Talking WNBA all year round, in-season as well as off-season, has historically been a dilemma the majority-male mainstream sports media have wrestled with since the pro women’s basketball league came on board over 20 years ago. We asked Cathy Engelbert, the league’s first commissioner, how she might use her “bully pulpit” to finally help erase the above chauvinistic sports media practice.
“We need broad-based support, so thank you for your coverage, and please continue to profile the amazing stories of our highly talented, community-minded and socially conscious players,” Engelbert stressed during her All-Star Game pregame media conference in Las Vegas last month.
However, the commish’s response came in front of the W media choir, those of us who regularly cover the league — some of us for its entire 23-year existence. We know how important, how interesting, and how involved the players are. We also know that their stories could easily fill daily sports pages and sports talk rundowns from coast to coast, if only given its full gender-balanced due.
By now the WNBA should be fully accepted as a major league sport that has, like a Barry White song, staying power. Instead, we still see the league treated like an aberration, a brief pause before most sports media can go back to endlessly talking men’s sports. As a result, talking W often is relegated to occasional sports blips.
“There is great momentum around the W right now,” Engelbert continued. Still, we ask this simple question: Since the NBA, like other pro leagues, is always talked about every day of the year, why doesn’t the WNBA get similar treatment?
Free agency: It literally takes place a few days after the NBA Finals and is oft-discussed all year long. The WNBA free agency occurs in February, nearly four to five months after its league finals, and such discussion is virtually nonexistent.
Draft: The W draft is three rounds and usually takes place in April, right after the college basketball season concludes and right before training camp begins. Do you know who this year’s number-one pick was? Have you heard of Jackie Young?
No? But you probably know this year’s NBA top pick, Zion Williamson, who was predicted and talked about even before he played a college game.
Also, WNBA draft night coverage is unfairly split between two ESPN channels — the first round on one, and the remaining rounds on another. Yet the two-round NBA draft is broadcast solely on one channel, with endless pre-draft and post-draft coverage on television and radio.
On-court and off-court incidents: Fights in basketball are rare and even rarer in women’s hoops. The fight that took place in the fourth quarter of the August 10 Dallas-Phoenix contest resulted in the ejections of six players, including Phoenix’s Brittney Griner.
But little was discussed on the cause, and even less on Griner’s comments about it, including how punishment would be handed (she got a three-game suspension while others got less) and how this would influence her future in the league.
The same goes for domestic abuse incidents and players getting DWIs — it happens in men’s sports regularly, but some coverage makes it seem like an epidemic in women’s hoops.
“We do have a golden opportunity, I think, to really keep the conversation going year-round because of this inflection point around women’s leadership and women’s sports,” Engelbert’s responded to my question asked in Vegas. “I need your help in telling our stories, keeping the conversation going.”
Too bad she didn’t realize that she is talking to a card-carrying member of the choir.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.