Not the Only Game in Town

June 05, 2009

The NBA finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic started last night, but the NBA isn’t the only game in town. Saturday, June 6, marks the WNBA’s 13th season opener between the Los Angeles Sparks and the champion Detroit Shock to be aired on network television.

Official WNBA logoThe most some people know about the WNBA is the on-court brawl that broke out between these two teams last season. While video of the fight constantly played across broadcast news and the Internet, I was taken aback to hear commentators and writers say that the fight was the best thing that could have happened to the league. Not only was the exposure seen as immeasurable, but one LA Times columnist wrote, “It is a good thing because it forces us to think about the ways we perceive female athletes — and the way female athletes perceive themselves.” Words like “passion,” “competitiveness,” and “fierceness” were used to describe the players in the heat of the fight, comparing them to their male counterparts. These gender stereotypes are reminiscent of the language being used to describe Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor: tough women = negative; tough (like) men = positive.

Thankfully the WNBA has reclaimed these words and is showing innovation as it fights to sustain itself on and off the court and to reach audiences in new ways. According to the 2008 Racial and Gender Report Card, the WNBA earned top marks for its percentage of women in executive and management positions. Former WNBA player and commentator Rebecca Lobo was the first sports commentator to formally integrate tweets into live television coverage last season and is now joined by other analysts. Each week the WNBA conducts interviews on Twitterview Thursday allowing fans to tweet questions and connect with the players. Also, the WNBA recently announced that more than 200 games will be webcast worldwide for free on WNBA LiveAccess. With 52 percent of WNBA players playing overseas during the off season, this unprecedented access will allow international fans to continue to follow their favorite players.

Of course, things are not all sunshine and roses for the league. Some of the same issues facing women in the wider workplace also impact WNBA players. Since its inception, five franchises including the four-time champion Houston Rockets have folded and two teams have relocated. The minimum team salary cap for the WNBA is $772,000 (around the minimum for an NBA player), and players earn an average salary of $32,000. In addition, rosters on the remaining teams have been cut to 11 players, reducing an already tight job market by 20 percent. It’s no wonder so many players go overseas during the off-season to increase their earning power. Also, the decision by players to become mothers is often met with disdain. Just as fellow LA Sparks veteran Lisa Leslie faced questions about her loyalty to the team in 2007 after missing the season on maternity leave, 2008 Rookie of the Year and MVP Candace Parker is now facing the same scrutiny after delivering a baby girl this past May. The Huffington Post writes about Leslie’s experience,

“How sad is that? She was 35 years old and married. She had given the previous decade to helping keep the WNBA alive and being a glowing ambassador for women’s professional sports. But she had to account for the most personal of decisions and be concerned that she was somehow letting down her fellow athletes.”

In its relatively short history, the WNBA has consistently fostered advances for women in sports and delivered on the opportunities made possible by Title IX. Just this spring alone we’ve seen the launch of the Women’s Professional Soccer league and the National Pro Fastpitch softball league. I just hope that these leagues are able to grow and prosper along with the WNBA. A tweet by @Trueballer11 gives me hope for the future of the league: “love the WNBA commercial it reassures me where i want to be in some years!!!!!” Personally, I’ll “Expect Great” this season and look forward to watching for years to come.

By:   |   June 05, 2009

2 Comments

  1. Sandy Kirkpatrick says:

    Thanks for the terrific article. An AAUW friend and I plan to spend tomorrow at the Arco Arena in Sacramento, watching the season opener between the Monarchs and the Seattle Storm, directly supporting the players. I am so impressed with these women — their athleticism, their work in their communities, and the way they are blazing trails for young women who are looking to balance their aspirations as professional athletes with a personal life. The men in the NBA would do well to learn from their sisters in the WNBA! The fight you mentioned from last season may be what many people remember, but it was an aberration in a league where the women have consistently shown that they could be fiercely competitive and classy at the same time.

    Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if players of both genders earned the same pay? Something higher for the women, and something less absurdly grandiose for the men, perhaps?

  2. clarkp says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Sandy. I couldn’t attend a season-opener this weekend, but hope to see the Mystics against the Sparks in July. My husband is a Tina Thompson fan and we attend several games each season. Unlike some other professional sporting events, we feel confident of the family-friendly environment at WNBA games and take advantage of it when we can.

    I, too, hope that women athletes across the sports spectrum can someday expect and demand better salaries. Additional stats about the the pay gap in professional sports (on and off the field/court), are available from the Because I Played Sports. blog

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