Fool’s Ball


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 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?

26 thoughts on “Fool’s Ball”

  1. fantastic piece, Jeff.
    spot on.

    I loved this line from his original column: “Bashing the WNBA generates pageviews.”

    on what planet?????

    on the list of “Top 5 Things You Can Try That Will NEVER NEVER NEVER EVER IN A MILLION YEARS GENERATE PAGEVIEWS,” talking in any form about the WNBA is easily top 3.

  2. Jeff, given the choice I’d watch a girls high school basketball game over an NBA game and probably a boys high school or college game.

    Same with womens college basketball.

    I’m not much of a basketball fan and can’t stand the NBA. I actually enjoy watching women’s hoops. I think it’s the way basketball was meant to be played.

    Sure, you don’t see the same athleticism you see in the NBA, but if that’s why I’m watching then maybe I should be at the circus instead.

    That said…I couldn’t tell you what months the WNBA plays its schedule. I couldn’t name more than one or two cities that have teams.

    I think you are right in that regard and I also side with you on the league just never really succeeding on its own.

    I do appreciate the approachability of the WNBA players and the work they do in their communities. But, that alone isn’t enough to push their league to success.

    A women’s league may succeed at some point in our country’s future. But it won’t be any time soon.

    Wasn’t there a women’s professional baseball league at one time? (I know there was…I saw the movie!)

    There’s also a women’s professional softball league. That doesn’t draw favorably either.

  3. You know what would solve this whole debate? The NBA’s worst team–destroying a team of the WNBA’s best players.

    Look, some women can ball. Plenty of women in the WNBA could beat me. Plenty of athletes in plenty of sports would stomp me. That’s why I avoid criticizing athletes.

    But women’s basketball is boring, because women aren’t as good of basketball players. Period.

  4. Jeff Pearlman and Brandon Sneed are like the 5-foot tall runts in the bar who talk big as long as their 6-foot muscular buddies are around to fight for them. Of course the best male athletes in the world will beat the best female athletes! But the best female athletes will destroy Jeff Pearlman and Brandon Sneed. You’re just loudmouths who feel everyone is entitled to their opinion. Those types of people are generally failures anyway.

  5. The whole tone of Pearlman’s piece comes off as extremely bitter. Almost petulant. “Oh noes! Someone said something bad about my article! By God, I’ll show him!” Jesus, if Pearlman’s absolutely, 100 percent sure that the WNBA will fail, why does he spend 1000 words pointing out something that’s theoretically obvious? I’m 100 percent sure the sun will come up tomorrow morning but you don’t find me on a street corner.

    Two theories: either Ben York absolutely demolished him, or Pearlman has the thinnest skin of anyone on earth. Neither could be good.

  6. Just because the best female athletes can destroy Jeff Pearlman, Brandon Sneed and StringerBell doesn’t mean I want to watch it.

    And everyone is entitled to their opinion. My opinion is women’s basketball sucks.

  7. Brandon, not only would the worst NBA team destroy a WNBA all-star team, but I strongly believe the worst D-I men’s college team would beat them in a best-of-seven.

    The WNBA is unpopular because it’s an inferior product. Just like minor league baseball is less popular than MLB, and the XFL was less popular than the NFL. The people who cry “sexism” are looking to inject gender into this where it doesn’t belong.

  8. So, you don’t want to watch it. So don’t! Why are you getting on those that do want to? I frankly find the NBA boring because it is not “pure basketball.” Who said so? Why, John Wooden, a guy who knows a thing or two about basketball. I don’t care if you don’t ever watch a women’s game but all this macho posturing about which men’s team could beat which woman’s team is b.s. It’s a DIFFERENT brand of basketball. There’s still a few thousand people per game who want to watch it. So shut up and let us watch it.

  9. Dude, I was just joking about that game. Relax.

    Jeff, I like commenting on your blogs, but it’s folks like Ping and Jim who are why I avoid Internet debates.

    And really, Ping? A five-foot tall runt just running my mouth because I have six-foot tall buddies to back me up? You do know Jeff’s like, 6-4, right?

    And….a loudmouth who just feels entitled to my opinion? Man. You really know me.

    Again….this is why I avoid Internet debates. Eff me.

    Done with this crap.

  10. If you don’t like the sport, why do you write about it, write responses to other responses to your original article, or comment on it? That’s what I don’t understand. For example, I don’t like tennis. Therefore, I don’t write articles about it, degrade it or comment on articles about it. Get my drift? (Probably not…you’re too busy bashing something else that you have no interest in). Maybe I’ll start my own website, act like some big-shot, sports know-it-all…and write about tennis. Yeah…that’s it.

  11. I don’t understand this “debate” at all…I love the WNBA always have, always will…does that mean I feel compelled to state what I don’t like? Or who I think they could ‘beat’? WTH really?? Yet, so many(so called men) seem to feel compelled, driven, (even get paid) to say ” I hate the WNBA…highschool boys could beat them, no one cares, no one hiss, sports are only about men/boys and only men/boys should play them,” etc…really? Truly, what is the point? Are “men” that insecure? Are “men” that desperate to remove women from sports? How does it infringe in any way shape or form on your life? Is the WNBA taking something from you? Have you ever once heard anyone say that the WNBA should take the place of some male sport? No, it is a separate league of professional female athletes, it has it’s audience, it has it’s supporters, and it has the best female athletes in the world. Just as the nba has it’s male athletes. If you don’t want to go, no one is ever going to force it on you…if you don’t like it…F I N E but why do you all talk incessantly about it? Why the obsession? Why the need to put it down, count it out, make fun or it, and the great women professionals who play in it? Obviously or hopefully, none of these so called men have women in their live – let alone a daughter (god forbid)… who may want to pursue a career as a pro athlete. None of you so called “men” know, or will ever know what it’s like to be constantly ridiculed and deemed inferior because of your gender. Yes, this is SEXISM at it’s ugliest, nastiest and most vicious. We don’t need any more “men” commenting on our sports, putting women down, or comparing us to anyone…we LOVE it, and that is enough for us. Get a life.

  12. Um, Jeff, gotta admit that last comment threw me a bit. Was it tough love then that you were practicing in your articles? Because in your own words, “Nobody seems especially interested in the WNBA.”

    1. Ping, journalism/column writing doesn’t mean writing about what you love and ignoring what you find flawed. I enjoy the WNBA. But just because that’s so doesn’t mean I now have to protect/stand up for it. I find it very interesting that the league—after all the NBA backing—is near-universally ignored. That struck me as a worthy topic to write about. Doesn’t mean I hate the league or love the league.

  13. sara/ping…you say if you don’t like the wnba why write about it?

    If you don’t like Pearlman’s opinion why discuss it?

    Uh…let me spell it for you…M-O-R-O-N-S.

  14. SteveH, I discuss it because after he wrote the original article we tried to ignore it and he insisted that the lack of comments was proof that nobody cared about the WNBA. So, I am simply doing my best to point out that some people DO care. I doubt the local rec men’s basketball team could beat a D-1 team either, so why do they even bother playing? Answer: because they love the game and are matched up against competition at a similar skill level. Why can’t the same consideration be given to a women’s team?

  15. Jeff, that last statement of yours I totally agree with. It’s the wording you chose for your article that has me up in arms. By speaking in impossible comparisons and absolutes your words seemed to be a calculated dismissal of the (very) small but passionate following. Now, had you just made it near-absolutes, we would have all sadly nodded our heads and agreed. The difference between “nobody watches the WNBA” and “Nearly nobody watches the WNBA” is important. One is dismissive, the other is descriptive.

  16. Did someone really toss a Wooden reference? He hadn’t coached a game in 35 years so of course he’d think woman’s hoops is “pure”. Never understood that term. He was still calling Kareem “Lewis”. How many wnba games did he attend? I guess “pure” means that at some point, it’s going to look like ball played 35 years ago.

  17. jeff is right. if somebody like the wnba then they can watch it, but the forced marketing at events like the all star game where they involve wnba players seems contrived and it seems to have the effect of annoying fans instead of promoting the league.

  18. Isn’t there a lot to be said for the fact that this argument is taking place? The NBA is fun because of the debates! Jordan or Magic? Kobe or LeBron? It’s this “controversy” that makes it compelling. Perhaps the WNBA’s appeal can be a broader controversy, not about the players but about the league itself.
    The WNBA is never going to earn wide viewership. That’s fine. But it does have a very proud (albeit small) fanbase. Perhaps the wider interest in the league will come from debates led by that fanbase. Sports fans will never have a debate about Lisa Leslie vs. Diana Tourasi. But maybe they’ll debate the merits of the league itself and that very argument will keep the league relevant.

  19. The point that Jeff is trying to make, several times here to no avail because it’s being ignored, is this:

    The failure of the WNBA to generate interest among most basketball fans is a worthy story to write about.

    It’s called journalism, not sexism or improper “wording.” After 14 seasons of cross promotion with the NBA and sanctimonious columns and ad campaigns about how the WNBA “got next”, very few people (comparative to other professional sports) actually care. Jeff wrote a legitimate column about that. Big fucking deal.

  20. Again, it was the language used. “Nobody cares,”sociological impossibility.” The status of the WNBA, the static attendance numbers, the annoyance of how they try to market to the NBA fan, some really lousy teams, all these are topics that even diehard WNBA fans discuss. Anyone who thinks the WNBA will ever draw as much as the big 3 men’s sports is dreaming, but its attendance numbers and folding teams is cause for concern about the future health of the league. It was the tone of the article, not the content, which has raised ire.

  21. Really? When a phrase such as “nobody cares” “nobody watches” is used. You take it literally? Really?

    The idea that no one is allowed to criticize the WNBA just show how totally weak and insecure the whole league is. The fact that you have to try and guilt trip people into watching if proof of a lack of any intrinsic appeal. It’s funny how writers frequently write about how soccer in America will never achieve popularity, and this is perfectly acceptable. But say the same thing about women’s basketball and it’s a crime.

    @Kelly: if you were trying to confirm the stereotype of WNBA fans as man-hating lesbians, you did a very good job. You don’t need men? I’d say you need men very badly if you are ever to see a substantial increase in attendance. But I doubt this kind of anti-male diatribe will do anything but make clear that men are not wanted, or as you say, you don’t need us. And what you man hating WNBA fans don’t get is that it’s WOMEN who are failing to support the league. If any appreciable number of WOMEN attended the games or watched, the league would be thriving. If it is so important to women, why aren’t they supporting it?

    Why can’t the same consideration be given to the WNBA as to a men’s rec team? Well actually the WNBA receives a helluva lot more consideration as in being paid, and being subsidized, and being on television.

    If the WNBA needs to censor or intimidate critics in order to survive, then
    it is even worse off than is generally thought.

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