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Fighting Is Not the Type Of Attention the WNBA Needs

It’s normally difficult to find any quality post-game analysis about WNBA games, but last night’s fight between the Shock and Sparks managed to get attention from all the major sports websites, NBA message boards, and even local news media outlets.

With such wide-ranging attention to the ugly incident, it may come as no surprise that the reactions are equally diverse. And the reactions that come over the next few days in our 24 hour news cycle will be both intriguing and potentially devastating for the WNBA.

Really, this shouldn’t be news at all – it has nothing to with basketball. It becomes news because we live in a society that has an endless appetite for the sensational…and this has become the daily special. So by now there’s probably not much original thought to be presented about the incident, but there are three things in particular that struck me as I sifted through the many reactions.

First, it’s unfortunate that the "spirited" nature of the game is overshadowing an otherwise exciting game (and season) of basketball. Second, no sport recovers well from major controversy and the WNBA cannot afford a hit in attendance or ratings. Third, many of the reactions – especially those of male non-WNBA fans – strike me as unnecessarily sexist and homophobic and sadly that should be expected by now.

I’m sure the third point will be covered in depth by any number of cultural critics who will use this as an opportunity to explore dynamics of gender, race, and sexuality with more sophistication than I can at this point. But I think the first two points are worth addressing, if only on a basic level.

The timing of this event could not have been any worse.

The league was just coming off a historic moment with the Liberty Outdoor Classic and what I believe was one of the all-time best weekends of WNBA basketball. It’s right before the Olympics and four Olympians were playing in this game and at least three played a prominent role in the fight. But the most devastating thing is its long-term impact on two of the WNBA’s best teams. From writer and New York Liberty fan Justine Larbalestier:
And now several players are going to be out for a bunch of games. Plenette Pierson, Candace Parker and Delisha Milton-Jones for sure and most likely Muriel Page and Deanna Nolan as well. Not to mention Cheryl Ford getting injured trying to keep Pierson from attacking more LA players.

I hate this crap. This is not why I follow the WNBA…The New York Liberty plays the LA Sparks on Friday. It’s not going to be as good a game without Parker and Milton-Jones.
The loss of major players on championship contenders is not positive for the WNBA by any stretch of the imagination. Especially given how tight the standings are this year. And you have to feel especially sad for Ford -- she has fought so hard all season and had to leave the court in a wheelchair.

And though I am normally loathe to blame the officials for the outcome of a basketball game, it is their responsibility to maintain control of a game. Sometimes there are a series of hidden events that precipitate an event like this, but in this case most of the warning signs happened in plain sight. From Dave’s Journal:
Mahorn pushing Leslie was a lot like the beer hitting Artest at the Pistons-Pacers brawl - it turned an ugly fight into something memorably bad. I mostly blame the officials, who had let a very intense game get out of hand. There had been a couple incidents earlier in the game, mostly involving Parker and Cheryl Ford, and the refs just ignored everything. There was no excuse for not doing anything when Parker and Ford had to be separated with eight seconds to go. At the very least, both players should have been given technical fouls. Instead, they were allowed to keep yelling at each other, and it was only a few seconds later that the fight started.
Whatever Rick Mahorn’s intentions were, he didn’t help an already bad situation…and that is not good for anyone involved in this situation either.

What happens when the league resumes after the Olympics and players are still serving suspensions? Any momentum gained from the Olympics would be essentially lost, even if the event is magically forgotten.

Professional sports don’t rebound well from controversy

This is obviously a pessimistic perspective I’m presenting here…but history gives us plenty of reason for pessimism. And the fact that the fight occurred in the same venue as the NBA’s infamous November 2004 brawl has not been lost on anyone. And the comparisons foretell a bleak future for the WNBA.

Of course, the Olympic break could be a convenient time to mull over the appropriate response to get past this. And I suppose you could argue that since the WNBA does not have a well-established "brand" in the mainstream, the attention from this incident could lead to increased viewership and attendance. That was my initial response to the fight because after all, "there’s no such thing as bad publicity", right? From LSU Sports Place:
All-in-all, this is probably a good thing for the WNBA. As silly as it sounds, this will generate interest in the league and build a rivalry that people will be able to relate to and come playoff time if these two squads are playing against one another, the WNBA can actually score decent ratings.
However, no matter what type of damage control strategy the WNBA chooses, this will likely have a devastating effect on the league.

Unfortunately, history tells us bad publicity is bad for sports ratings. The MLB, NHL, and NBA all suffered in ratings and attendance after their respective labor battles. Baseball suffered during the height of the steroids scandal. And most relevant, NBA viewership suffered after two brawls of its own – a second fight between the Knicks and Nuggets occurred that thankfully did not involve fans. On the bright side, NBA attendance hit a record high after it's Pacers-Pistons brawl.

But it took a full 82 game season for the NBA to recover ratings-wise from its brawl (and a not so exciting Detroit-San Antonio finals series). Of course, we also have to keep in mind that NBA ratings had been sagging since the 1999 lockout and Michael Jordan’s retirement so it’s difficult to disentangle those factors. However, it would not be surprising if the rate of decline was significantly different after the fight.

But it’s not just ratings that suffer -- it’s also endorsements and marketing opportunities. Northwest Airlines pulled Carmelo Anthony off magazine covers after his fight with the Knicks. And he lost other potential endorsement deals after his off court participation in the infamous "Stop Snitchin’" DVD.

It may seem like I’m blowing minor problems out of proportion, but the NBA has a bit more latitude with which to deal with challenges like these because it's a well established entity. Carmelo Anthony losing marketability is offset by Lebron James, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and Greg Oden -- all highly marketable individuals. If it impacted the NBA and players involved, we have to assume an impact on the WNBA.

But really, can the WNBA afford to lose endorsements? Or the even bigger question, can the WNBA afford a decrease in ("savior") Candace Parker’s marketability? Given all the challenges the WNBA already faces – including the double standards female athletes face – it cannot afford to lose popularity due to non-basketball distractions.

What to do next…?

I don’t think there are any easy solutions to this problem. I wouldn’t expect Donna Orender nor any other human being to rescue the league from this debacle.

The optimistic perspective is that the WNBA will remain stable because the existing fan base is small but dedicated and will rally around the league instead of abandoning it. But to me, that will only occur if the media starts giving the same amount of coverage to actual basketball as they give to the aftermath of the fight. Unlikely.

The best the WNBA can do in the short term is issue stiff but fair suspensions within the next 48 hours. I also think that some disciplinary action has to be taken against the referees and the league will have to look at overall officiating of the league over the break. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a lot more quick whistles and quick technicals… *sigh* And those Expect Great commercials that have already been mocked ad nauseam? They might as well discontinue those right now...

Beyond that what can they do?

Two contenders are likely going to lose ground in the standings, if not fall out of the playoffs altogether in a season that was being lauded for its parity. The lasting image of Cheryl Ford leaving the fight in a wheelchair is inconsistent with the league’s image as a family game. The participation of Olympians means that the issue will linger even during the break. Complaints about WNBA officiating are long-standing. In other words, there's no need to pinpoint individuals to assign blame to -- everybody loses in this situation and it will be a collective effort to sustain interest in the league.

It is a very, very disappointing situation for the WNBA and the worst part is that it will completely overshadow an otherwise great season of basketball.