When Mike Thibault coached the Connecticut Sun he was often asked what he thought about the growth of the WNBA. His opinion mattered; no coach in the history of the league has won more games than he.
What Thibault would invariably suggest was to look at where the NBA was after its first 10 seasons and then compare it to the WNBA. His point was to remain patient, give the league time to take root before predicting it looked about to wilt.
Saturday afternoon at the Mohegan Sun Arena, WNBA President Laurel Richie held a press conference an hour before the start of the All-Star Game. Before she said a word one thing was clearly apparent.
Aside from selected members of the Connecticut media, ESPN.com and ABC staff, columnists and a few bloggers and internet representatives, her audience was without a single media member representing any of the other 11 franchises.
Imagine David Stern holding a press conference prior to the 2013 NBA All-Star game without anyone from New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio, Minnesota, Atlanta, Indiana or Chicago in attendance?
Ritchie was asked where she thought her league would be in five years, what needed to be done to assure its stability and fuel its growth.
Her answers were based essentially on superlatives gleaned from marginal gains in television and attendance demographics.
“We just got word that our attendance is up 2.3 percent,” Richie said. “And we still have a good chunk of the season ahead of us, but we’re thrilled. Viewership on ESPN2 and NBA TV both are up in double digits. Literally every single measure that we measure web traffic is also up, I think in large part because we’ve put a real emphasis this year on not just covering the facts and the stats, but covering the stories and doing some really terrific video features that have brought lots of our fans to our website.
“In terms of partnership, ESPN announced an extension of our partnership through 2022. State Farm has also joined us this year, and we announced early last week that Proctor & Gamble has come back on board as a partner working on their Imagine a Future with their My Black is Beautiful brand.”
So far, whatever gains the league has made in these areas, in terms of enriching its owners, have not rendered down to the court product. And its day of reckoning will soon be upon it.
After this season, the WNBA enters negotiation on its next Collective Bargaining Agreement. And what’s certain is there will be points of contention for ownership to deal with involving a base of players growing increasing dissatisfied with business as usual.
No longer are WNBA just happy to be there.
The 11-man rosters, agreed to by the players in the last CBA, employ only 132 players. And they been universally assailed because of the trouble teams have had adjusting to major injuries. Connecticut and Indiana, who played for the Eastern Conference title last season, have seen their 2013 seasons irreparably damaged by their inability to sign reinforcements when long-term injuries surface until a team drops to nine able-bodied players.
This rule makes practicing extremely difficult at home, nearly impossible on the road where male practice players are normally not available.
In addition, player salaries remain staggering low. Veterans like Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, pillars of the league, can currently make no more than $107,000 a season and each team’s salary cap remains well under $1 million – tip money for LeBron James.
The salary conundrum is beginning to catch up with the WNBA.
Players such as Conneticut’s Asjha Jones and Bird took the entire season off to rest injuries and recover from surgeries. International stars like Liz Cambage of Australia and Sandrine Gruda of France either balked, as Cambage did in Tulsa, or completely refused to come to the WNBA, as Gruda has done to the Sun over the last three years.
The reason is clear: Players play for high six-figure salaries in Europe, Asia and Australia and more are growing increasingly hesitant to tax their bodies in a place – the WNBA – where the money is not as plentiful.
Richie would not address the salary issue Saturday.
“With respect to player salaries, as all of you know, this is the year that we will go back into partnership with the union to come up with our next agreement, so I’m going to leave all questions relating to the collective bargaining to that process,” she said.
“I’m excited about the process. I look forward to partnering with players and with the union to come out on the other side with an agreement that bodes well for the long?term health of the league.”
And when asked what she thought the WNBA’s biggest problem was, her response seemed equally vague.
“You know, I come to games, as you would expect, a lot of games, and I am never disappointed in the level of play. I just think we have a fabulous product on the floor, and our No.1 goal is to bring more fans in touch with what we know is a terrific product,” Richie said.
“And from there, lots of good things happen, so we focus an awful lot on attention, and anytime I have an opportunity to sit with the media, I will also say the more coverage and the more we can tell our story and have you help us tell our story of the game, of the players, of the coaches, that just helps get the word out because it’s a terrific product.”