With the announcement by Bill Laimbeer of his resignation as the head coach of the Detroit Shock, the WNBA naysayers have been having a field day about how this is the death of the league. Seriously? You’re going there?
I just don’t get why so many are so afraid of the WNBA existing. I really don’t. Is it because the product is better than what the men are able to do? Is it because of the bra vs jock-strap thing? Is it because the women can launch a baby in May and likely be back on the court by July?
You go to just about any news or sports site on the web that reports on the WNBA and in the comments of just about any story about the league you’ll see a vituperative spew about how girls can’t play “real” ball, how the league is a joke, how it’s a den of iniquity populated solely by “those kinds” of women, and blah, blah, blah. It’s amazing, really to see how much effort goes into these misogynistic attacks by men who “don’t care” about the league.
So, it comes as no surprise that 2009 finds itself as being a big-ol’ bulls-eye for these Chicken Littles. First, the Houston Comets folded because the person who acquired the franchise for 2008 couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. It happens. Then the economy nose-dived. Everything got hit. [I know my own budget isn't exactly all smiles and hugs at the moment.] The league has been forced into some difficult realities.
The roster cuts from 13 + 2IR down to 11 with no IR has managed to cushion some of the financial impact of these extraordinary economic times but not remove it entirely. The Mercury and Sparks (and others likely to follow soon) gaining commercial team sponsorships has also helped mitigate some the revenue hits.
Just today a story is up that says that the NBA has been subsidizing the league to the tune of $12 million a year (the source cited is a “payday” loan site, so may be a little dubious). However accurate that is, let’s go with that figure.
Given that many of the teams are still held by NBA owners and that it’s a subsidiary brand of the NBA in any case, that $12 million figure isn’t an outlandish business expense for this sort of enterprise. In fact, it’s just 3.8% of the NBA’s pre-tax profits. (Given that the 2009 NBA salary cap is over $58 million per team, or $1.76 billion for the league, I think the $12 million can be handled.)
As bad as that has been for the league’s image among the clan of anti-WNBAers, three coaching changes have been nothing but manna from heaven. With Don Zierden bolting for an assistant coaching position, Michael Cooper announcing he’ll be leaving at season’s end to be the USC women’s head coach, and Bill Laimbeer resigning because he wants to beg for a coaching job in the NBA, you have a trio of high-profile NBA guys jumping ship… one three days before the season starts, one three games after.
So, the Chicken Littles have come out to announce that the rats are abandoning ship before it sinks all together (apologies for the analogy). Clearly, so the bashing goes, the “brains” of the league are leaving and the NBA credit card is being canceled.
Here’s what I have to say. I honestly don’t know what the financial health of the league is. My sense is, and has always been since dong the calculations of what it would take to own a franchise, that the average team in the WNBA is going to operate $1 million in the red pretty much every year for a while. Some will find profits. Some will have to fold up tent and find more fertile ground to till. It’s the same with any professional league. Owners and coaches come and go. Some locales are more sustaining that others (how long has it been since L.A. had an NFL franchise?).
While I don’t agree with every choice she’s made, I think WNBA President Donna Orender has done a pretty darn good job to this point in keeping the league vital during a very tough economic patch. While I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see the Indiana franchise fold at the end of the season (though I find that the owners saying it costs too much when they have a combined net worth of $4.4 billion to be a little disingenuous), I don’t think that would be a death knell for the league, either.
Context is everything. Being mired in the Great Recession means that business models will have to be modified…for a while. It’s understood. After all, during WWII, the MLB owners created the AAGPBL (honored in A League of Their Own). In tough times, you do what you have to.
As for the coaching skedaddle, I don’t think it hurts the league one bit. Cooper has already left once, so this isn’t exactly a new thing. Zierden never fit with the league. Laimbeer, I think, was as much a liability as he was an asset. While we don’t know what will happen in L.A., I think Minnesota and Detroit will do just fine if not thrive with the coaching changes they’ve made.
But, the sky-is-falling set might add, attendance is down so far this year. Yeah, that’s true. In some places it’s down just a little in the first week (Atlanta gets a bye because the expansion year gets weird attendance numbers). Not everywhere, but a little. Guess what….Great Recession. The WNBA is still a bargain, but it’s also still discretionary spending. I think the numbers are actually a little better than you’d expect and might grow as the summer wears on as the bang-for-the-buck entertainment value is sold in WNBA markets ($8 seat for a fun game versus $10 for yet-an0ther-cookie-cutter summer movie….no contest IMO).
The WNBA is sound. It’s just as simple as that. The WNBA is also evolving, so there is going to be change. Next year, and especially in 2011, I’d expect the league to be thriving once again with full rosters and maybe… just maybe… chartered planes between games (OK, maybe not the planes, but I like to be optimistic). So, Chicken Littles, despite your maniacal cackling, nothing is falling. Sure, here and there a cloud, but the forecast is promising and bright.