Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why, NBA?

Good afternoon. I'd like to take a moment today, for no particular reason, to examine the Women's National Basketball league, because I think it needs to go. I want the NBA to cut their losses and give up on the thing. I'll follow that politically-incorrect point with the usual disclaimers:

-Women can be great athletes
-This isn't one of those "I could play basketball better than those girls" types of things
-I like women

What I'm concerned about is business and the state of the NBA. You see, I think that the NBA's fall in sales, ratings, and success has little to do with scoring, the retirement of Michael Jordan, the need for rule changes, or any other stupid ideas. There are plenty of fun, exciting teams to watch these days, and that has been the case for the last ten years (the Kings being a good example). The NBA has always been fine the way it is.

I think the problem is the massive amount of money that is being spent (and not recouped) on the WNBA, which the NBA props up as its massive charity project. There are a number of reasons why this is quite, quite stupid:

1. There was no need for a professional women's basketball league to advance women's basketball at the time the WNBA was created.

2. Women's sports does not need a professional league to appeal to fans; in fact, the WNBA dilutes the sport and makes its fan base less healthy.

3. It's the money, stupid; the WNBA makes no money and its players get screwed to further the NBA Board of Governors' social agenda, while at the same time sucking millions of dollars away from the NBA.

4. The result the NBA's money loss is overly-creative business practices that backfire and hurt professional basketball. Most notable is the big-money, low-volume TV contract the NBA signed with ABC, ESPN, and TNT, but the dress-code hijinks and constant rule changes to increase viewership are other examples.

The first issue is that the NBA didn't need to create its own women's league because there already was one: the ABL. Both leagues arose out of the popularity achieved by the United States women's basketball team when they won a gold medal in the Sydney Olympics.

The ABL had a higher quality of play and paid its players more. Unfortunately, it couldn't compete with an organization that was able to lose money without consequences, and died after two solid years. It probably would have been fine on its own, and I don't see why the NBA had to hone in on its act.

It's quite silly that a league that could have succeeded was killed by the political toy of the NBA. If women's professional basketball was meant to be, why did it have to be under the auspices of the NBA?

I'm not against women's basketball, but I am against the NBA propping it up like it's some kind of collective concern. What is this, China? The ABL should have been left alone to succeed or fail on its own merit.

My second point is that despite the potential the ABL showed, there's no need for a professional women's league at all. The WNBA's terrible ratings and lackluster attendance prove this.

I don't mean to slight women's basketball here, but there are two formats in which it is more enjoyable: the Olympics and the NCAA. Women's basketball is very different than men's because of the different way players develop; Men generally develop physically and change their games as they progress from college to professional ball, whereas women are often the same, developmentally, in the pros. That's not to say they don't get better at basketball, but you don't tend to see examples of change like this:


As you can see, Larry Johnson got a lot bigger and more muscular when he went to the NBA. Women don't do this sort of thing. That's why it's more fun to watch them in college, playing at institutions that really give a damn, that pack the houses, and that have complex and interesting histories and motivations that give games depth that a fan can really enjoy. (Losing pro basketball in America if it failed to sustain itself would not hurt post-collegiate women's players. They can make good money in Europe, Brazil, and Australia, where there are many venues for professional women's basketball.)

The place that post-collegiate players are fun to watch isn't the WNBA, but the Olympics. There, representing America, the stellar play our girls exhibit means a great deal to the average fan, much the way Olympic Soccer does. College and Olympic basketball mean something. The WNBA doesn't.

WNBA believers would counter this point by saying the WNBA will build a history and it will mean more the same way college and Olympic basketball do. I disagree with that statement, because I believe the WNBA dilutes fan interest by taking interest away from the more accessible and fun NCAA games and embarrassing its own players. I don't think the overexposure of women's basketball on television is a good thing because the quality of play makes it better in small doses. I have legitimately enjoyed watching Diana Taurasi play at UConn in some of the thrillers of her career but I have never enjoyed one moment of WNBA action.

More offensively, the WNBA demeans the women's game with its recent sexually-based marketing tactics. Constrained by the limits of decency that go along with sports in America, players are shown in form-fitting dresses and that sort of thing, intending to get fans motivated in the same way that showcasing the players in thongs would. I don't want to get too political here, but I think it's a bit embarrassing for women that women's professional sports needs this sort of thing to market itself. I say it dilutes the sport because NCAA and Olympic basketball got along fine without it, without making its players look ridiculous. (The ad campaign, by the way, flopped, and has been passed over. Diana Taurasi on the campaign: "Whew. I'm glad that's finally over. I understand the theory behind it-that we're trying to appeal to a demographic outside of lesbians and our relatives-but it was just a bad idea. We're not that sexy. Some of us are cute in a tomboy-ish kind of way. Some of us are even sort of pretty. But let's face it, we're not the cast of Melrose Place and we never will be. We're just a bunch of jocks...I'm happy to promote the league any way I can. I travel all over the country trying to attract fans to the game. But I'm not really interested in posing in a goddamn strapless evening gown with my boobs taped up and my face covered in makeup. That's not who I am, which is kind of ironic, since the slogan in our new ad campaign is "This is who I am.") That really says it all, doesn't it?

My third point has to with the treatment of the players. Besides the demeaning campaign mentioned above, the league's poor performance is taken out on the players, who have no other venue to go to that is convenient. Can you imagine being on national television every season but getting paid less than $42,000? That's what's going to happen to you in the WNBA, where the rookies earn $30,000 a year and have their salary capped at $42,000 until they've played for more than three years? Player's union? Uh, no, thanks.

Meanwhile, the executives who manage this crappy idea and who helped drive away the only league that had a potential for profit are making out like bandits. The highest paid player in the WNBA makes $90,000.

If this isn't a clear indicator that something is financially crazy about this league, I don't know what is. Which brings me to my last point: The WNBA loses $12 million dollars a year. Considering the way salaries in the NBA are, this might seem paltry but it's important to remember an important rule about the NBA: almost every owner is an asshole.

When NBA teams blow $100 million on a contract, it's a calculated attempt to generate income, and it pays off more often than not. That's the reason that despite their terrible play and seemingly idiotic financial deals the Knicks are still the most valuable team in the league (according to Forbes). Losing money isn't a big deal when the bigger picture is making money.

That's not what's going on with the WNBA. It just loses money. I don't think the cumulative effect of having an extra $12 million would change the NBA at all, but I think that spending so much time (the NBA had to invest considerable time to set up the league, and each team is generally owned by its NBA affiliate, who must put in a ton of time organizing) on this valueless product is causing the NBA to become overly concerned with the profitability of its own league.

I believe that the WNBA's failure was a big reason that the NBA decided to get rid of its NBC contract and move to ABC/ESPN, which signaled the beginning of a long decline for the league. The NBA tried to make marquee games by showing less triple-headers (which I used to love, by the way), and has tried all this dress-code/Justin Timberlake/Skills competition marketing bullshit and shoved it down our throats.

The NBA should cut off the tumor that is the WNBA and start concentrating on its own long-term quality again. When this happens, perhaps owners will come to their senses and demand that more games are shown on prime-time network television where legions of middle class sports fans and young people can be reached. Perhaps the camera angles will get better. Perhaps Marv Albert can get hired back to do Knick games.

I think women's professional basketball deserves a chance to succeed, but outside the sphere of the NBA. If there really is enough demand for it, a league could succeed, because lord knows there are a ton of female athletes who are willing to travel across the country and work long hours for nothing just to see their sport recognized on a national professional stage.

All I really want is for the NBA to do what the NFL, MLB, and NHL do: concentrate on trying to make their league as appealing to fans as it can possibly be. All those leagues, when able to avoid strikes, have improved their relationships with fans (even the NHL is adopting rules-changes that will make it more fun to watch). The NBA needs to employ this same focused concentration, and exercise better control over the finished product that comes into the living rooms of America.

As it stands right now, the NBA is like General Motors: they've acquired one too many small affiliates and lost focus on the thing that matters: quality. The General's answer to its problems was to come up with hocus-pocus marketing and shitty car designs like the Pontiac Aztek designed to appeal to "new consumer bases" and "the untapped gen-y market" and shit like that. Now they're losing a market position they held for 80 years.

The NBA's strategy is hauntingly similar, as anyone who has observed the transition from NBC can tell. I'm calling for a return to basics for the NBA. Let's get it started.

As always, e-mail me at dontgiveupthebasketballblog@gmail.com

7 comments:

MattG21 said...

word up...why the hell didn't the NBA just buy the ABL instead of being dicks about it?...Incurring losses solely to put the other guy out of business is pretty much illegal -- though in this circumstance it's probably kosher. Nonetheless -- lame.

MattG21 said...

oh...and I would rather watch 8th grade boys basketball than the WNBA -- though it's pretty much the same thing.

Offseason said...

I agree that the WNBA has problems, but the idea that it is distracting the NBA from being all that it could be is absurd. You don't think that the WNBA has its own executives and employees? You don't think that the NBA delegates the WNBA marketing to different people? The people whose job it is to be concerned with the long-term profitability of the NBA are no less into their jobs because the WNBA exists.

JimmyValente said...

I think that the WNBA is the most prominent example of the NBA's desire to market basketball based on outside factors - culture, etc.

While I don't think WNBA teams actually waste the time of any NBA executives, I do think they exemplify a philosophy that is damaging to the NBA. It's the same philosophy that leads to all these stupid dance teams, halftime shows, and Bill Walton.

The NBA is a men's professional basketball league and they should concentrate on men's professional basketball. I realize that marketing is necessary, but I think trying to globalize basketball, appeal to different demographics, etc., is being pushed so far that it isn't natural anymore. That's what I think hurts the NBA.

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