when compared to the lackadaisical crowd. The fans (all anecdotal) were largely women, with the occasional man sat glumly beside them—his beer in hand, amused at best. The crowd itself did not fill up past the 20th row, and the stadium looked like a broken toy, with many lights shorted out. Even the scoreboard on the TV was just wrong, consistently, and required a constant switching of team name and scores, which smacked of some real bush league production work. Perhaps at first people didn’t want to watch women play an easier version of a much-loved sport, but now it seems there simply isn’t any money to entice and entertain potential fans.
Yet, I think the most disheartening aspect of my first WNBA game was seeing the Liberty wear jerseys that say Foxwoods on it instead of the team name. Yes, Foxwoods, that casino in Connecticut, is the biggest sponsor of the New York Liberty—and yes, the league needs money that badly. Not to say the NBA doesn’t shamelessly advertise, but never on the jersey. The jersey, in sports, especially to a person who grew up coveting an authentic NBA jersey of Jason Kidd all his life, is sacred.
In fact, the more I watched the WNBA, the more it became impossible not to compare it to the NBA. I could not help but notice the shorter quarters, the longer overtime, the use of a lighter ball (incredibly bouncy), and the closer 3-point line. Maybe such comparisons are just another example of my inherited chauvinism, but at the very least they highlight what we’ve come to expect of certain sports—not to mention how the NBA’s budget has come to factor into our enjoyment of athletic events. Even the ESPN website places the WNBA under “more sports,” right below poker. Ouch. Because ultimately, whether or not we see the WNBA as the NBA’s lame, tagalong sister, the way it is promoted affects the way we watch it—and if nobody has the impulse, time, or money to alter our admittedly sexist expectations, then all we are left with is a boring rendition of women playing an easier version of basketball.
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