Does Regionalization and "Our Girls Syndrome" Adversely Affect The WNBA?

Crystal Langhorne is one of many players who are playing on a pro team in the same region as their college teams, and that's not necessarily the best thing for the pro teams. - Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

In the days leading up to the 2013 WNBA Draft Lottery, there were many storylines about future draft picks potentially playing in their, or at least near their hometowns and/or their colleges. This is most notable for two of the "Big Three" seniors in college basketball this year: Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne.

For Diggins, she is from South Bend, Indiana, went to the University of Notre Dame which is right next to South Bend, and it just so happens to be in driving distance of Chicago where the Sky plays. For Delle Donne, she is from Wilmington, Delaware, goes to the University of Delaware in nearby Newark, and Washington, DC is also in driving distance where the Mystics play.

Draft lottery outcome aside which we scrutinized pretty well here at the time, but if Diggins actually does end up in Chicago and if Delle Donne does end up in Washington, would such moves be made primarily because they are truly the best players for the Sky and Mystics respectively? Or would such moves be made just as much, if not even moreso because of regional ties? It is pretty arguable that the Sky doesn't particularly need another guard because its biggest need appears to be another front court presence with center Sylvia Fowles which Delle Donne provides. And for Washington, the team needs a playmaker at guard moreso than any other position. Sure Delle Donne would help them, but Diggins would fill that bigger need.

So is this just another Mystics Rant?

Actually, no! I'm burned out from ranting about them so I don't turn into a real life version of Mr. Y U No Guy. :)

But to take a page out of the words of a former Washington Mystics head coach, the WNBA is a league that is building its identity, so teams often look for quick ways to get more fans to sit in. The largest overlapping fanbasewith women's professional basketball is Division I women's college basketball power program fanbases. A very quick way to attract fans from the local college power team is to draft or acquire players from that team. That leads to the regionalization of a team.

One reason why a team may regionalize is also because there is a fear that fans of the WNBA team may not even want to watch the team at all unless some players are from the local college power or are from the area. This leads to a term called "Our Girls Syndrome (OGS)." This term, to the best of my knowledge, was introduced by Clay Kallam of Full Court. Kallam laid it out and showed applications of it really well in a piece for back in 2003 (and it was updated in 2005). The concepts he lays out in that piece will be reapplied to today's league.

What are some examples of Regionalization?

Of the teams in the WNBA, Eastern Conference teams have been considerably more guilty of regionalizing than Western Conference teams, in large part because there are more powerful women's college programs out East, and Stanford University, which is in the Bay Area of California, isn't close to any WNBA team. So for some of the more guilty parties, here are some examples of their use of regional players:

  • The team that is the poster child of regionalization is the Connecticut Sun, where five of the 11 players on their team are from the University of Connecticut. In addition, the franchise has had a history of signing other UConn alumnae in the past, such as Rebecca Lobo and Nykesha Sales. This has led to some calling the team "USunn."
  • The New York Liberty also has been touted as the "Rutgers basketball alumnae association team" because three players played at nearby Rutgers University: Cappie Pondexter, Kia Vaughn, and Essence Carson. In addition, Sue Wicks, another Rutgers alumna played for the Libs in their founding days.
  • From Kallam's piece, you got to see that the Indiana Fever also has meddled a bit with regionalization with strong Purdue University ties led by Stephanie White, who is now an assistant coach with the team. Current star guard Katie Douglas is from Purdue, and Lin Dunn, the head coach was also the Boilermakers' head coach back in the day.
  • The Washington Mystics have had strong ACC ties by drafting or acquiring players from ACC schools throughout their history, in particular for Duke University and the University of Maryland, College Park, two schools that are otherwise bitter arch rivals. Current Mystics Monique Currie and Jasmine Thomas are from Duke and are also from the DC area. Current Mystic Crystal Langhorne is from Maryland. The Mystics also have drafted or acquired Alana Beard, Marissa Coleman, Lindsey Harding, and Vicky Bullett, all of whom are from these two programs. Even of the five players on the Mystics' 15 year all-time team, two players are from UMD (Langhorne and Bullett).

Then what Is OGS In Practice?
This is not as easy to just lay out there. Kallam actually lays it out pretty nicely. Basically college team fans' collective desire to bring in certain players on WNBA teams or their desire to only see their team play in a college tournament shows OGS. I'll lay out a couple examples since it' seems to be the most obvious for college.

  • For example, let's say Northwestern University based near and even in Chicago has a really good women's basketball team. In fact, Duke's Coach P is from there, but that's not the point. Let's also say that many Wildcats women's ball fans also have Sky season tickets. Their hypothetical desire to see Wildcat alumnae on the Sky, even if they aren't good fits or good enough to be in the league is OGS.
  • Second, let's say The House That MJ Built in Chicago (United Center) is hosting the rounds of 64 and 32 games and it's sponsored by Northwestern which by default gives Wildcat alumni, students, and fans discounted or free tickets (for students). If Northwestern makes the tournament, then it is a near certainty that they will play in Chicago, even if they sneak in as a 12 seed if the team had a 15-15 regular season record and wins the Big Ten tournament. The hypothetical 12th seeded Wildcats would have a huge homecourt advantage over the 5th seeded team. Now let's say Northwestern hosts the tourney at United Center, but doesn't make the Dance. Then it is highly unlikely that many Wildcat fans will watch as neutral spectators, and assuming Notre Dame (about 100 miles away) doesn't make the Dance or has to play games in Indianapolis, then this site may not be a particularly filled arena for those games. The lack of fans showing up unless their team is playing is also OGS.

OGS is also prevalent for professional teams in women's basketball. Maybe some players who aren't from the local college initially grow and become fan favorites and then they are clung onto as the fans' girls, to the extent that they feel that she is above tradeable, even if doing so could help the team acquire assets that could give that team a fresh start. Star players are very hard to just let go of in any league, but in the WNBA, there just seems to be an even stronger bond to them.

  • I'll start off with the Seattle Storm as a team that clings onto its franchise cornerstones, and has been at a crossroads in team direction where they would like to rebuild on the fly, but at the same time, they want to keep winning with its star guard and center, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson who are now getting close to their mid 30's. Trading either of them to another team in the league could yield the Storm numerous younger assets and may help the team get a fresh start, but the sentimental connection with those players has become as strong as Cal Ripken Jr.'s connection to the Orioles and Darrell Green's connection with the Redskins. It's just too unthinkable for most fans. And I must admit, some players really do hit that status and maybe they are really at that level, though I can't really tell because I'm not from Seattle. I'm on the outside looking in. Still, Bird and Jackson are definitely the "Storm Fans' Girls" and if they were traded away today, even if good players came to the Storm in return, would some fans bail and not come back because of this? I hope I can say no to that last question.
  • Next we head to Washington, DC from Washington State. There has been debate among Mystics fans whether the team should have let Alana Beard get into free agency, especially after her 2012 season with the Sparks culminated in an 1st Team All-WNBA Defensive Team honor and her team also made the Western Finals. Many fans though that she was "their star" and that's OGS. I personally thought it was the right move to let her go, though perhaps she could have been signed and traded. Then again, the GM at the time would have probably managed to screw up even that move. After Beard was let go, Crystal Langhorne is now the current "our star" to some Mystics fans, to the point where they believe she's untradeable, even though like even the manifesto said, trading her away may be the only way to give a fresh start. Unlike Bird and Jackson who have consistently made the postseason, won Olympic medals every time since they were pros, and won two WNBA championships, Langhorne only has one 20 win season and no Finals appearances to her credit. If Bird and Jackson have truly earned their "Storm player for life" card, Langhorne has a long way to go to reach that status. Don't get me wrong I think she's a very good player, but she's not at their level of impact, let alone Darrell Green or Cal Ripken, Jr.

Well just because a team regionalizes in order to grab "the fans' girls" doesn't mean that it hurts the team, right?

In some cases, the stars align just right so a regional player who goes to her local or regional team actually helps her team win more games (for example Tina Charles), or even win the whole thing (Katie Douglas certainly was a big factor for the 2012 Fever). Also the Lindsay Whalen/Renee Montgomery trade in 2010 seemed to serve regionalist interests for both the Lynx and Sun respectively, but from hindsight, it appears that Minny got a quicker track to a championship than it would with Montgomery as the starting point guard, and the Sun was able to rebuild its roster with younger star talent with some veteran leadership and it's paying off now.

In other cases, they're not doing enough or aren't the type of players to help their teams get past a hump, even if they're otherwise very good players (Cappie Pondexter for NY, Crystal Langhorne for DC), and it can only get worse from there. I don't think the Fever's acquisition of Stephanie White (as a player, not a coach) did anything to help Tamika Catchings win a championship. Second, the circumstances of Jasmine Thomas' acquiring by the Mystics definitely appears to be that she is here in very large part because she is from the DC area.

So are you trying to tell me that regionalization and OGS are all bad?

No, not necessarily. However, the most important thing for this league to do is to improve its basketball product. Sure, we all love the stories of the local guy or gal playing for the local team, but the fans can turn on them very easily as well if they're playing poorly or if they decide to leave. After all, even #6 of the Miami Heat was in that category as a rookie too, but now, he's hated by most folks from his first NBA team. But teams shouldn't reach to draft local players nor should they try to acquire them just for the sake of short term gains in ticket sales for a game or two. Like any other team, they must look at how those players fit into the current team culture and will help the team be more successful. Any local ties should just be a plus, and nothing more. In other words, local ties should be the cherry on top of the sundae, not the ice cream or the icing on the cake, not the cake.

Link again:

To Clay Kallam's piece on OGS in 2005: