WNBA is still defying skeptics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Van Chancellor took a gamble 10 years ago, betting that the American sports public was ready for a professional women's basketball league.

Four league championships later, Chancellor, who left the safety and security of the University of Mississippi to become the first and only coach and general manager of the Houston Comets, is convinced that taking a chance on the WNBA was the right thing to do.

"It's been beyond my wildest dreams." Chancellor said recently. "This whole league has just done unbelievable. I never thought it would do this. If I had, I would have sold my house in Oxford, and I wouldn't have waited two years to sell it."

Indeed, the 10-year mark merits celebration on a lot of levels. But it also highlights the challenges the league has faced from the start.

For Chancellor and others, the milestones have included: beating back a competitor, the American Basketball League; fending off a potential labor war with its players, and sur viving the folding of three franchises to become the long est-running women's professional team sports league in U.S. history.

However, as the league prepares to welcome its 20 millionth fan, the WNBA faces questions about its overall viability, indifference from the mainstream media and, most significantly, its fan base. Attendance, which surpassed 10,000 a game in the first season, has steadily fallen, and is around 7,000 a contest.

"People who get into this as owners should get into it for one of two reasons." Marc Ganis, who heads Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago -based marketing firm, said in a Chicago Tribune story in May. "One is you own your own arena and want to fill dates, and, second, you believe women's team sports should have an opportunity. If you're in this to make money, there are probably other places you should invest."

Nowhere has the drop been sharper than with the Washington Mystics, who led the WNBA in attendance in six of their first seven years. With second-year ownership, the Mystics, through 14 dates, have seen attendance fall 23 percent from last year and are ninth at the gate in the 14-team league.

WNBA president Donna Orender attributes the attendance drop in Washington to changes by new ownership, including "locking good solid paying customers for the long term."

"Sometimes, in order to do that and you retool your business, it appears perhaps that things are sliding a little bit." said Orender, in her second year as president. "But I will tell you that they have everything moving forward and they really are showing a great deal of confidence in the league."

Throughout its history, the WNBA has had trouble getting men to come to games, or to take the league seriously. While WNBA officials say the league's television audience is roughly equally split between men and women, they acknowledge that 80 percent of its attendance is female.

"I think we've hit the [ceiling] in a sense." said Indiana star forward Tamika Catchings. "We have our diehard WNBA fans who come out every night, but we're trying to figure out a way to get over that and get the men and their daughters and everybody else interested."

Orender, however, doesn't see the ceiling. She cites new corporate partnerships with T-Mobile, McDonald's and Toyota, increased traffic on the Web site, and a 14th franchise (Chicago) that was added this year.

And, there's a thought that as younger, more skilled players come to the WNBA from colleges to replace stalwarts such as Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes, the league will gain a measure of respect from men who haven't wanted to watch games before.

"To me, Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi [both of the Phoenix Mercury] are two players whose games are reminiscent of NBA players" type games." said ESPN analyst Doris Burke. "They make shots with defenders in their grill. I think the time is coming where maybe the male fan will come. The athleticism is getting better. The quality and style of play the women are playing, at some point in the near future, is going to be something that guys are going to watch."

Defining the NBA

In addition, others believe that the presence of former NBA players, such as Bill Laimbeer, Brian Winters and Joe Jellybean' Bryant, who all coach WNBA teams, sends a signal to potential male fans that the WNBA is OK.

David M. Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute, says the WNBA's gender gap may not necessarily be because of lack of interest on the part of men, but rather the way the league has presented itself.

"It has been part athletic competition and part philanthropic cause with sports as a backdrop." said Carter, adding that women's sports in America have been successful when tied to global events like the Women's World Cup or the Olympics.

"What happens in men's sports is they say, "We're here," and you have all these guys who are really avid and the women kind of get tugged along if they want to be fans." Orender said. "We're different. Women fans consume differently and they want to know different things as opposed to guys. We just want to make sure that we have all of that out there, so that the fans that come to us find their inspiration.

"The danger in any business is letting other people define who and what you are." Orender said. "Because, in a sense, what we're doing is truly breaking ground.

"I have a significant white, very male sports establishment defining what the success for this league has got to be. Let me just say this: We very much want to play in that playground, but also understand that we offer a whole other dimension beyond what they know and what they've lived. I think they have a narrow view of the potential and where the WNBA can grow. It's defined only by what they know and the market that they touch. It's not the market that's supporting us right now."

The WNBA has run at a deficit throughout, despite a reported $12 million annual contribution from the NBA. But Orender's predecessor, Val Ackerman, predicted that the league would break even, and NBA commissioner David Stern, the league's most prominent cheerleader, said in February he expects Acker man's prediction to come true.

The future

"I used to get annoyed in the first year [of the WNBA] when people said, "Well, it will be one year." And then they said it would be two years, three years." said Stern to the Houston Chronicle earlier this year. "And then people would come in and say, "How much longer are you going to subsidize the league?" I said: "You don't ask that of the NBA, which is losing money. You don't ask it of Major League Baseball, which is losing money. You don't ask it of the NHL, which is losing money.'"

Orender wants to do more than break even and is encouraged that the league is breaking away slightly from the NBA.

The Orlando Miracle was sold in 2003 to the Mohegan Tribe and moved to Uncasville, Conn., where the team plays in an arena that is attached to a casino. This year's expansion team, the Chicago Sky, is not affiliated with the Bulls and plays at the UIC Pavilion, not at the United Center.

Carter said the league can be a part of the sporting landscape for years to come, provided it recognizes its place on the second tier of American sports leagues.

"You have to give the WNBA an enormous amount of credit because to have survived a decade is no small task when you consider how competitive the sports landscape is and the fact that it has been littered with failed upstart and niche sports leagues." said Carter. "The league has also pared its financial losses and may be within a year or two of profitability. And, as long as the NBA remains squarely behind the league and continues to support it, the WNBA will be fine. This is, of course, provided that the WNBA manages expectations well."

milton.kent@bal

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