It has been a while since I've written anything on the WNBA. Frankly, I've enjoyed covering and writing about women's college basketball more.
As much as I LOVE women's basketball, the "W" has struggled to really capture the consciousness of American sports. It's almost as though it has been stuck in a quagmire for its 18-year existence, with each different marketing campaign, it has been hard for people to really get attached to the product -- it's a league that has been constantly looking trying to move forward, but has struggled to find its footing.
I remember talking to a media contemporary two years ago, Bob Corwin - who is widely respected in women's basketball circles - about the sustainability of the WNBA. And as he has written many times, Corwin figured that the future of the WNBA was bleak, to put it mildly, as many other experts have assessed, especially with moribund attendance over the years.
And let's not be disingenuous about his "doom-and-gloom" prognosis: he was stating what many others have said both privately and publicly. Phillip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune summarized the situation as recently as 2013:
A financial website called "24/7 Wall Street" predicts the WNBA will disappear by next year - after David Stern steps down as NBA commissioner.
The logic is Stern's strong support of the women's league (six of its 12 teams are bankrolled in part by the NBA counterpart in the same city; all receive logistical support) and his utter control as commissioner have combined to keep the WNBA afloat despite poor TV ratings and declining attendance.
Although the NBA is often cited as the reason for the W's existence, the men's game also casts a shadow over the women's game that creates unfair comparisons.
Countless individuals -- whether it's pundits, columnists or the average fan -- see the high-flying dunks of LeBron James. They watch the silky smooth scoring wunderkind that's Kevin Durant -- who is often heralded by ESPN's Stephen A. Smith on his show First Take because, "He's 6'10 and can pull up from 30!" -- and they forget the NBA once had its own growing pains.
People get so caught up in the excitement of the present-day NBA that it's easy to forget the struggles the league had prior to 1979-80 -- the NBA was not always the dominant juggernaut that is being seen today.
Before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson arrived in 1979 to essentially rescue the NBA, there was a real question about whether the NBA was going to be able to endure. Since the retirements of Wilt Chamberlin and Bill Russell, previously the league's biggest stars, this was a perfectly reasonable concern. They struggled mightily to get viewership which prompted them to merge with the ABA in 1976.
The NBA couldn't land a TV contract, was playing in half-empty arenas and had an "image" problem -- sound familiar, WNBA fans?
After Larry Bird played Magic Johnson in their epic NCAA championship game, the fledgling NBA finally had the golden egg that would lay the foundation for success for years to come - that game paid huge dividends for the NCAA and immediately gave a boost to the NBA. In 1979, ESPN was launched and guess what they chose to feature: Magic and Bird. The immediate success of both players in the NBA individually and their ongoing rivalry throughout the 1980's competing/winning championships skyrocketed the league to new found heights.
And in 1984, newly appointed NBA commissioner, David Stern, took full advantage of this "golden" opportunity named "Magic" and Bird -- Stern called it a blessing. It's a team game, but it's game-changing stars who propel a sports league to another level. Not contrived propaganda, not over-saturated marketing campaigns or false hype - it was all about capitalizing on the substance of its stars.
Fast forward 30 years to 2014 and the WNBA has Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne -- both big-time stars, who were immediately embraced by ESPN and the league as "the 3 To See" in advance of the 2013 draft.
"Obviously, Brittney and I are completely different players, but you know the whole 3 to See campaign," Delle Donne said during a Sky media conference held yesterday. "It's always a good thing to see us match up again, especially in the Finals. So I think it's just good for the league and hopefully it'll bring some attention."
Despite their obvious differences, what they have in common is that they're both anomalies at their respective positions and fans of any sport have always loved larger than life characters.
"BG", as Griner is called by fans, is a 6-foot-8 tour de force that garnered the attention of America's consciousness as a tenth grader dunking in high school. And then you have "EDD", the 6-foot-5 do everything wing who can play every position on the floor. She has perimeter skill approximating that of Kevin Durant with the inside-outside presence of Dirk Nowitzki -- talk about a rarefied class of talent.
Both Griner and Delle Donne were ranked No. 1 coming out of high school.
Both were McDonald's All-Americans.
Both were first-team All-Americans in college.
Both were part of the 2013 WNBA draft.
Both have reached the WNBA Finals in just their second year.
And both are people that all of America wants to see in women's basketball.
What's so great about this moment for the WNBA is that now with greater appeal than before, so many other sports fans will be exposed to the diversity of talent throughout women's professional basketball.
Many sports fans know about Diana Taurasi, but now they will get to focus on other notable players not truly etched in the minds of the mainstream fan: DeWanna Bonner, Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor from the Mercury.
For the Sky, you have to begin with Sylvia Fowles, the 6-foot-6 center who many argue might be the best overall center in the game. Epiphany Prince is a smooth scoring guard who can put on a scoring barrage in a moment's notice that few can match when she's at her best - many casual basketball fans don't even know that she scored 113 points in a high school game!
With plenty of dynamic talents on both sides, the WNBA has an opportunity to capitalize on the recognizability of two of its biggest young stars.
"There's just pride to see that this league is growing," Delle Donne said. "Every player in this league is so talented, and every year I feel like the talent pool grows, so it's just great to see that."
The Western Conference Finals was one of the highest rated in WNBA history. It featured the aforementioned names from the Mercury as well as the Minnesota Lynx duo of Maya Moore (2014 WNBA MVP) and Seimone Augustus. It showed what great basketball and stars can do -- it can create great theater.
In their Game 2 feature on ABC, the game rated a 0.7 which was 75% more than Game 2 Western Conference Finals in 2012 between the Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks.
In the words of the one and only Terrell Owens, "Get your popcorn ready." Because this has the makings of something special, a great series -- and a golden opportunity for the WNBA, one it's never had in quite the same way before.
For more on the championship series, check out our 2014 WNBA Finals storystream.