It’s interesting that “re-imagining” was a topic of discussion regarding the new ESPN deal with the WNBA. This new deal will extend the relationship between ESPN and the WNBA to 2022. The details are rather sketchy. Neither ESPN or the WNBA will disclose the monetary value of the deal. The deal includes increased number of games shown on the various ESPN with some games shown on ESPN3, the sports network’s web outlet. The WNBA Draft will be broadcast on prime time. These are the mechanical details.
The re-branding elements are more intriguing, and possibly more important. The WNBA has a new logo, one which looks less like the “girl’s copy” of the NBA logo. New uniforms are coming up in 2014. But there’s something beyond even that. I’m getting the impression that there’s not merely a new positivity, but a flat our new aggressiveness, something foreign to the default mode of the WNBA before the deal – which was apology.
Apology is now in the trashcan, and thank God. The impression being given is that the WNBA will stop apologizing for its product. It will stop trying to mirror the NBA.
Cries that “the WNBA is being shoved down my throat!” by the Neanderthals? If you’re lucky, you might find a men’s basketball game on TV somewhere. Maybe you guys can start a blog.
“Expect great?” We don’t expect great, we know we’re great. If you can’t see the greatness of the WNBA, it’s your problem, not ours. Not anymore.
The gatekeepers of the local paper won’t cover the WNBA? Mr. Print Reporter, you can get on the boat if you want to or not, but we have games to play, and we don’t have time to worry about you. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
This is a very strange emotion for most WNBA followers. Aggressiveness. And other emotions follow.
Pride. It’s a great deal any way you look at it, and I’ll go ahead and claim its a big win for Laurel Richie. It doesn’t matter how much she had to do with it, you can make any claim you want to. It happened on her watch as commissioner, and she’ll get all of the credit for it. We’re on TV for the next ten years and there’s no changing that.
And dare we say…swagger? Swagger is a foreign emotion to a Kentucky-bred country boy like me. But I like it.
For more on this topic: Our storystream on the WNBA’s changes, including the logo & TV announcement
I led with the military quote above because the recent good news has made me rethink – “re-imagine” – the entire relationship between the NBA and the WNBA, and the way the WNBA has traditionally been viewed by not just the sports media, but by sports fandom both inside the WNBA and outside of it.
The big question that everyone wants to ask about the WNBA is how much money does it make? It’s not just the first question but in some cases it’s the only question. It’s a natural question to ask in a capitalist society, because market value is believed to be somehow linked with worth. But after this deal and talk of the “re-imaging” I’m starting to wonder if it’s the wrong question to ask. Maybe it’s always been the wrong question.
What is forgotten is that neither the WNBA nor the NBA are corporations in the sense that they sell stock. David Stern (and his successor Adam Silver) don’t have to report to some board of major stockholders where they have to give an account of how much profit they made this year. They don’t report to the Securities and Exchange Commission. There is no insider trading. If the WNBA division of NBA Enterprises Inc. doesn’t perform well, there’s no pressure on Stern/Silver to do something to turn an immediate profit so that their shareholders can earn 5 percent in the second quarter.
On the contrary, the members of the NBA – and the WNBA – have some protection against the dangers of the free market. Efforts are made to make sure that the quality gap between the best teams and worst teams is reduced. The goal is not to drive one’s competitors out of business. No one can create an NBA team and barge in to the arrangement, the teams have a pseudo-monopoly in that they only play each other. Claiming that profit maximization is the goal of franchise holders is what they call “true, but misleading”. It is profit maximizing within a system that attempts to raise all boats in the NBA pond.
But it is not a corporation. The goal is to make money for everybody, not “devil take the hindmost”. Since there is no pressure to make a profit immediately – franchise owners only “report” to themselves – they have a lot more freedom than a corporation has. They can experiment in ventures that might not immediately turn a profit. Profit is important, but it is simply not the be-all and end-all in the NBA.
In addition, the WNBA makes non-monetary contributions to the NBA that it values.
* Programming. Something has to fill up NBA TV.
* Demographics. The WNBA is a very forward-thinking demographic. It’s left of the standard sports demographic in terms of political orientation. It’s very gay friendly. It’s very woman friendly. The demographic has value, and moreso if its size can be expanded.
* Good press. It certainly can’t hurt the NBA to help out the WNBA and to promote the success of women in sport. That gets positive looks from those not normally interested in sports.
Ten years ago, ESPN executive Mark Shapiro got into a fight with NBA commissioner David Stern over the WNBA. According to Shapiro, “I told (David Stern) the WNBA stinks, it doesn’t rate and I didn’t want it. Men don’t watch it. Women don’t watch it!”
It didn’t matter. Stern got his way. The NBA was not a subsidiary of the Disney Company, which is the publicly traded corporation that owned ESPN. Shapiro’s needs were not Stern’s needs. Stern couldn’t have cared less about ESPN’s next trading quarter. Sports writers saw it as a sign of Stern’s arrogance; but the WNBA was the price of doing business with the NBA. If Stern were really worried that the WNBA was a deal-breaker, he would have given up or let it go, but the WNBA occupied a nice little slot in the NBA’s universe of basketball and Stern had no interest in dislodging part of his empire so that ESPN could make an extra 0.1 percent in their third quarter profits.
“You know,” said the American jock sports fan, “the WNBA never makes any money.” “True,” said the NBA executive, “but the current state of the WNBA’s finances is irrelevant.”
I wrote before that the WNBA will disband exactly when the owners decide it will disband, and not before. As for the relationship between the NBA and the WNBA, if it were true that that the NBA was “propping up the WNBA” and that the WNBA wouldn’t survive without it, if you could get Stern in a private moment he’d probably say, “so what?” The NBA likes the WNBA, it wants to see it survive for its own purposes – and if the deal between WNBA and the ESPN was engineered by the NBA, the NBA just said to the world, “We see the WNBA in our future for the next ten years. The WNBA has major value as far as we’re concerned. We don’t look at value the way a corporation does.”
In short, we’ve often been looking at the WNBA through the wrong telescope. We’ve looked at it through the mirror of a corporation – what is today’s WNBA bottom line? who is in the red this quarter? who is in the black? – when instead we should have looked at it through the realm of relationships and murky inputs, where things other than money play big roles.
A few days ago, the WNBA showed that it has the pull for a 10 year contract. Where that pull comes from is not important.
It’s got it. It intends to use it. It will no longer apologize for it. Who knows what its next step will be? Going toe-to-toe in some way with the Euroleagues? Drafting, say, out of the players hypothetical third year of college rather than the fourth year?
This wasn’t just a re-branding. It was a re-imaging in the truest sense of the word. Everything is reset. The world is pregnant with possibility. And Brittney Griner gets drafted in April.