Mainstream media still treat the WNBA like a novelty

Britney Griner is mugged on a regular basis according to her teammates. Arizona Republic photo.

Brittney Griner of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and Dallas Wings rookie Kristine Anigwe got into a big-time skirmish after some extended  bumping and pushing under the basket last Saturday night. Griner, who teammate Diana Taurasi says is constantly getting punched and held because of her size and strength, clearly had had enough. She attempted to chase Anigwe down the court; it took several players and an official to hold her back. Luckily, Anigwe decided retreating was the best strategy or else it could have gotten really ugly.

The New York Times, USA Today, and the national TV networks all gave the incident —which led to six ejections and suspensions — major attention. That the Wings came from behind after Griner’s exit was not even mentioned in the USA Today story (Well they did mention the score). The coverage was all about the personalities involved, with the video getting lots of hits throughout the next few days.

What this suggests is that the mainstream media still only covers the WNBA — a 23-year-old league— when fights break out, when someone gets arrested, or when an enterprising reporter decides to explore why the league still isn’t making money.

Instead, the media should be using this opportunity to shine a broader light on the ongoing issues that WNBA players say need to be addressed, such as subpar officiating, better working conditions, and fair pay.

This incident, after all, shows that in the WNBA,  just as in the NBA, the players are so talented and the stakes so high, that the game is much more physical than even in the highest levels of women’s college basketball.  Just as Megan Rapinoe’s brashness brought boatloads of attention to U.S. women’s soccer, Britney Griner’s  outburst could be seen as a metaphor, an insistence that players deserve to be taken seriously.

Griner says she is fed up with the subpar officiating and is thinking seriously of not playing in the WNBA next year. According to the Arizona Republic, the 6-7, six-time All Star and WNBA scoring leader is making close to the maximum $115,000 salary this season. She makes more than a million dollars playing in Russia after the WNBA season ends. Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi played exclusively overseas in 2015, getting a $200,000 bonus from UMMC, a team funded by the second-largest copper mining business in Russia, NOT to play in the WNBA.

Whether the Russian and European leagues make any money doesn’t really seem to be an issue. Most of the teams are funded in part by local governments and often backed by corporations who willingly pay the big salaries to international stars  to draw publicity and to promote their brands. Here in the U.S., however, the WNBA is under constant scrutiny and success is measured by the ability to turn a profit, along with the ability to generate buzz and attention from the media.

For most of the league’s first 20 years, WNBA players were patient and understanding of the need to build the league before rewarding players financially. But they have begun to complain that the league could do more to market itself and to treat its players more professionally. Last year, the Las Vegas Aces forfeited a game after it took 25 hours of travel to get from Las Vegas to Washington because of cancellations and flight delays. The team didn’t check into its hotel until four hours before game time and voted not to play because they were so exhausted and feared for their health and safety.

The WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) has voted to renegotiate its contract with the WNBA after this season. Working conditions are an important topic. And while they are not looking to make NBA salaries, they do believe the league must make their pay scales comparable to those of European teams, which would help keep WNBA players from having to play year round.

Perhaps in anticipation of these demands, the WNBA does seem to be ramping up its marketing and perhaps turning the corner in terms of visibility. Leading the way are the Las Vegas Aces, who moved from San Antonio where they’d been the San Antonio Stars for 11 years. The glitz of the Mandalay Bay Events Center and the marketing savvy of their new owners, MGM Resorts International, right away gained the team some media attention. The Aces hosted the annual WNBA All-Star game this year and made it an all-weekend party, which many in the media obviously appreciated.

In addition, WNBA games are getting easier to find on TV this season. In years past, ESPN was the only outlet for watching the WNBA, and coverage was hit or miss to say the least. Every game this season can be found either on ESPN2, CBS Sports Network or NBA TV. In addition, many local TV stations are carrying WNBA games. NESN in Boston, the Red Sox and Bruins station, carries two or three Connecticut Suns games per week.

The Athletic, a subscription-based website/app devoted to 24-hour sports coverage, is also covering the WNBA this year. The publication has a stringer responsible for each WNBA team, tasked with filing stories each week that go beyond game results. According to Hannah Withiam, the editor in charge of the new effort says, “We felt it was the right time for us as a company to launch WNBA coverage the way we wanted to, with on-the-ground reporting of all 12 teams and the league as a whole.” Withiam says response from subscribers has been positive. (That’s not to say you can’t find comments from neanderthal trolls who say the WNBA shouldn’t even exist below some stories)

Molly Yanity, a freelance writer and journalism professor, is the The Athletic’s stringer for the Connecticut Sun. She thinks The Athletic’s decision was a smart one, timing wise.

“Right now there are some real dynamic personalities that are attractive to a lot of different demographics,” she says, adding, “(The WNBA) is always going to be a niche market but I think having them cover it brings some professionalism to the coverage.”

In other words, perhaps the time is right for the mainstream media to treat the WNBA as a legitimate professional league —  covering it on a regular basis — not just when fights break out,

 

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