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The state of the WNBA: 2012 edition

As 2012 runs out of sand, it's time to reflect back on the previous year and think about the year to come. What is the state of the WNBA at the end of the 2012? Can we predict what will happen for the league in 2013? Has the league been stable, or is it built on quicksand?


The best way to predict the future is to fit one's predictions into one of four categories.

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. . "Everything goes wrong".

Let's look at the four cases one by one.

The most likely case.

We have not had a franchise close its doors in the WNBA in three years - this is the longest run of franchise stability since the 2004-2006 run which ended with the folding of the Charlotte Sting.

Over 2006-2008, two more franchises joined the WNBA family in Chicago and Atlanta, and those franchises are still breathing. Unfortunately, we lost Houston and Sacramento, so it was all a wash. We really don't know what's going to happen, but there's a 99.9 percent chance that the the 2013 season will end with all 12 franchises intact. (The months after the WNBA Finals, however, will be a different story.)

Remember the primary rule of league success - "a franchise should never be allowed to fold". Relocation is fine - it might even be a good sign of a league's health, showing that teams have value - but a franchise should never be allowed to close up shop. The major leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB) haven't shuttered a franchise in decades.

(Upon retrospect, it seems like Donna Orender's decision to allow Hilton Koch to buy the Comets was the right decision for one reason only - it kept the franchise alive for a little bit longer.)

The longer the stability lasts, the better. These days, stability seems to depend on cash flow, and there are some good signs there. Budweiser is now advertising on the WNBA website. Finish Line signed up with the Indiana Fever for a jersey sponsorship, giving the league six teams. If everything stays the same, we might see a seventh team get a jersey sponsorship.

Phoenix, Los Angeles get sponsorships
2010: Seattle, New York get sponsorships
2011: Washington gets sponsorship
2012: Indiana gets sponsorship

Our most likely case expects this pattern to remain consistent over time - adding one or two jersey sponsorships per year until every team in the league is sponsored.

Expect TV ratings to tick up ever-so-slightly. The WNBA will probably be able to monetize something - they monetized WNBA Access and will probably think of something else they can charge money for. Expect the haters both in the gatekeeper press and among the troglodytes to shrink just a little bit more - but I don't expect the print press to take the WNBA seriously; that will only change when the troglodyte gatekeepers retire or the sports departments of major newspapers aren't 99 percent male.

What the WNBA needs more than anything is stability. There will still be a barrier to getting information. No league wants to tell a story that reflects poorly on itself and there are only a handful of full-time investigative reporters like Mechelle Voepel that can peel back the curtain. Hardcore fans will be on the outside looking in - but the WNBA cares mostly about casual fans and will continue the work of getting the turnstiles spinning.

The European leagues will prove less of a threat - good news for the WNBA head office. Big league clubs like Ros Casares in Spain and little league clubs like Rybnik in Poland have shuttered their doors due to Europe's financial crisis. Europe will still supply the big money for players, but that money isn't as big as it is any more as governments don't have the discretionary income to fuel women's sports. Women's basketball in Greece is a train wreck and from what I understand Spain and Israel - popular landing spots for WNBA players - are suffering with financial instability the order of the day.

The centers of women's basketball overseas will probably be Russia, Turkey and France. There are few American players playing overseas full time, and that's just the way the league likes it. You might get one or two players take the plunge that Deanna Nolan took, but they won't be big names. Even hardcore fans have given up on Nolan, or Cheryl Ford, or Janel McCarville coming back and somehow the world keeps turning.

The best case.

The best case is an extension of the trends above.

This includes one trend not covered above - expansion. The question becomes when - or if - the league should expand, particularly given the precarious states of a few WNBA franchises. My rule is a league should only expand when it has to, when there's a real threat of a rival league starting up due to too few franchises. Yes, everyone wants a franchise in San Francisco but I suspect that San Fran is Laurel Richie's hole card if things go south.

However, if Brittney Griner brings new excitement and if the 2013 WNBA Draft class spins turnstiles and boosts ratings and if the weakest franchises shore up, Richie might decide to pull the trigger if any monied investors show up. The league might pick up franchise #13, but I'd be extremely surprised if it picked up two more cities at the end of 2013.

This brings up to the top-heavy nature of the women's college game. Fans of college ball might get tired of the 91-27 blowouts delivered routinely by the Connecticuts, Baylors and Stanfords of the college world. Since that might not be changing soon, they could turn to the pro game for a more competitive form of women's basketball.

Another best case would be two more jersey sponsorships, along with some sort of new thrilling thing coming along that I can't name because no one has heard of it.

The outlier cases.

One outlier case is labor unrest. The current WNBA collective bargaining agreement continues through the end of the 2013 season. If Brittney Griner and friends spark an interest in women's pro basketball that extends beyond the casual there will be pressure from the league to get a new CBA under wraps for another five years.

It would be hard to imagine a player strike or an owner lockout, but stranger things have happened. Any labor unrest would put the league's survival at risk, given that there is a faction of sports reporters who only take interest in the WNBA when anything bad happens to it.

Another outlier would be either Brittney Griner or Elena Delle Donne deciding to walk away from the pro game before they're even drafted. Delle Donne has walked away from basketball before, you know. Griner has a lot of options that might extend outside of Phoenix. That would not be good news for the league.

But a corresponding positive outlier might be that Griner is the Next Big Thing in women's basketball, bringing interest and coverage to women's basketball that the game has never had before. You never know when something will catch on, and Griner might be the WNBA's killer app.

The worst case scenario.

There are several possibilities here, as the WNBA might have a lot to worry about in 2013.

One is that Brittney Griner gets herself hurt early on in the 2013 season, and she turns out to be the Sam Bowie of the WNBA - a player who had a lot of potential that was sapped by injury. The WNBA is not able to market Griner, and the big upturn through the turnstiles never comes along.

Another issue would be that Lifelock decides not to extend its jersey sponsorship with Phoenix. The original deal with Lifelock went from 2009 to 2011, and even though nothing definite on the internet indicates an extension of that deal, an article in July 2011 indicated that Lifelock decided to move forward into 2012 with the deal. However, an IPO (initial public offering) of Lifelock stock opened at $9 and is now sitting at $7.70 per share, so it's untelling where a 2013 deal with the Mercury sits.

If the deal were to fall through, the perception might not be so much that Lifelock had some financial difficulty, but that the jersey sponsorship was a losing deal for Lifelock. This might be a problem with jersey sponsorships that no one has ever realized - gaining one might be cool but losing one might be disastrous.

The other worst case scenario deals with - you guessed it - a franchise folding. There are those that claim that the WNBA is very much a Potemkin village - that its press works hard to deceive others into thinking that the WNBA is in better shape that it really is. My personal theory is not so much that the WNBA is a facade but rather that its closed-mouth approach to news allows rumor mongering to flourish.

When you listen to scuttlebutt, you get the impression that three franchises might be in bad shape - Tulsa, Chicago, and Washington. They are all in bad shape for the same reasons, namely, a lack of playoff success. (Washington took a nose dive over the last two seasons.) The fact that we heard so little from Washington about the head coach hunt led some to believe that Washington might close its doors any moment.

But what if Washington (or Tulsa, or Chicago) is merely taking a one year respite? And what if next year delivers not success but failure for one or more of these franchises? Will they stick it out until 2014 or will they throw in the towel. We know that only three franchises are making a profit. If one - or more - of these franchises fails the WNBA's three year run of general stability ends and Laurel Richie's relative honeymoon as WNBA President ends as well.

(* * *)

So what's going to happen in 2013? Your guess is as good as mine. I'll give you my predictions, buttressed solely by instinct.

* There will be no expansion in 2014.
* All of the jersey sponsorships will continue, and we'll pick up another one.
* Due to the situation in Europe, there will be an uptick of European and Asian players. A small uptick.
* Brittney Griner is indeed all that and a bag of chips.
* The WNBA and the players union quickly come to an agreement.
* The infusion of new players/new coaches for Tulsa/Chicago/Washington will help those teams improve - but don't expect them to make the playoffs. The uncertainty about Washington's health remains.
* Bill Laimbeer will make the Libs a contender right away.
* Increased coverage from TV, still no respect from print media.

As for anything else, my crystal ball remains cloudy. Want to share your predictions for next year?