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From bad ideas to blown opportunities: Why the Lynx — and the WNBA — aren’t a bigger deal

After the WNBA made an initial splash in the late 1990s, the league has lost ground in terms of its public profile. The problem, players say, is not the on-court product.

Maya Moore discovered what many WNBA players before her have learned: Once you leave college, the public eye shifts elsewhere.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Maya Moore was the biggest star in women’s college basketball — maybe ever — when the Minnesota Lynx drafted her No. 1 overall out of Connecticut in 2011.

A three-time college player of the year, Moore broke barriers as the first woman to sign an endorsement deal with Nike’s Michael Jordan brand. Time magazine made a case for her playing in the NBA. She was that good, and that charismatic.

Though Moore kept winning with the Lynx — two WNBA titles her first three seasons, plus a league MVP award last year — something seemed off. Moore discovered what many WNBA players before her have learned: Once you leave college, the public eye shifts elsewhere. Even the league’s national television contract with ESPN can’t equal the spotlight of an NCAA Final Four.

Privately, players fault the WNBA for ineffective marketing. That’s why Moore said she heard “a lot of amens” from her peers after her essay, “(In)Visiblity,” appeared April 30 in The Players Tribune, which tackled an issue vexing many of the WNBA’s players and coaches: How can a league with so much to offer generate so little buzz nationally? And what can be done about it?

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“The marketing needs to match our product,” Moore wrote. “Celebrate us for the things that matter — the stories, the basketball, the character, the fiery competitiveness, our professionalism.” 

“I just remember being moved by her thoughtfulness, the way she framed the entire thing, the title of the piece,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. “Maya is somebody who is passionate about not just playing basketball, but moving the game forward. That can’t be said about a lot of the players in the league. I was so moved that I have a player here with the Lynx that gets it, embraces it, and knows that she’s part of the equation moving it forward.

The Players Tribune, founded by retired Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, solicits first-person stories by pro athletes on topics of their choosing. When editors approached Moore, she said it took about 10 minutes to pick a theme.

“I try to be very thoughtful about a lot of things, and this is one of them,” Moore told MinnPost at the team’s new Mayo Clinic Square practice facility. “I’m not the only one thinking these things. I just have a platform to speak for many.”

How the WNBA lost ground

After the WNBA’s initial big splash in the late 1990s, the league lost ground in national scope —and never made it up.   

The problem, players say, is not the on-court product. If you doubt that, watch a Lynx game (the season starts Friday). Players shoot, defend, muscle for rebounds, share the ball and run a fast break with a proficiency and panache that stuns many men of, ahem, a certain age. I still remember MinnPost colleague Doug Grow describing his first Lynx game with amazement and wonder, as if he chased a golf ball in the woods and stumbled across Brigadoon. Moore said she hears similar stories all the time. If you like Ricky Rubio’s game, you’ll love Lindsay Whalen’s.

Friday night at the Target Center the Lynx face the Tulsa Shock, with former University of Minnesota All-American center Amanda Zahui B. in her WNBA debut. That should be a big deal locally. Yet it’s not on television. And if this is the first you’ve heard about the game, you see the players’ point.

Lynx officials say the TV decision wasn’t their call. Fox Sports North finalized its nine-game Lynx broadcast schedule before Tulsa drafted Zahui B., according to FSN spokesperson Becky Ross Mielke. All but one of the Lynx broadcasts come on nights the Twins are off or play during the day. With the Twins hosting the Milwaukee Brewers Friday night, Lynx fans are out of luck. 

“Our efforts are to schedule the Lynx games without Twins conflicts whenever possible to maximize ratings for both properties,” Ross Mielke wrote in an email. 

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Opportunity blown. 

Getting more eyeballs on games, even on TV, is part of a marketing solution. Between ESPN2 (three games) and FSN, only 12 of 34 Lynx games will be televised. Arguing for more air time, however, is a tough sell. ESPN averaged 659,000 viewers nationally for the WNBA Finals, featuring Phoenix and 6’8″ dunking center Brittney Griner, a big jump from its 345,000 average for the Lynx and Atlanta the year before. But its 19 regular season broadcasts averaged 240,000 viewers. That’s less than the last World Series of Poker (459,000 viewers).

Moore suggested running historic video of great teams, like the Houston Comets from their 1997-2000 championship runs. I’d vote for Moore’s 48-point game against Atlanta last July, which aired on FSN Plus.

“You see throwback games all the time,” Moore said. “I think fans would enjoy that, see a throwback old regular season rivalry, or playoffs or finals, or a career high for someone. Because we have a foundational core group of fans that you can still speak to, and expose new fans who missed the beginning of where we come from.”

‘You don’t ask guys to wear short-shorts’

That made more sense than some of the ideas Lynx guard Seimone Augustus has heard before from league sources. Like paying rappers or celebrities to sit courtside to gin up a cool vibe. (As if word wouldn’t leak out and embarrass the league.) Or asking players to wear shorter shorts, tighter tops, and even makeup.

“They suggested, fix your face up a little bit,” Augustus said. “I’m like, this is not a beauty pageant. I play basketball.

“Some of the things we’re asked to do at times are just outrageous,” Augustus said. “It’s like we’re prancing around in tutus and skirts and not out here physically sweating, banging, competing, playing basketball. You don’t ask the guys to wear short-shorts.”

Moore and Reeve both opposed another potential attendance booster — which has been kicked around for years and was revisited this week in a New York Times op-ed — lowering the rim so more women can dunk.  “There’s so much to appreciate about our game that focusing on dunking would be the wrong thing to focus on,” Moore said.

Reeve added: “It’s not good for our game. It’s a gimmick, and it’s not what our game needs.  It’s disrespectful.”     

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More than basketball at stake

Over the last 16 years, the Lynx have won two championships with an entertaining style that is starting to lure men and older couples. The team finished second in the WNBA in attendance the last three years, averaging more than 9,000 in each season — a bit below the franchise record of 10,494 from 1999, its inaugural season, but still strong. Thursday, the WNBA’s annual preseason general managers poll honored the Lynx as the team with the best home court advantage, ending Seattle’s five-year run. That encourages Reeve.

“I think it’s a little bit generational,” she said. “I’ve noticed we’ve collected some of those SportsCenter bros who have really taken to Seimone, Maya, our style of play. Just having a willingness to have an open mind is really what I think is what it takes.

“We are conditioned as a society to believe women are inferior to men in everything. We’re fighting many, many years and many generations of just that. That’s why the WNBA is so much more than basketball in what we’re doing. Societal norms, the gender bias, gender equity issues. There’s just a lot.”

Players need the WNBA to thrive to avoid having to play in Europe seven months a year. European teams pay much better than the WNBA, where salaries top out at $107,000. Augustus confirmed a European team offered her a deal like the one Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi took from her Russian Premier League team, a bigger salary in exchange for skipping the WNBA season. It hasn’t swayed her yet.

“For myself and others – Maya, Whalen – we feel like we need to build this brand and continue to help this league grow,” she said. “Money isn’t everything. I’m all about legacy and brand.”

Augustus hopes Moore’s article, and the conversation it started, prompts a marketing solution. “I think it’s close. It’s near,” Augustus said. “We have to find which path we want to take. We’ve got a fork in the road. It’s either left or right. So make a move, and let’s try to make the best of it.”