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

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

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?

“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. 

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.”     

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.”

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 06/05/2015 - 10:29 am.

    Lindsay Whalen’s….

    last three years at the U transformed me into a women’s basketball fan. I thought she was an incredible player and person: selfless, focused and talented. I would hate to see the hoop lowered from the height the whole world has used for decades. Dunking would only hurt the women’s game by introducing a brand of one on one showboating that is so common in men’s basketball. What I learned watching Lindsay at the U was what a team sport this is: lots of passing and setting up plays on offense, lots of hard work on defense. You don’t hear anything about WNBA offensive stars taking time off on defense like you do with so many NBA stars, they are true two way players. One huge mistake I thought the Lynx made was when they didn’t get Whalen right out of college when her light was shining brightest here in Minnesota. It is too bad that Diana Taurasi is taking the year off. She has to be one of the most competitive athletes on the planet and one of the most celebrated college players ever. Of course this will be good for the Lynx chances this year but she is sure fun to watch.

    I laughed at the comment in the article that if you like Ricky Rubio’s game you’ll like Lindsay Whalen’s. For me it was the other way around: watching her selfless, team-oriented approach prepared me to appreciate a guy like Rubio.

    • Submitted by Anne Russ on 06/05/2015 - 02:41 pm.

      Media Coverage

      Having not watched sports teams for a few years, I too was amazed when watching the Mn Gophers during the Whalen-McCarville days. How exciting to watch that excellent level of play and to be reminded that basketball is a team sport. Watching the Lynx has proven to be just as exciting,but am so disgusted and disappointed in the lack of support for the best team this city/state has. The lack of television coverage as well as newspaper and broadcast coverage is pitiful for a team of this caliber. Thankfully, there is radio coverage of the games and one can most of the time watch the games on the computer but, really, the problem seems to be too much testosterone in the executive suites where these decisions are made.

  2. Submitted by Hugh Gitlin on 06/05/2015 - 02:08 pm.

    Fox Sports 1 might be an answer

    MLS is on both ESPN & Fox Sports 1.

    If the WNBA is trying to make a brand separate from the NBA, they should be on both national sports networks.

    • Submitted by Pat Borzi on 06/05/2015 - 10:15 pm.

      If the local Fox affiliate…

      …won’t televise more games, I wouldn’t count on the national Fox network stepping in.

      • Submitted by Hugh Gitlin on 06/08/2015 - 08:18 am.

        Pat, I’m just saying the league should follow MLS’ Lead

        And sign a 2nd national television deal.

        FS1 like ESPN is desperate for programming in summer, and WNBA might be able to fill some hours.

  3. Submitted by Dave Holbert on 06/05/2015 - 03:59 pm.

    Local athletes feeding into the system!

    Possibly the focus by the U of Minnesota, the states largest and visible Women’s D-1 Basketball program concentrating on “local talent!” Within the last 5 years, many of the most talented athletes were ignored by the U and have gone on to successful careers within the surrounding 4 states. Iowa, South Dakota, Illinois and Wisconsin!
    Case in point: Latesha (Tesha) Buck will be starting her third year as a “three year starter” for the U of WI-Green Bay Phoenix. Tesha has averaged over 12 points per game and been a team leader in assists, along with 2nd in rebounds and 2nd in overall playing time. She scored 19 points in the only game she played as a “Green Bay Phoenix” player against the U of MN in the NIT game two years ago! U of MN won the game, essentially by the sheer “miracle of Benham’s 3-3 pointers in the last minute of play! It was also considered the demise of Coach Borton’s career as coach of the Gophers. With that being said, Tesha is from Red Wing, MN and would have provided up to 1,000 fans per game, if playing for the U would have become a “reality!” That would transfer to the Lynx, if things worked out!
    Look what Shoni Shimmel has meant to the Atlanta WNBA franchise. #8 pick, but packs em’ in! Just sayin’ “Charity starts at Home” and stays there! Zaui B a “Lynx” add 3,000 to the attendance!

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/09/2015 - 09:55 am.

    The worst idea they came up with

    was putting “Mayo Clinic” on the front of their jerseys. It makes them look like a semi-pro team. What’s next, “Peter’s Meats” on the back?

  5. Submitted by James DeShields on 06/24/2015 - 07:41 am.

    Wnba

    I am continually amazed by the lack of knowledge by the wnba player’s and their supporters about why their league and style of play has never been accepted in the United States. All of these players have been raised in title 9 era of forced gender educational equity in high schools and colleges, the key word being education. Once these players leave title 9 protection the reality of the free market consumer market is a slap in the face. The college fan base is totally different from the professional fan base, where there is no built-in college allegiance to boost attendance.

    Another thing that drives me crazy is when these players talk about how their style of play is so fundamentally sound, if they would do their homework they would realize that the style they play is more closely in style too the NBA in the 1950’s when ratings were lower than roller derby and by the way all of the players wore short shorts .What it boils down to is that we as consumers have lived through forced title 9 and now have an opportunity to voice our opinions with our dollars.

    The end results are if you want more media coverage the product can’t be a back to the future re-make, no fannys in the seats equal no coverage.

    • Submitted by Pat Borzi on 07/06/2015 - 03:35 pm.

      The 1950s?

      Not sure where Mr. DeShields is coming from re Title IX, but comparing current WNBA play to the 1950s NBA simply isn’t accurate. One example: NBA teams in 1958-59, with a 24-second clock and without a 3-point line, collectively shot .395 from the floor, per basketballreference.com. The NBA champion Boston Celtics with Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Bob Cousy (among others) matched the league average. Last year, WNBA teams shot significantly better than that — .467 on 2-pointers and .437 overall. However, Mr. DeShields is correct in that it took decades for the NBA, which was founded under a different name in 1946, to catch on and earn widespread appeal. That’s what the WNBA, started in 1997, is struggling with now.

  6. Submitted by James DeShields on 08/22/2015 - 06:23 pm.

    Title 9, wnba

    Mr. Borzi the title 9 reference was in response to Ms. Moore stating that the female players were all huge AAU, high school and college players with a large following but as professionals there is virtually no fan base and no media coverage. Title 9 took the freedom of choice away from the consumer for the sake of gender equity, not because the females were terrific players. Once these females left the forced protection that title 9 supplied and the consumer could make their own choices with their dollars, that’s when the female players bubble burst and reality set in that the style of play in the wnba is not what the overwhelming number of NBA want on the professional level.

    Mr. Borzi you are technically correct with the shooting percentage numbers but you don’t take in account that the wnba plays with a much smaller ball and during the 1950’s there were a minimum 45 players that were at least 6’8 (Basketball Registry) currently the wnba has 1, which means there was much contested shots.

    And finally Mr. Borzi, yes the NBA struggled for many year’s it was not till Dr. J brought the above the rim play from the ABA that the took off and the Micheal Jordan era took it off the charts. One thing the wnba and your self are going to have to come to terms with is that their will always be a comparison between the two league’s. The evolved basketball fans are never going back to the Cousy, Russell era.

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