WNBA gives fans chance to find their Cards

Sometimes you reconnect with something and are surprised it still exists. I spent about 22 hours in the hospital recently waiting to see my newest nephew born. I was a captive audience with no claim, rightly, on the TV remote. At one point, I looked up from a book and was staring at "Wheel of Fortune." I watched it in college in the 1980s, but couldn't remember the last time I'd seen it.

"Wow, it seems weird this show is still on -- and when did Vanna stop turning the letters and just start touching them?" I asked my sister -- long, long before her serious contractions started, lest you think I'm a complete fool.

"I don't know," my sister said, but she did know that in just a few seconds, I'd revert to past "Wheel-watching" behavior and berate the contestants for wasting money to buy obvious vowels.

Things both big and impossibly trivial come into and disappear from your life. Other things, though, stay more or less exactly as important to you as they always were.

For me, the latter is the St. Louis Cardinals. Part of being "owned" by a team is the desire to surround yourself with symbols of it.

At age 8, I desperately wanted every possible piece of junk I saw that had the Cardinals' logo on it. I have developed absolutely no immunity to this. At 40, I think, "Look, if you would just try, you could walk right past the tiny toy Hummer with 'Cardinals' on the door" … then next thing I know, money is coming out of my Cardinals wallet and I'm shoving a receipt into one pocket while retrieving my Cardinals key chain from the other.

The Cardinals' logo sparks in me a Pavlovian impulse to purchase. Of course, this is exactly what sports franchises hope to create in their fans: an affectionate, nostalgic lifelong loyalty to the "brand."

And so, as we head into the WNBA All-Star weekend, I've been thinking about how strongly the league and its teams have developed this passionate loyalty in their fans. This is not about comparing fan interest -- from a numbers standpoint -- in the WNBA to that in pro men's sports. Obviously, they don't compare, and there are good reasons for that. It takes a long time to become part of the social fabric of a culture. And a women's sports league obviously faces more challenges in terms of gaining interest and acceptance from different people for different reasons.

Rather, what I'm talking about is how much the WNBA means to those who were waiting for it and instantly ready to embrace it and how capable it is of luring those who are open to becoming interested in it.

For instance, I wonder whether there are 8 year olds today who are collecting stuff from their favorite WNBA team and will maintain that brand loyalty right through adolescence and adulthood.

That would mean the WNBA would continue to be in business that long, and I think it will. I like to imagine that 30 years from now, people might be writing or telling stories about how they've lived and died with the Connecticut Sun -- "Oh, God, remember that overtime game against the Mystics in 2017 when …" -- or how they finally had to stop wearing their favorite Houston Comets T-shirt they got in high school because it was in tatters … or how they decorated the baby's nursery with Sacramento Monarchs wallpaper because even though they're living in Los Angeles now, there is no way that kid is going to grow up to be a Sparks fan.

I do get e-mail from fans of longtime successful women's college teams -- specifically Tennessee and Louisiana Tech -- who talk about having followed their program since the 1970s and passing the fan torch to their children.

The WNBA is in its ninth season, so it has a ways to go before we're talking about generations. But here's the thing: Today's 9-year-old doesn't know a time when the WNBA didn't exist. If some kids become fans this very weekend watching the All-Star Game, it won't matter how much history there is in terms of how much a team can come to mean to them.

History is very nice, sure. There's no doubt it was a part of me loving the Cardinals -- reading baseball history books, asking my dad about watching Stan Musial play.

Yet the most important hook was spending summer evenings listening to Jack Buck on KMOX and scouring the story and box score the next day in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was my relationship with the team, which could belong to millions of people for decades yet also belong only to me on my back porch.

I know that if there had also been a women's basketball team when I was that age that I could have followed, I would have. Over the years, I'd have bought pencils and cups and caps and sweatshirts and bumper stickers and toothbrushes and clocks and towels and toys with the team's logo on them.

I'd remember certain times when watching the team made me want to throw a rock through the TV screen and other times when it made me dance through the house.

Someone asked me earlier this summer whether the WNBA would ever really "make an impact" -- which, in this person's view, seemed to mean would it be on "SportsCenter" every night or would a lot of people with too much time on
their hands constantly call into radio talk shows to yell about what the coach should have done.

To me, though, the WNBA impact I'm most intrigued by is on those who consider high schoolers "big kids." Who believe that a year is a long, long time. Who think that whatever is in their lives today -- their parents, their bike, their dog, their friends -- is always going to be there.

They have a chance to find out that, if you're lucky, a team you love always can be.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.