WNBA Is Playing It All Wrong
If a Bird knocks down a game-winning jumper in the Amazon Rainforest that is the opening weekend of the NFL season, does anyone hear or see it?
If the Bird in question is Larry Bird, yes.
But not when it's Sue Bird using a screen (an illegal, moving screen) from league MVP Lauren Jackson, crossing over and nailing a shot from just beyond the free throw line to give the Seattle Storm a thrilling 79-77 win in the WNBA Finals opener Sunday afternoon on ABC.
Jackson scored 26 points and the Storm took a one-game lead over the Atlanta Dream but outside of the 15,084 fans at the game no one watched. Instead, the majority of Americans were barbecuing or eating pizza and enjoying the first full day of NFL games.
ABC chose to broadcast Sunday’s game in search of anti-football eyeballs, which makes sense. Football is so popular in America that targeting a different audience is the only way to pull ratings without an NFL television contract.
They did once try to turn the Geico cavemen into a sitcom but ABC isn’t dumb. It knows competing for the same target audience as NFL broadcasts would murder its ratings. But a look at the numbers shows the WNBA is ratings suicide already.
Even after a 73-percent increase from 2008 to 2009, the league still only averaged 548,000 viewers and a 0.4 rating for last year’s finals matchup between Indiana and Phoenix, according to the Michigan news site MLive.com.
In comparison, “juice head”-filled Jersey Shore, a show depicting some of the most ignorant minds in America, earned a 3.3 rating amongst the ideal target audience for networks: 18-49 year olds.
Even ESPN – the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader of Sports, with its endless sports information cycle that reaches nearly every American sports fan – hasn’t been able to create significant interest in the WNBA -- it's widely speculated that the Walt Disney conglomerate that operates ABC and ESPN only took on the upstart WNBA to appease the NBA.
Then again, the WNBA isn’t helping itself either.
Who in their right mind would schedule the beginning of a championship series in the middle of the day on the first NFL Sunday? Why not build anticipation for an extra two days and play the game Tuesday, in the same time slot Game 2 is scheduled for?
Instead of going up against the NFL -- the biggest sports broadcasting juggernaut outside of the FIFA World Cup -- on its opening weekend, the WNBA Finals could have opened against Tuesday night’s lineup of Wipeout and a repeat of Glee.
For upstart leagues to succeed they have to either carve a niche audience or place a comparable product on the floor, field or ice. And the WNBA is not a comparable basketball product. It’s like bottling bath water, adding carbonation and trying to compete against Coca-Cola.
Viewers have no interest in watching an inferior product -- just ask the USFL, XFL or Arena leagues.
I’m not saying women should only play basketball if there’s a hoop in the kitchen, but athletically they don’t belong in the same gym.
Give me a ball-handler, a 6-foot-5 semi-athlete and three other average male pickup players from any major college or university across the land and I’ll give you a team that will challenge, if not beat, a WNBA team.
In college, I twice had the opportunity to play against Nikki McCray, a two-time SEC Player of the Year and All-American at the University of Tennessee, as she prepared for the 2005 WNBA season.
Even though I played baseball and was only an average athlete and occasional pickup basketball player, I was just as good as, if not better than, the WNBA All-Star and U.S. Olympic gold medalist. She was a better shooter than anyone on the court, but everyone playing against her was more agile and could jump higher.
Without comparable athletes, the audience isn’t going to come to the WNBA. The women’s league has to search out an audience but it also has to at least give itself a chance.
Trying to schedule your championship series opener against the Goliath that is the NFL means that Sue Bird can knock down game-winners forward, backward -- even underwater -- and still remain lost in the rainforest with no one ever discovering she exists.
To reach reporter Shotgun Spratling, click here.
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