The Future of the WNBA

This post is an update of the kinds of posts I used to do at my previous blog.  These posts attempted to extrapolate near future events from current trends, much like professional futurists do.

We therefore have to create some scenarios:

1. The most likely case. All current trends continue into the future.
2. The best case. "Everything goes right."
3. The outlier cases. What low probability events could spark high-level disruptive changes?
4. The worst case scenario. "Everything goes wrong".

Last year was clearly an example of the best case coming true.  Given that the Detroit Shock relocated at the end of 2009 and that the Sacramento Monarchs folded, the best case for 2010 was founded on three pillars:

a)  Franchise stability
b)  More expansion of jersey space, and
c)  A finals as strong as Phoenix-Indiana was in 2009.

One could argue that 2010 was a clean sweep of the best outcomes.  There were no rumors or murmurs of rumors that any of the WNBA's twelve franchises would fold.  Granted, attendance in Tulsa looked pretty shaky but if Tulsa is in major trouble no one has said anything.  Not only were those searching for the Seattle Storm on the internet assisted by the Storm's new jersey sponsor Bing, but also the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut decided that the bosoms of New York Liberty players made for great signage.  Out of the twelve teams in the WNBA, four have jersey sponsorships.  As for Seattle-Atlanta, it might not have been as compelling as Phoenix-Indiana - Seattle won its conference in a romp and Angel McCoughtry carried Atlanta into the playoffs on her back - but it was the closest finals in WNBA history in terms of margin of victory.

Unfortunately, this year might be an outlier in WNBA history.  If there are no franchise changes planned for 2011, then 2010-11 will be the first pair of consecutive years in WNBA history with the same number of teams in the league since 2003-04.  The league has always been relocating, or adding teams, or folding teams.  The league needs stability more than just about anything else - it can't follow the policy that the old NHL followed in simply adding a new team whenever someone waved enough money around.  The league has to do everything in its power to make sure the weak franchises survive and the strong franchises prosper.  The fans attending a game have to believe that the team they saw will be around next year.

Do I believe that another franchise will fold between now and the start of the 2011 season?  No, but it was around this time of year in 2009 when the Maloof brothers dumped a bucketful of coal into the WNBA stocking by folding the Monarchs.  Let's just say that it doesn't look likely that any franchise will walk away.  At the end of 2011 the Tulsa Shock will have been under their present ownership for two years and the Atlanta Dream for three years.  Let's wait until the end of 2011 before we return to talk of league stability.

However, there are shaky signs.  Anne Levinson left Force 10 Hoops this year.  Force 10 Hoops is the ownership group that owns the Seattle Storm.  Kathy Betty stated that she was looking for other investors for the Atlanta Dream, and has also stated that she does not intend to run the Dream perpetually at a loss.  Sheila Johnson of the Washington Mystics stated that the dismissal of Julie Plank and Angela Taylor was partially due to cost considerations with the need to consolidate the coach and GM positions.

Those, however, were mere mini-tremors compared to the massive quake that was Donna Orender resigning as president of the WNBA, effective after December 31st.  Orender had been president for six years before her departure, and had been considered as a candidate for head of the LPGA only a few months ago.  Suddenly, Orender has traded it all for running an independent media consulting firm.  People don't trade a penthouse for a garage unless there's a reason for it.

A pessimistic friend and I have talked about this before - about the phenomenon of the higher ups cutting their losses, or rats leaving a sinking ship.  If there's anyone who knows the true state of the WNBA, with all of its strengths and weaknesses, it is the league president.  For the WNBA president to depart her office without having a job at a similar level immediately lined up should cause any rational person to be concerned.  Any league in its infancy - and in terms of sports, a 15-year old league is still a toddler - needs strong leadership if it is to survive.  The WNBA right now has no leadership.  This is a serious problem.  It can be remedied by the hiring of a dynamic, intelligent go-getter but blue chip leaders are hard to come by.

So let's go over the following scenarios:

* The best case.  The league remains stable, with 12 teams through 2011.  Tulsa manages to right a sinking ship and prosper enough to consider a Year Three.  "The Betty Lady" - as my friend calls her - finds some investors for the Dream (or swings a jersey deal) and Atlanta remains flush.  Indiana should hopefully remain stable - it might have been Mel Simon and not Herb Simon that wanted to drop the Fever, and now that the Pacers/Fever/whatever are owned by Herb Simon Indiana's management might have changed their minds.

Washington's cost-cutting measures don't end up hurting the team too much as a healthy Alana Beard keeps the mystics on track.  New Yorkers prove patient while the team temporarily relocates to New Jersey.  The WNBA hires a capable leader - man or woman - and the league has an infusion of confidence to take it into its 15th season.  San Francisco's investors come through, and there's a possibility of a return to 13 teams in 2012.

* The most likely case.  The league remains stable, but the lack of media promotion - the WNBA seems to be dead during the winter - hurts the league.  Tulsa picks up Maya Moore and manages to pull itself up from incompetent to mediocre on her back.  (The crowds, however, still aren't there.)  No jersey deal for Atlanta, and Atlanta and Indiana remain on shaky ground but otherwise solvent.

Washington fades back to the bottom of the Eastern Conference despite Beard's return, but Mystics fans are used to the underachievement.  Attendance drops seriously for the Liberty, forcing the team to scramble and think about returning them somewhere in The City, even back to Radio City Music Hall if necessary.  The WNBA hires a caretaker president who has to prove his or her worth in front of a skeptical fanbase.  There is still positive talk about San Francisco, but it doesn't come through just yet.

* The outlier cases.

1.  Diana Taurasi - and perhaps others - make more noise about taking a year off.  This not only seriously impacts the league but puts it in a bind.  The league will either have to pay out more money (that it doesn't have) to keep American players here or the best players will end up going elsewhere.  If one of those players decides to take 2011 off, it might be the beginning of the end of the present structure of the WNBA.

2.  With FIBA experimenting with lowering the rims, the WNBA might conclude "we have nothing to lose" and begins its own experimentation with lowering the rims, starting with some pre-season games.  This is truly uncharted territory.  Hardcore women's basketball fans claim they'd never watch such an abomination, but would the drop in support from the base be made up for by support from formerly casual viewers?  This would lead to a women's game that is no longer the mirror image of the men's game, at least where the rim is concerned.

3.  It was claimed that the Connecticut Sun is the only WNBA team ever to turn a profit, and one reason given is that there are few giveaway tickets/heavily discounted tickets.  Other clubs begin tightening up on the freebies, figuring that a half empty lower bowl with paying fans is better than a full arena with freeloaders.  Talk is made of pulling the plug on WNBA Live Access, or charging for the subscription.  There would be much complaining among WNBA fans, but would the move help some of the franchises turn a profit?

* The worst case scenario.

It becomes clear that Tulsa is a disaster and the ownership there decides to wash their hands of things, either returning the franchise to the league or folding it at the end of the season - even Maya Moore can't save Tulsa.   Another franchise - Indiana, Atlanta, Minnesota, Chicago, take your pick - crumbles and the WNBA is facing the real possibility of a 10-team league for 2012, the fewest number of league teams since 1998.

The hunt for a new WNBA commissioner drags on with little progress, and an NBA functionary is assigned to the job in a caretaker role.  The league actually regresses in terms of media coverage.  There are no new jersey sponsorships.  The New York/New Jersey Liberty play to virtually empty arenas, and the most patient fans on earth - those of the Washington Mystics - finally give up and turn to Maryland and other local teams for their basketball enjoyment.

At least one successful coach resigns to take a job as a women's college basketball coach.  Talk of players sitting out in 2012 becomes stronger.  Soothing words about a new franchise in San Francisco are no longer spoken, and WNBA management admits that such an outcome is unlikely.

And then what might be the worst news.  The Lifelock/Phoenix Mercury deal comes to an end with the close of the 2011 season.  Lifelock quietly decides not to renew the jersey deal.  Neither Lifelock nor the WNBA say much.  Foxwoods keeps its jersey deal for the Liberty and the Mohegan Sun's name is already on the Connecticut jerseys....but the doors to jersey sponsorship begin to close....

(* * *)

Obviously, my money is on the "most likely" case.  Last year, my "best case" prediction was the most prescient one.  More jersey sponsorship, lots of talk about Tina Charles, no franchises folding.  With last year's track record, I'm hoping that the "most likely" case presented above is a lowball and that the WNBA continues to prosper.  In any case, the items frequently discussed - WNBA's future commissioner, jersey sponsorship, Tulsa's success, etc. - will play major roles in both the success of the league and the public perception of such success.

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