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League Must Look Beyond Male Support

Despite what those very funny ESPN commercials would have us believe, sensitive men are in short supply.

Always have been; always will be.

That is reason No. 1 why the people behind the WNBA had better be telling the truth about being in business for the long haul. Because if they’re planning on selling women’s basketball to men, it’s going to be a very long haul.

The WNBA tips off Saturday with eight teams playing a 28-game schedule. It ends with a four-team, single-elimination playoff in August. In between, the league will get an unprecedented amount of attention. Thanks to the marketing muscle of its big brother and owner-operator, the NBA, there will be three nationally televised games a week, signature sneaker wars (Nike’s “Air Swoopes” vs. Reebok’s “The Lobo”) and whatever other promotional tie-ins major sponsors such as Sears and GM come up with.

The WNBA people are smart enough to set the bar low. Projected attendance this season is 4,000 a game. But if the measure of its success ever becomes big crowds and bigger bucks, then the WNBA’s slogan - “We got next!” - will be little more than an ironic postscript for the fifth failed attempt to launch a women’s pro basketball league since the mid-1970s. Nobody needs that. But unless women turn out in numbers, that is what they will get.

The truth is that men won’t support the league anytime soon. The ESPN ads feature a group of women’s basketball groupies, but most women will tell you, there aren’t enough of the “beefy boys,” “meaty men” and “stud muffins” to go around. Maybe not even enough to meet the league’s modest attendance and television ratings targets.

If, on the other hand, the league is prepared to live as a modest enterprise - a place to aspire to, a showplace for the best talent the gender can muster, a source of cheap programming, a kind of vacation relief for basketball junkies - then it might be what women’s sports in the U.S. needs.

Think about it. The best thing about men’s pro sports isn’t the relative handfuls of unhappy millionaires who play the games or own them. It’s the dramatic moments they produce that millions of boys used to carry out to asphalt squares and green diamonds to try to reproduce.

How powerful those tableaus can be. Barely two weeks ago, Utah’s John Stockton fired a pass almost the length of the court to Karl Malone to win Game 4 of the NBA Finals. A few days later, Michael Jordan climbed out of a sick bed and played one of his most inspirational games.

Every day since, in suburban park-district gyms and on innercity playgrounds, kids chucked long passes at teammates breaking away, hissing “Stockton to Malone” under their breath. Or they drove the lane, tongue stuck out, the ball held at full extension, screaming “Jordan!”

What’s changed is that more and more, some of those kids are girls. Girls are already enjoying the benefits of playing: getting into shape and staying fit, dealing with the evil twins competition and cooperation, learning how best to deploy them and when.

What a stable women’s pro sports league in this country would do is provide a place for the very best to continue that education. For the rest, it might liven up a slow game or enliven the occasional daydream, much as it has for boys throughout this century. If the reality is that women are paid less, that they have to hustle and market and entertain more for the same dollar, that’s a lesson that applies to the rest of the world, too.

Change has to begin somewhere. A league of their own is not a bad place for women to begin.

Tags: Commentary