I had the privilege to shadow Phoenix Stan and cover Game 3 of the WNBA Finals with him Sunday in Sunny Indianapolis.
It was truly a joy to see the game in person and Phoenix Stan had to remind me several times that cheering from press row was unprofessional. Sometimes the game can appear as if in slow motion on TV, but in person the game evolves quickly and with satisfying complexity.
The stars move with great power and presence. They glide with grace, they charge with force, Diana Taurasi jitters like Shawn Marion, but appears so smooth as to be on skates as she slides around traffic fading to the side as she shoots. She plays demolition derby-style defense. She leans in for contact when she shoots, even though fouls aren't often called. It's amazing how much the cameras miss - and the sound of impact!
Another joy was to see the bigs play basketball with some bona fide skill. Ebony Hoffman defied stereotypes with a soft outside shot and a few surprising dribble-drives. There's a much less pronounced power game and while post-ups are part of the offense, there is none of the boring, time-wasting post-up isolation that mars winning NBA basketball.
For the postgame, I covered the home team Fever's reactions. The hot topics postgame included:
- The record crowd on hand
- The outlook going into Wednesday's game
- Briann January channeling Vinnie Johnson late in the 3rd quarter
- Ebony Hoffman's injury and hot shooting
Regarding the Sellout Crowd:
Overall the players reflected the excitement with which the fans cheered on the home-team. The Fever players all did a good job thanking the sellout crowd that ambled over from the winning Colts game, heaping copious praise on the fans' support in the clutch. This praise was best articulated by Fever Coach Lin Dunn's response in the postgame presser, but also comes through in the sound bites posted below:
I can't say enough about the crowd. I thought the last three minutes of the game, when the game was on the line, when everybody was standing and screaming, it was awesome, it was wonderful. It gave our players a little extra boost of energy down the stretch.
However, I got the distinct sense that the crowd did more for itself, than they did for the players.
As grateful as the players are for the support from fans, many of them have played on bigger stages for bigger stakes in the NCAA, the Olympics and abroad. One could even argue that while the quality of play may be superior in the WNBA, the prestige and challenge of winning in the NCAA and the Olympics is far greater.
Clearly, with only 13 teams in the WNBA, the best teams have a pretty good chance of getting to the Finals compared to the NCAA or the Olympics. As such WNBA players have played in high-pressure situations, with the roar of the crowd in their faces and at their backs far more often than what WNBA attendance records suggest.
Indeed, attendance has been flat across the league since 2004 at an average of 8000 fans per game, down from the early highs of 10,000 at the WNBA's early peaks. Winning a title in this league doesn't even guarantee greater turnouts.
Whereas the Phoenix Mercury have seen a 10% attendance boost since winning their title in 2007, the Detroit Shock have lost 20% of its per game attendance this season despite winning titles in 2006 and 2008. Even a sellout crowd of the magnitude that showed up for Game 3 does not mean that the WNBA is approaching primetime - Sunday's game is only the fifth largest sellout in the five year history of the WNBA Finals. Those other four sellouts have not translated into sizable attendance gains.
The Fever seem pleased by the fan response in Game 3, but there's also a sense that they are saying what they know they're expected to say when reporters bait them with leading questions. Perhaps reporters' persistent questions about fan turnout are because fans love to hear about fan power or because a large crowd also justifies the present media coverage or somehow enhances the prestige of the media that covers the game. Truly, the crowd was a bigger story to the crowd and to the media than to the players.
However, even if the fans neither played as big a part in the game at hand as media types lead players to suggest, nor have much meaning in terms of future WNBA fan support, the fan presence does have great meaning, particularly for the survival and development of the WNBA and women's sports in general.
With the exception of tennis and beach volleyball, the outlook for women's sports, especially in the USA is not a favorable one. The LPGA is flagging with numerous sponsors dropping out. Perhaps it is pure coincidence with the sellout crowd, but WNBA President Donna Orender has since chosen to stay with the WNBA rather than heading up the LPGA.
Lingering problems with women's sports
In my personal discussions with sports fans, the wives of sports fans and a few feminists, these conversations have been among the most interesting I've had about society as well as sport. The problem with women's sports is three fold.
First, the sport is viewed by many as inferior to the male sport, except perhaps in the rare case of women's gymnastics. For example, one friend and former collegiate division III basketball player told me that he would not watch an inferior sport unless it was his own child was playing it.
What interests me about these responses is that the WNBA is often compared to the NBA. But the NBA isn't on TV in the summer, so it's not really a choice of either/or. No one ever says to me, they can't watch the WNBA because they are more interested in Eurobasketball or because they can't miss a game of the baseball season. These conversations are not about the menu of sports available in the summer, but all about the inferiority of the sport relative to men's sports. Unfortunately, such a view is not merely a condemnation of the WNBA, but of women's sport entirely.
Rare is the sport where women can equal the performance of men. But why does that matter so much? Isn't much of the excitement of sport the suspense that comes from highly competitive outcomes? Close games? Rising to the occasion? In track and field, can one even appreciate the difference in performance between men and women in the 100 meter dash? Or the marathon? Ironically, tennis is also a sport in which women cannot serve as powerfully as men, a sport in which women could be perceived as inferior, yet it is a sport that has succeeded and is probably viewed by a large number of men who also find the WNBA inferior.
Second, many women who might seem the logical target audience for the WNBA have little interest in sport altogether. They see the merit of supporting women in sport, but just can't get excited about any of it.
It even goes so far that my own girlfriend has looked with a sliver of suspicion and a hint of jealousy about the sudden amount of time I'm devoting to the to the powerful women of the WNBA. Rather than jumping aboard and seeing this as an opportunity for gender equality, she's wondering if I'm really interested in this (inferior) sport or is it just some prurient interest? Can men admire without the desire to possess? Should that matter?
Third, of the small sample of women who do actively enjoy watching sports, including a few feminists, they surprised me by saying how much they preferred the sex appeal of male sporting events. One such woman gave me a graphic description of her favorite parts of David Robinson's chiseled body.
The future demographic of the WNBA
While game attendance has remained flat since 2004, the WNBA has been successful in one particular stat that brings hope: +23% in male viewers aged 23-54. This has to be the future demographic of the WNBA, perhaps fathers and daughters. Unfortunately, without knowing the base number, I don't know how relevant that stat actually is. After all, four male viewers plus one more would be a greater 25% improvement.
In summary, while I'm skeptical that the sellout means anything to the players on the court or anything to the league prospects for the future, it does give vastly more hope than a poorly attended or viewed series. The largest problem in any fledgling sport is fan-social traction. It's about having a common set of sports memories about which to communicate with others. It's about "where were you when..." moments. It's about great sports moments that get locked into the social consciousness. Even if you've never seen Bret Favre throw, you probably have an internal video of him throwing, because you've heard so much about it. And if you haven't seen him throw...you aren't even reading this sports blog. And that's it. Someday, there will be a WNBA moment, gesture or player - one that sticks in the collective consciousness of sport or of a city. But a lot of people have to see it first. Or else, sadly, it never happened.
In the end, the large crowd on hand does mean something for the players, the Fever, the WNBA, the fate of women's sport, and the fate of sport itself. The witnesses are there. Will those witnesses see something Wednesday that forever captures their imagination, their spirit, and the very transcendency of sport?
Not a Rook No Mo:
"Rookie" Briann January's scintillating 10 points in 76 seconds to close the third quarter was a clearly pivotal stretch that brought the Fever from DOWN 5 to UP 3. And you thought Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson heated up fast! And you thought the Mercury scored quickly!
The Fever have been blessed with Briann January's mature play this year. As Phoenix Stan confirms, she's far more than just an offensive spark plug - she has performed well on the defensive end too. Teammate Ebony Hoffman credits January's tremendous sense of balance for her success. Incidentally, January holds a black belt in karate, something Penny Taylor can confirm. A theme that came up in Lin Dunn's presser and echoed in several teammates' comments is: Don't call January a rookie anymore. She's a solid vet, a complete player and an important, well-integrated cog in the Fever Machine.
While a lot of the discussion was looking forward to Wednesday, the Fever's responses were admirably on canned, and as boringly scripted as a public service announcement.
They know the Mercury will come out tough. They are going to practice hard. There's no celebrating the win. They are going to try not to have a let-down on Wednesday.
There's every reason to believe the Fever will take Wednesday's game seriously. Just as Phoenix Stan said, they have taken every game seriously. Further, they have every reason to believe that Game 3, and so Game 4, could have easily gone the other way.
For the Mercury, they need not change anything for they were right there at the end. There's no reason to be down, there was probably no reason for Corey Gaines to call 3 timeouts at the end and interrupt the player's flow.
The worst thing the Mercury could do right now is question their approach, get down on themselves, or waver in their confidence. The Mercury just need to do what they've done all season, and either bring it back to Phoenix or go down playing the way they've played all season.
Audio From the Fever Locker Room:
Here are auxiliary comments from Dunn, Catchings and Douglas, who were the Fever representatives at the postgame presser.
Be sure to take a shot of your favorite drink every time Briann January says, "Ohmigod!" or "Huge!" She said she could feel the crowd in her chest booming. As an Arizona State University Alum, this series has also been ideal for her, as every game is at home.
Here's a bunch of Ebony Hoffman's interviews. Blame Phoenix Stan, because he told me Ebony gives the best interviews. She does say some interesting things. Unfortunately for the Mercury, she says the playing style in this series really suits her own playing style, and as such she has been a big factor in the series. As for her shoulder, she says it's fine.