Lonzo Ball and the NBA summer league spell trouble for the WNBA
The National Basketball Association has apparently managed to crack a once-thought-to-be-unbreakable code in sports. It has become relevant year-round. Gone, it seems, are the days of an offseason "dead period," when fans have to wait several months for professional men's basketball to return.
The league is keeping its fans engaged after the NBA Finals with the NBA draft, the newly minted NBA Awards show, the free-agency frenzy and, most recently, the NBA summer league.
But while the growth of this particular basketball entity trends upward, its success could be detrimental for another, the WNBA. The NBA's summer offseason is supposed to be a prime period for growth for the WNBA -- casual and diehard fans alike can turn to the women's game to get their basketball fix.
For a league already struggling to maintain an audience, the increasing intrigue in the NBA summer league should send a clear message to the WNBA: Good basketball alone isn't sufficient to sustain interest in women's professional hoops.
Tonight, the last of the series, the Los Angeles Lakers (without 2017 No. 2 draft pick Lonzo Ball) will play in front of a crowd of about 14,000 in a game that, for most, holds about as much importance as a rec league pick-up game (ESPN, 10 p.m. ET). Before tonight, what shoes Ball decided to wear seemed equally important to some as the performance he gave on the court. (Disclaimer: This is not an attack on Lonzo Ball. Big Baller Brand, please stand down. We all saw where that got Elena Delle Donne.)
Most of the buzz around the Las Vegas Summer League this year revolves around Ball, who, between the hype surrounding his on-court talent and a relentless months-long marketing campaign by his father, LaVar, became one of the most highly anticipated NBA debuts in recent memory. So it might be easy for the WNBA to point to this summer as a one-off.
But to chalk the success of the summer league only to Ball ignores its steady growth since its creation five years ago. The series broke attendance records last year, even before the attention swirled around Lonzo Ball. With fans already clamoring about the projection of Michael Porter Jr. in next June's draft, it's safe to say the upward trend of summer league isn't slowing down any time soon.
This is a problem for the WNBA. On July 8, while Ball and the Lakers took on No. 3 draft pick Jayson Tatum and the Celtics in a meaningless game on paper, the Connecticut Sun mounted a phenomenal 22-point second-half comeback against the Delle Donne-lead Washington Mystics. That night, the Chicago Sky also shocked the league by delivering the WNBA powerhouse Minnesota Lynx its second loss of the season.
Instead, we ask, what about Lonzo's shoes?
Simply put, the WNBA needs to create more drama around its players and teams. If it were solely about talent, then Kelsey Plum, who broke the women's NCAA all-time scoring record, would've drawn Ball-sized crowds for her preseason debut. Instead, her first game drew 2,800. To be fair, her debut was delayed by an ankle injury, and San Antonio is ... rebuilding.
The most organic route that the WNBA can take is to create robust rivalries. Good rivalries are positive for any league, and great rivalries can be the soul of a league. Look no further than the renewed Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the 1980s, one that resuscitated a then-struggling NBA.
Luckily for the WNBA, a rivalry between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx is smoldering. As last year's WNBA Finals, the Sparks and Lynx delivered a thrilling five-game series that ended in late-game heroics. Each team is led by perennial league stars in Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike on the Sparks and Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen for the Lynx.
But the WNBA wasted an opportunity to stoke that rivalry and capitalize on the buzz generated at the end of last season. Instead of delivering fans a Finals rematch to begin the 2017 regular season, it took 14 games -- nearly half of the WNBA season -- for the two teams to play each other. Even if the league had scheduled that game to kick off play, Parker would still be competing in Turkey, which gets into an entirely separate (but not necessarily unrelated) conversation about why players even need to go overseas during their offseason.
Another strategy for the WNBA would be to cultivate a villain, a personality or someone whose character defies and complements their on-court skill. Think Kobe Bryant or Christian Laettner -- players who fans hate to love and love to hate. Unfortunately for the WNBA, there's a double-standard in the women's game, one that's rooted in decades of backward gender norms. There's a constant call for the WNBA to entertain -- but with the unspoken qualifier that it not be at the expense of clean play. The WNBA buys into this perception, which does nothing but handcuff its own growth.
In the early 2000s, the WNBA benefited greatly from a rivalry between the Detroit Shock and the Sparks. It was a coaches' battle between Bill Laimbeer and Michael Cooper, who were former NBA foes in their own right as players, and the rosters themselves presented top-tier players with great talent and personality, such as Cheryl Ford and Deanna Nolan, or Lisa Leslie and Delisha Milton-Jones. These were two of the best teams in the league, and they tussled for years. The rivalry escalated to blows in 2008, and 11 people were ejected after a brawl on the court in Detroit.
No, the message here is not to encourage violence on the court. But the 2008 fight represented the culmination of a captivating storyline and a long-standing tension that, quite frankly, doesn't feel like one you could find in today's WNBA.
Today, Diana Taurasi is one of few players who could be deemed a "villain." She has been a part of most of the WNBA dust-ups that have taken place over the past few years. While Taurasi has said she has no problems wearing the villainous title, it's clear the league does.
We've seen what the league is capable of when its players and organizations stir the pot and showcase more of themselves as individuals, on top of their athletic ability. In 2016, WNBA players were at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter protests, and they got people talking about the league. In response, the WNBA fined some players in attempt to quell the attention -- penalties later revoked.
In order for the WNBA to continue the progress it has made bringing attention to women's basketball during the past 20 years, it needs to guide the drama that players and teams set before them, not hinder it. Yes, of course fans care about high-quality basketball, and the play in the WNBA is great. But fans stay to choose a side, to boo high-ego players and to buy into narratives put forward by personalities.
If the WNBA doesn't change its strategy quickly, it will only continue to fade behind the growth of the NBA summer league.