Swish Appeal was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to have an interview with Lisa Leslie on Monday afternoon. Topics ranged from her work spreading liver cancer awareness to media coverage of the WNBA to who she was rooting for in the WNBA Finals. What follows is the second half of the interview about the media, womanhood, and empowering girls. Part 1 – about her project spreading liver cancer awareness – was posted yesterday.
The Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) claims in their article, “What the Olympics Has Done for Women’s Sports?” that the 1996 Summer Olympic Games of Atlanta, Georgia “signaled the full and unqualified acceptance of women into the world of big-time sports.
Given it’s significance, it should come as no surprise that winning gold at the Centennial Olympics remains the most memorable moment for four-time Olympian and three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player Lisa Leslie, who recently retired from the Los Angeles Sparks.
“It was just the best team we’ve ever played on; that was our first Dream Team, so to speak, and we played hard, we played with style, and carried ourselves with a lot of class,” said Leslie in a phone interview on Monday afternoon. “We represented our country, we went to everybody else’s country and beat them in their own backyard and then came home and won. So I don’t think you could write a book any better than pretty much this story and the way it unfolded in 1996.”
However, the question that still lingers from the WSF article 13 years later is, “Will female athletes ever receive the same respect and opportunities as male athletes?”
For women’s basketball, the answer is not yet.
Even with the brief surge in excitement generated by the 2009 WNBA Finals, the stories that have unfolded in the intervening years since Leslie’s memorable first gold medal still struggle to earn the respect and attention of the mainstream media.
“It would have been more helpful to see the highlights on a day-to-day basis on our local channels – 2, 4, 7, 3, 11, 13 – to see what happened the night before,” said Leslie. “But we’ll come back to sports and you’ll hear about the baseball playoffs and what’s happening in football and not a mention of the WNBA. I think that the Finals helped us overall – those of us who are fans and who support it – but it’s unfortunate that most of the world missed it because it was not covered in the way that it should have been,” said Leslie.
Leslie’s attention to local television stations is intriguing because so often it seems that the resentment about media coverage from the WNBA blogosphere is directed at the print media. Perhaps with greater access to watching games via WNBA LiveAccess or cable packages, people are just less concerned with local television.
The concern about local television coverage is reminiscent of a point she made in her final press conference – that it’s not fair that you have to pay money for cable, NBA TV, (or high-speed internet) to actually see the games – and it’s worthy of further examination. Even in the three weeks since her transition began, it’s one of the things she’s already been fighting for.
“Through all my interviews, it’s important to encourage all of these different networks to promote women’s basketball and the WNBA, not just when it’s during the finals, but all season long,” said Leslie. “It’s important to see our highlights and encourage fans to want to come out and support us. And it’s amazing how sometimes the media wants to point out the losses and the teams that have folded, but not necessarily point to what their responsibility is with our league. So yes, I’m pretty much an advocate for it…women’s basketball is important and we deserve to have our place and our space in the world of sports.”
Without actually knowing the broadcast patterns of local television stations across the country, the network response to such demands would probably be similar to what the Atlanta Journal Constitution gave petrel at the Pleasant Dreams blog:
I’m certainly taking note of your request for more coverage and will pass it on to our editors. They will have to consider the options in the new season, taking into consideration the size of the fan base, the size of the section, the relative interest in the topic and the record of the team.
So let the chicken and the egg debate begin: Despite increased attendance, media attention, and television ratings for the recently completed WNBA Finals, it would seem logical that building a fan base starts by giving fans in WNBA cities opportunities to not only follow their home team, but watch it. Meanwhile, local television networks are making a rational choice in not paying attention to the WNBA until they know that a critical mass of fans will watch.
Chicken and egg mind-teaser aside, what Leslie is calling for seems to be relatively simple to accomplish – a highlight on local television stations during a summer season that for the most part is only in competition with the baseball regular season in most cities.