JEFF PEARLMAN

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Fool’s Ball

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I enjoy the work of a Slam writer named Ben York. He’s a passionate guy who seems to truly love the WNBA. Which, in and of itself, is cool, because so few guys even have the women’s league on their radar.

A bunch of weeks ago I wrote an SI.com column dumping on the WNBA. York didn’t like it, and he wrote this piece to state his case. I thought Ben made some sound points, and were I as big a WNBA fan as he appears to be, I’d probably utter much of the same (A side note: Writers like Ben cross the line between journalist and fan. Which, I guess, in 2010 is par for the course. But I don’t like it. You’re either covering the league or pimping the league. There’s a difference, and I’m not 100-percent sure Ben sees that. Or, maybe he does see it and doesn’t care. Which is his right).

Anyhow, in a recent Q&A Ben noted that I’d never responded to his initial post. The reason, to be honest, is this: I didn’t know he wanted me to. But he does. So here I go:

Ben York appears to be on drugs. Not crack or cocaine. But some sort of shroom that causes hallucinations and gross errors in judgment and perception. Either that, or he’s been kidnapped by Donna Orender, the WNBA’s commissioner, and hypnotized into the league’s zombie slave. As I already mentioned, this dude loves women’s basketball. Which, apparently, means he feels required to speak up for women’s basketball. Which, apparently, led to his column.

To begin with, I wrote the column because I write columns, and the WNBA is having a season right now. I find it fascinating that, outside of a tiny cocoon of people, nobody cares about the WNBA. Not. At. All. They don’t watch it, they don’t read about it, they don’t even know it’s in season. Guys like Ben York can say, “Look! Ratings are up!” and it doesn’t change the fact that the NBA has sunk millions upon million of dollars into a venture that draws terrible ratings and zero buzz. Or, to put it differently: The WNBA’s best player appears to be Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury—and were she to walk down a street in Manhattan or Chicago or Los Angeles or any major American city wearing her own team’s sweatshirt, one or two out of 100 people would recognize her. On a good day, three. (I’ll do Ben a favor here: Jeff Pearlman says this, but where’s his proof? How can he make such a claim?)

That’s fascinating. And riveting.  A league has been around for 1 1/2 decades, supported and backed by the NBA, and still few show any interest. It’s worthy column material—no question.

Ben York doesn’t like that. He desperately wants the league to succeed, and thinks we should happily consume its myriad stories of high-flying hoops and skinned-knees. So much so that he recites the WNBA’s mantras, probably without thought:

• “The WNBA is actually more profitable than the NBA”—maybe because the WNBA has tiny payrolls; maybe because—in summer—the WNBA can rent otherwise-vacant arena space for fractions of the price; maybe because much of the WNBA expenses are covered by the NBA, a point concealed by both leagues. This is, to be blunt, one of the most inane pro-WNBA points I’ve ever seen. The WNBA’s actual profit wouldn’t even register a blip in the NBA’s logs. It is miniscule beyond miniscule. Yes, if you underpay players and reduce roster size and have the big brother league flip for much of the bill, you’ll make a profit (and while the NBA might not, technically, make a profit as a whole entity, its individual franchises do. Which is the whole point).

• “Compared to the NBA in its first couple of decades the WNBA is leaps and bounds ahead.” Yeah—the NBA was founded in 1946. No TV deal, no internet, limited radio exposure and a game (basketball) still finding itself in America. The WNBA has all the benefits and advantages of the modern NBA. TV commercial, a deal with ESPN, a huge web presence, etc. This is such a poor point that I won’t go on. But it’s complete and total apples and oranges. You’d fail Debate: 101 in about six seconds.

• “I could cite the growing media presence at WNBA games and on the web.” Ugh. The WNBA has one beat writer who travels with a team. One. Not two, not three. One. And, technically, I could cite the growing media presence of anything on the web. KKK fan sites. Sites depicting dog poop. Jeff Pearlman references. As the web grows, so does the presence … of everything.

• “I could reference the attendance numbers in the last couple years as great signs for future league growth.” Really? This one genuinely confuses me. In Washington, the Mystics have done a great job upping attendance in recent years (after a brief sag), and should be applauded. But looking at the official attendance figures, well, York is clearly speaking on behalf of the league, not reality. Atlanta averaged 7,102 last year after averaging 8,316 in 2008. Chicago averaged 3,932 last year—which was a 300-person increase from ’08 … but is still a tiny number of people watching a pro sport. The Connecticut Sun dropped to 6,794 after four-straight years of 7,000-plus. Sacramento, San Antonio and Seattle all lost fans, while the Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx all posted solid gains. At best—at absolute best—I’ll call it a draw. But what York doesn’t mention is the nonstop folding of franchises, with new ones popping up in random cities. Tulsa is probably drawing decently this season, because they’re new and, well, it’s Tulsa. But let’s see two years from now—if the team even exists.

• “Maybe I could go for a more humanistic approach and state how much the WNBA does for their surrounding communities or the example they set for young women. He’d shake that off and tell me it doesn’t matter.” I agree with Ben 100%. I love what the WNBA says to young girls. Love it. And I want the league to do well. I genuinely do, because I love the idea of my daughter seeing empowerment. But I’m not sure that’s what this is. Behind the curtain, it seems like the NBA is propping the whole thing up, screaming “Women unite!” with a phony female voice.

• “What I do know, however, is how unbelievably sorry I am for my niece that there are people like Pearlman still bringing her down as she pursues her basketball career.” Save me the melodrama. Nobody is saying your niece shouldn’t go for it. Nobody says women’s basketball isn’t excellent. What we’re saying—what I’m saying—is that people don’t care about the WNBA, and nothing will change that.

•••

I think Ben is an excellent writer. And he’s right—quoting Debbie Schlussel was really stupid. But if you’re going to be credible, you need to come with more than fake emotion and some half-baked league-supplied statistics. You also need to ask yourself: Do you want to be loved by the people you cover, or do you want to be righteous and on-point?