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Golub: What it takes to survive

Columnist Jack Golub shares his thoughts on the media struggles of the WNBA

“You must really like the Suns,” my friend suggested, pointing to my purple T-shirt emblazoned with “PHOENIX BASKETBALL” across the chest.  It was an innocent mistake — one that people make all the time when I wear my Diana Taurasi Phoenix Mercury shirt. The orange spherical logo is placed aside so that the big letters are all you see unless you look closely. I cherish that shirt. Later in the day, I hooped on the Wilbur courts, doing my best to warmly welcome frosh with an L. The shirt feels like it belongs in a pickup game.

I explained to my friend and the rest of the all-male room what team and what player my shirt represented. Before I could even finish, I was asked, “But why would you rather watch the WNBA? Wouldn’t you rather see people dunk and make crazy highlights?” The question bothered me.

I’d never put it out that I preferred the WNBA. I hadn’t even said I liked WNBA basketball, though my shirt suggested I did. Immediately, though, my assumed interest in women’s hoops was met with challenge and disbelief. “Wouldn’t you rather see people dunk?” echoed in my head. By now, several seasons into my WNBA fandom, I’ve had plenty of conversations about the merits of watching women play a sport that appears to advantage men. It’s never an easy discussion.

The question bothered me because it assumed the existence of a battle between women’s and men’s basketball. It forced me to pick a side. I don’t have to make that decision. The seasons don’t overlap at all (no, NBA free agency and summer league does not count). The question was designed to strike down the right of the WNBA to exist without ever giving it any space to claim. I doubt my friend understood the implications of his question. What he unwittingly committed, though, was the closed-minded crime that might sink the WNBA.

My friend was right: I would rather watch the NBA than the WNBA. I do find the NBA more exciting. I do love the jaw-dropping athleticism, like when Giannis gallops down the entire court and dunks in about two and a half steps. That never happens in the WNBA. Just because the WNBA is not as exciting as the NBA doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching.

People who pay attention to ratings talk about how the WNBA should add some gimmicks to the game. Lower the rims. Add a four-point shot. Do something to mix it up and make women’s basketball appeal in a way that men’s does not. Those ideas are misguided. The WNBA doesn’t need to change so that it can compete with the NBA. It needs a spotlight so that it can succeed or fail on its merits alone. ESPN has one regular WNBA writer. As far as I know, only playoff games make it to national TV. When the Storm won the WNBA championship, the New York Post announced the news in a tiny rectangle nestled between baseball box scores. The NBA champion always gets the back cover and usually many more pages after that.

Part of the reason the NBA has continued to grow its popularity is because it is so easy to access more information about your favorite players and teams. There are legions of professional blogs, websites and newspapers dedicated to bringing the NBA to life. There are multiple national TV games every single week. You could say the NBA has earned its impressive amount of media coverage, with which I’d agree. Forty-five years ago, the NBA finals were tape delayed. However, the media coverage creates a positive feedback loop, enabling and encouraging growth. What the WNBA needs, before one can say if the league is sustainable, is media coverage befitting a sustainable sports league.

Imagine if all 12 teams had multiple dedicated beats. If on summer Friday nights you got a doubleheader. If you and your friends could play fantasy women’s basketball, a world where the complexities of the game are reduced to numbers anyway. The WNBA doesn’t deserve equal attention from fans; it deserves the opportunity to prove its worthiness. If, after a prolonged stretch of detailed media coverage, the league still isn’t popular, then maybe it shouldn’t stick around. But it needs that opportunity first. It shouldn’t have to sacrifice itself to get that fundamental right. Think of it as The American Dream, sports-league version.

Going back to my t-shirt, maybe the Mercury made its logo so small in comparison to the “PHOENIX” on purpose. Perhaps it would help them sell more shirts. In order to survive, the team decided it was willing to sacrifice their brand and hope the NBA connotations of “PHOENIX BASKETBALL” could boost its sales. I don’t blame them. The WNBA is doing what it takes to survive; now it’s time for the media to play its part.

 

Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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