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The WNBA deserves better

These WNBA playoffs have been extraordinary. The coverage of said playoffs has not.

Sue Bird and the rest of the WNBA's players deserve our attention. Credit: Getty Images
Sue Bird and the rest of the WNBA's players deserve our attention. Credit: Getty Images

While I fully confess recency bias might be at play, allow me to posit this: I truly believe we are witnessing the best WNBA season ever.

In its 22nd year, the top-to-bottom talent level in the WNBA is as elite as its ever been, and the resulting parity in the league has led to drama from the second the 2018 season tipped off back in May. Legends like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have turned back the clock and are playing some of the best basketball of their careers in their late 30s. Stars such as Elena Delle Donne, Liz Cambage, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Britney Griner, and newly-minted MVP Breanna Stewart are coming into their prime, and A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces just completed one of the most dominant rookie seasons in league history.

The excitement has bled straight into the playoffs, where the two semifinal series — between the Atlanta Dream and Washington Mystics, and the Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury — are both tied 2-2 and headed into decisive Game 5s on Tuesday night.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you’ve truly been missing out. And yet, it’s also hard to blame you — the media gives the WNBA such little exposure that it’s easy to miss even the most thrilling storylines and nail-biting games.

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Some of the lack of coverage is owed to the sharp decline in local media in recent years, and some of it is due to missteps by the WNBA. But a lot of it comes down to plain sexism, and the blatant disrespect it begets.

Let’s start by looking at the WNBA’s broadcast partner, ESPN. ESPN pays the WNBA $25 million a year for the right to air its games, so you’d think the network would have a vested interest in promoting the league as much as possible. And yet, on Sunday afternoon, even die-hard WNBA fans who were seeking out the Game 4 semifinal between the Atlanta Dream and Washington Mystics — a game in which 2015 MVP Delle Donne made a miraculous comeback from injury to lead the Mystics over the Dream and force a Game 5 — were left lost and confused.

The game was scheduled to start at 3:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2. And yet, as the top of the hour rolled around, there was more than a full quarter left in the Prairie View vs. N.C. Central football game that was already airing. That game was scheduled to start at 12:00 p.m. ET, meaning ESPN only scheduled three hours for a college football game to finish, an ambitious gamble that proves incorrect more often than not. ESPN refused to boot the game for the WNBA semifinals, citing a regular practice of allowing live sporting events to finish before moving on to the start of others, and so fans were left to track down the Watch ESPN app if they wanted to watch the first half of the game.

I’m all for HBCUs getting national exposure on ESPN. This is not a knock on the air-worthiness of N.C. Central and Prairie View. However, if the WNBA’s broadcast partner doesn’t prioritize the league’s semifinals, how are the casual sports fans the league is hoping to convert into WNBA fans supposed to get the message that this is a sport that they should prioritize?

ESPN has bragged multiple times this season in press releases about how much WNBA ratings have increased. And to its credit, the network has some phenomenal broadcasters working its games — Kara Lawson, Pam Ward, LaChina Robinson, Holly Rowe, Rebecca Lobo, and Ryan Ruocco, are some of the best in the business, and their love for the game is contagious. But that only makes their decision not to properly showcase the game during the most intense and entertaining part of the season even more mind-boggling. On Tuesday night, Game 5 between the Storm and Mercury — which will feature Diana Taurasi on the road in an elimination game (she’s 13-0 in her WNBA career in such games), going against the reigning MVP Stewart and a face-mask wearing Bird and the hostile Seattle crowd — will be relegated to ESPN News and NBA TV, two stations that many people with regular cable packages don’t even get. (And don’t even get me started on the lack of a pre-game and post-game show.)

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Of course, local media is a big part of this equation, too. The Washington Post gets big-time credit for having a beat reporter at every Mystics game, and providing some great, original reporting on the team. But don’t expect the paper or accompanying website to make it easy to find their coverage. On Tuesday, hours before the biggest game in Mystics franchise history, there wasn’t a single story on the home page of the Washington Post Sports website about the Mystics. You couldn’t even find a tab in the navigation bar for the team.

A screenshot of the Washington Post home page at 1:15 p.m. ET on 9/04/18, 7 hours before the Mystics played in Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals.
A screenshot of the Washington Post home page at 1:15 p.m. ET on 9/04/18, 7 hours before the Mystics played in Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals.

 

The Atlanta Journal Constitution gets credit for listing the Atlanta Dream clearly on its sports navigation bar. But, just like the Washington Post, there was no way to look at the front page of their sports vertical midday on Tuesday and have any clue that the Atlanta Dream were playing in a huge game, at home, in just a few hours. Plus, their page on the Dream primarily includes write-ups from the Associate Press.

This week on social media, local news reporter Anthony Amey said that because of high school football, there was no room in the Friday night sports report to mention that the Dream won a semifinal game against the Mystics to take a 2-1 lead. However, he did say that the station would “try to sneak [the Dream] in” if the team made it to the finals. How gracious!

Things are a bit better in Phoenix and Seattle, two cities with long-tenured WNBA teams that have won championships. The Arizona Central has great Mercury beat coverage, but even then I had to scroll pretty far down the sports page to reach any Mercury stories — all fell below this incredibly urgent story: LiAngelo Ball thought Suns would pick him in NBA draft.

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The Seattle Times gets the best marks in this department — their sports homepage featured the Storm vs. Mercury match-up in a featured spot on its website, and the accompanying story and headline clearly showed the stars involved and stakes of such an important game.

Even established teams with superstars have this problem. The Los Angeles Sparks have been one of the best teams in the league for the last few seasons, and have Candace Parker, one of the most popular female athletes on the planet, on their roster. And yet, this season the Los Angeles Times only came to six home games all season. For the rest, they relied on AP wire reports. And the reporter they sent was an intern. Bill Plaschke, the Times’ star columnist, wrote an tear-jerker of a column two years ago about how he had marginalized the late Pat Summitt’s greatness and did a disservice to women’s basketball by failing to provide the sport with proper attention.

“Many of the ensuing glowing tributes and testimonies for Summitt were offered by media members who, like me, had never taken the time to actually watch her coach,” Plaschke wrote. “Her death is a message that, even in a country with the world’s greatest female athletes, the fight to recognize the strength and soul of their endeavor is ongoing, and a fight that must be won.”

Plaschke attended one Sparks game all summer.

Now, look. I already know what the response is going to be. ESPN gets better ratings for college football games, even from smaller schools, so of course it prioritizes that. Local newspaper reporters are spread thin, and due to the nature of the internet and the industry, the small group of reporters employed at these papers have to chase clicks. That means covering the teams and leagues and stars that already have a built-in base, thanks to the lengthy head start that men’s pro sports have had over women’s sports in our society. Plus, the WNBA and its team can make it so difficult for reporters, thanks to sparse and overworked public relations departments, grueling schedules, and head-scratching timing on press releases. Gosh, even some owners of WNBA teams seem like they don’t care about their own teams.

All of that is true. But I’m also tired of hearing excuses, from all sides, all the time.

I’ve been a sports fan for as long as I can remember. I used to have SportsCenter on repeat after school while I did my homework in middle school and high school. I wasn’t a die-hard fan of every sport, but because I watched as many Around the Horn episodes as any human should healthy consume, I tuned in for all of the biggest games, and did enough research to form opinions on all of the biggest debate topics. I loved it all. But nobody on these shows, as far as I can remember, ever told me how great women’s basketball was.

But I didn’t become a big WNBA fan until I moved to Washington. D.C. three years ago and started covering the Mystics. Until I was exposed to the sport enough to start seeking out coverage, and covering it more myself. I am sad for younger me, that I didn’t have this league in my life sooner. I would have spent so much money on tickets and jerseys; I would have told so many people about it. But nobody told me about it, first.

The problem here is bigger than any one columnist or newspaper or network. It’s not going to be simple to fix. But that’s not an excuse not to try. Because these women deserve better. And so do those people out there who would be WNBA fans, if only they were exposed to the sport.