The other day I wrote a response to Jeff Pearlman's article in the Medium about the state of the WNBA, which I felt was a perfectly reasonable critique of the league.
It got longer than I initially intended, but there were really three points there:
1. The league is making progress, has done what it could to promote its young stars, and the evolution of the game on the court demands patience as basketball fans familiarize themselves with the league.
2. The league still has yet to persuasively answer why it's worth sports fans' time, especially in a crowded sports market that runs right up against the NFL season.
3. As I alluded to and James stated explicitly in the comments, the league theoretically has appeal to multiple demographics and arguably greater social value than other sports leagues but seriously risks turning off one demographic if it pushes too hard to attract another. Yet it has struggled over time to decide whether it will target one demographic or try to embrace its broad appeal.
Although those points aren't at all mutually exclusive, there's a certain tension between points 1 & 2 that sort of leaves us at something of a crossroads in light of the 2014 WNBA Finals. As it turns out, the 2014 WNBA Finals ended up being a microcosm of both points as the culmination of a season that probably embodied where the league stands right now: there was a ton of star power that drew great ratings, but the series itself was decidedly uncompetitive after beginning as entirely predictable and requiring the absence of an injured star to even be interesting in Chicago. Yes, the rise of the Sky and Diana Taurasi's greatness are compelling storyline; no, back-to-back routs are not especially compelling television.
The 2014 WNBA Finals series was somewhat awkwardly one of the worst -- meaning most lopsided -- in memory while simultaneously being one of the most-watched, progress among the national audience somehow wrapped in a package that seems to leave some observers wanting more (e.g. some variation of "true seeding" for the playoffs).That leads right to the third point above, perhaps as an extension of Pearlman's question: who or what type of fan will determine that the league is worth their time?
Before jumping into other reactions to the Finals from around the web -- and a whole bunch of people (justifiably) fawning over Taurasi's greatness -- there were two articles from yesterday that spoke quite directly to that question, which are worthy reads.
- Forbes' Alana Glass checks in about "The Summer of Firsts" in women's sports and suggests the opportunity to watch women make history in sports as a reason to watch the Finals. "What have you told your son or daughter about gender diversity, women in sports, and "The Summer of Firsts?...Consider watching the finals with your son or daughter – tell them about what’s possible when the sports landscape is open and available for strong, powerful women to participate." Read more >>>
- Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe explored the difficulty the league has had in forging an identity without limiting itself to one demographic, highlighting the impact of jersey sponsors on branding and the league being "unsure" about how it should approach the relationship of players like Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson. Other leagues around the world have taken advantage of jersey sponsors -- it's neither novel nor unique to the WNBA -- but to the latter point he offers the following summary of the challenge the league faces right now: "The league needs to figure out a way to take those unattractive ads off the front of the jerseys without losing sponsorship money, add a team in markets such as the Bay Area and the Knoxville area, which has always supported women's basketball, and find a way to attract those who haven't yet embraced the league." Read more >>>
- Paulsen of Sports Media Watch took stock of the ratings for the first two games, tempering the good news with an unfortunate reality of this season: "It should be pointed out that neither Game 1 nor Game 2 could match Game 2 of the Mercury/Lynx Western Conference Finals on August 31 (0.6, 828K)." #TeamTrueSeeding Read more >>>
- ESPN announced its number one playoff moment in WNBA history and it was predictable because the very idea of hitting a game-winner in the Finals from half court is every ballplayer's dream. You just can't beat that and the better debate is where it stands in U.S. basketball history. Read more >>>
WNBA Finals Game 3
- Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune wrote that Diana Taurasi's heroics proved why she's regarded as the world's best player. "Without their 6-foot-8 monster in the middle, the Mercury needed Taurasi to show why she is considered the best women's basketball player in history..."Everyone saw the world's best doing exactly what she does best: putting her team on her shoulders," Sky forward Elena Delle Donne said. "They needed their big player to make a play; we needed myself to make one. She did; I didn't." Read more >>>
- Nina Mandell of USA Today wrote specifically about how Taurasi's Game 3 performance reflects her greatness as a scorer. "As with many great scorers, Taurasi took over the court by making shots that looked miraculous every time they went in, sometimes even seeming to shock her. There was a jumper she banked in under pressure that she didn’t really mean to put off the backboard. And with the game tied with only 14 seconds left, Taurasi drove against [Courtney Vandersloot] before somehow squaring up to throw up yet another runner that seemed like it shouldn’t have gone in." Read more >>>
- Greg Esposito of Phoenix Mercury.com took on a more local question a couple of days before Game 3, which is worthy of revisiting in light of the conclusion to the 2014 WNBA Finals: is Taurasi the best athlete in Phoenix sports history, men's or women's? "There is one athlete that checks all the boxes, longevity, awards, championships and an intense passion for Phoenix. That’s right, Taurasi and her signature bun have been a mainstay in Phoenix for a decade. She’s won championships, awards and led the league in numerous categories including points last year and assists this season. A feat that is next to impossible to accomplish on the men’s or women’s side. She’s remained relatively healthy through it all and has been the heart and soul of the franchise the entire time." Read more >>>
- Mechelle Voepel of espnW put some context around Taurasi's performance but also highlighted the performance of Ewelina Kobryn, a player whose performance flew under the radar a bit. She was in foul trouble, as might be expected going against Fowles, but was another player who stepped up in Game 3. "Brondello is UMMC's assistant, and when she took over at Phoenix, she thought Kobryn would be a good fit as a backup center for Griner. So Kobryn came to Arizona this season. Kobryn couldn't have expected to see much court time in the WNBA Finals with the way Griner was playing. But Griner was poked in the eye in Game 2 on Tuesday...Kobryn got the start -- and produced eight points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. It was a performance her close friend and former WNBA player, the late Margo Dydek, would have been thrilled to see. Dydek passed away in 2011 after suffering a heart attack." Read more >>>
- Roy Ward of the Sydney Daily Herald reports that Mercury players Erin Phillips and Penny Taylor are scheduled to report to the Australian Opals' camp by the end of the week in preparation for the FIBA World Championships. Coach Brendan Joyce discussed the difficulty of adding new players so late and wasn't sure whether they'd start right away. "They should be both starting for us but whether they do, I don't know right now," he said. Read more >>>
- Understandably overshadowed by Phoenix's victory, the Chicago Sky included in their notes about the game that Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot broke the record for most assists in a half in a Finals game (that Taurasi had just ties in Game 1 and finished with a WNBA Finals record tying 11 assists, joining Diana Taurasi (how good can one player be, seriously?), Nikki Teasley (3 times) and Tamika Catchings (2009). Read more >>>
Got other links that you think are worth reading? Drop them in the comments below or create a fanshot.