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Daily Swish: The WNBA Finals, 3 to see, TV ratings, and reactions to Ray Rice

During the process of compiling a list of links for today, I ended up sort of stringing points together into one extended commentary that encompasses the whole of my thinking about the events of the sports world yesterday. Still broken into bullets to highlight the work of others while weaving in my thoughts.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
  • Jeff Pearlman of the Medium wrote an article about his frustrations with the WNBA -- but not women's basketball generally - in light of not even realizing the Finals were happening until seeing a score on ESPN's ticker.

    Personally, I think his piece is worth your time to read - this isn't one of those WNBA hit pieces where he just randomly attacks the league and the idea of women playing sports. He professes his "looooove" of women's hoops and made a very targeted critique that echoes what I've heard from other people in and around the game. But one part really stood out, especially in light of what M Robinson wrote about the "golden opportunity" of the 2014 WNBA Finals the other day:

    Any other league would have built its entire marketing campaign around Griner and Delle Donne. They should be the women's equivalent of Magic and Bird entering the NBA together in 1979; of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper debuting simultaneously as Major League rookies. There should be ads and posters and YouTube videos and more YouTube videos and more YouTube videos. The WNBA could have created its own Dan & Dave-esque narrative. Brittney and Elena playing chess. Then Pac-Man. Then hopscotch. Then Horse. Then ...

    As it turns out, that's exactly what the league did. Or, sort of: the WNBA and ESPN actually went further than just building the league's campaign around Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner.

    They actually built a marketing campaign around Delle Donne, Griner, and 2014 All-Star Skylar Diggins that began the day of the draft lottery in 2012, continued through the entire 2012-13 NCAA season, and never lost steam until basketball fans could no longer see any of the three once Diggins' Tulsa Shock were headed back to the lottery, the Sky flamed out in the first round and the Lynx swept the Mercury in the Western Conference Finals last year.

    We might've mentioned that campaign around here once or twice or maybe you heard about it elsewhere: it was called "3 to see". And it didn't really end last year, though it didn't permeate every single down moment of every single broadcast in quite the same way.

  • WNBA president Laurel Richie made mention of the 3 to see campaign in her pre-Finals press conference on Sunday, which you can find the full transcript for at Jayda Evans' blog for the Seattle Times.

    "While Skylar [Diggins] is not here, I would include the "3 to See." She had a spectacular season as well," Richie said in response to a question about what Delle Donne and Griner have brought into the league. "And I think we have seen the same attention from Brittney and from Elena to not only arrive as perhaps the most heralded rookie class in WNBA history, but with one season under their belt, each one of them did incredible work in the offseason to take them up to the level necessary to be competitive in the WNBA. And I think we as fans have benefited from their offseason work."

    And Richie is absolutely right about that being the most heralded class ever, which is probably not hyperbolic in light of how long they pushed that campaign -- even casual basketball fans have heard those names. Pop superstars Drake and Lil Wayne have been known to sport Skylar Diggins jerseys. Outspoken NBA owner Mark Cuban said he thought about drafting Griner. Delle Donne was on the Bachelorette, for Chrissakes!

    But I'm actually not writing this to call out Pearlman for an oversight. Instead, I think his complaint is telling and valid: how did that campaign for "the most heralded rookie class in WNBA history" not make an impression on someone who says he has followed women's basketball for two decades?

    Something is wrong there -- very wrong. And, as I alluded to above, Pearlman is not the only one to express a frustration with the league.

  • Consider that our own M Robinson wrote just the other day that he doesn't even cover the league anymore in favor of paying more attention to the NCAA. And, in contrast to Pearlman, he actually identified the opposite problem with the WNBA's marketing strategy: "... it's game-changing stars who propel a sports league to another level. Not contrived propaganda, not over-saturated marketing campaigns or false hype."

    To Pearlman's point about frustration with the league and Robinson's point of the league struggling to gain any traction, Paulsen of Sports Media Watch reports that "a move from cable to broadcast could not help the WNBA Finals weather NFL competition" as Game 1 aired on ABC on Sunday and, despite two of the 3 to see starting, quickly turned into a game hardly worth watching if you weren't already wrapped up in football hype.

  • It's difficult to imagine Game 2 faring much better after the Chicago Sky inspired so little confidence in their ability to compete in this series with or without Delle Donne, who was unable to participate in physical activity in yesterday's practice due to ongoing back issues, according to Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune -- once again, a player we want to see might not be seen.

    Nobody who criticized the 3 to see campaign was saying that Delle Donne, Diggins and Griner weren't good - they were obviously good and the obvious top three picks of that draft. The problem was that 3 to see felt like the latest of a string of supposed saviors that fans are asked to buy into every 2-3 years. And, worse, when they weren't immediately "game-changing stars", the marketing assault didn't leave much of a contingency plan: Delle Donne was great, but missed the All-Star Game, Griner struggled out of the gate (as her entire team struggled and eventually fired its coach mid-season), and Diggins won the 2014 WNBA Most Improved Player award because she just wasn't very good in 2013.

    The saviors didn't really "save the league" right away as promised to fans, the league went on its standard 7-8 month absence from public consciousness, and then whatever momentum there was from the 3 to see was diminished - not gone, but diminished.

    And the key question in Pearlman's piece was still left unanswered: why is this league worth your time? And you could extend that by asking, why is the league worth your time if it's giving you a new reason for it to be worth your time every 2-3 years?

  • I know the answer to that question for me: I initially became a fan of the WNBA because of a commitment to social justice broadly, an academic interest in the power of having different representations of black women in the media, and a feeling that feminism - in its strongest, most empowering form, as articulated by Farah Tanis and Aishah Shahidah Simmons at Feminist Wire just the other day - is necessary, contrary to the growing belief that we don't need feminism. "Sports feminism", as one might call it, is fundamentally interesting to me as a fan, recovering academic, and human being on Earth.

    And that's especially true right now in the light of the NFL's handling of the Ray Rice situation.

  • Marcus Thompson of the San Jose Mercury News wrote one of the most resonant pieces I read (as a black male blogging about women's basketball) about Ray Rice yesterday. Not because he piled on Rice, the Baltimore Ravens, the NFL, or commissioner Roger Goodell - those are the easy targets, the boogiemen that all other men (and politicians) can point at to feel like they're the good guys. What I appreciated instead is that Thompson took a very personal look at the situation as a man in society and focused on a culture -- in sports and beyond -- that casually dismisses women as inferior, consistently devalues women, and tries to find fault with a woman for her role in being knocked unconscious in one video before suddenly being outraged by a second that led up to it.

    Thompson called for athletes to use their public platform to " young men understand the inhumanity of abusing women. And help young women understand they have so much more worth than incidents like this suggest." I happen to think of the WNBA -- and the very presence of other women's sports in the public -- as one small yet important component of that equation as a way to create images of women being capable, powerful, and worth more than being consumed as passive objects or props for male sexual satisfaction. Never will I claim that watching sports is sufficient to creating social change, but as people like Thompson and (more routinely) Dave Zirin describe, sports can be an important platform or vehicle to at least spread the message.

    Thompson's point is why I held up Shock All-Star Glory Johnson's public service announcement about domestic violence as so important. Given the circumstances, it would be nice if someone could take the ad and put a more national frame around it. But this is also not about individual female heroes saving the world for individual female victims, but a collective effort to contributing to a change in culture by changing the narrative of limits and possibilities for women.

    And yet, despite all of that, I also know that "sports feminism" is absolutely not compelling to others - look no further than thousands of people giving a man who knocked his fiancee unconscious a standing ovation and media members going out of their way to minimize that man's culpability. People usually don't watch sports as a site of resistance, but as escapist entertainment that temporarily frees them from the concerns of the "real world" (as silly as that is when racism, sexism, homophobia, and other such evils seem to keep rearing their, just this week...maybe even just yesterday alone). It might be totally cool to head to a MLK Hoopsfest for a day enjoyable basketball, but most people won't head to a sporting event primarily to support a social justice cause.

    With the Bird and Magic narrative that Pearlman and Robinson (and many others) have invoked, it's not like there was just marketing sorcery that fooled people into paying attention - what made that "work" is that they were winners, immediately and consistently. There was no waiting through coaching changes, injury, or poor performance - it was a relatively quick sell for a league that needed a jolt. It eventually became a can't-miss, trans-atlantic, racially-charged must-see sports programming and you had to pick a side in the rivalry. It made the experience of watching basketball fun, which laid the foundation for some guy named Jordan to really take the league to new heights.
  • For whatever reason, the WNBA hasn't managed to capture the sports world's imagination. Everyone loves to throw out suggestions, derision, or derisive suggestions, but there isn't just one magic bullet here. I hear from people who support the league in the abstract but don't like basketball, basketball fans who complain about the lack of creativity in X's and O's, and statistically-oriented people who wonder why on earth media and fans are holding up sub-40% shooters as great players. People are constantly monitoring attendance numbers, discussing missed opportunities, and trying to force claims of parity during a season that was decidedly mediocre (due in no small part to injuries) despite the Mercury's considerable success and Maya Moore's MVP season. But at the same time, I also hear from NBA fans who give the league a shot for the first time and are surprised by just how good the product is, wherein I believe the solution lies: there are some fans who, for whatever reason, the league just isn't going to reach, but there are plenty who do decide to give it a shot and might be willing to stick around. The key question is what it will take to grab and sustain that type of fan's attention and simply give them a good time for their money. Part of the answer is to give those folks time to come to the game and to remain secure in the fact that they'll appreciate the quality of the players who are already there for exactly what they are instead of what The Next Big Thing could be. The other part, as Pearlman suggests, is to persuade people that it's worth their time to stick around.