By Jay Weiner Still searching for economic stability, the WNBA reached the venerable age of 5 last month, becoming the longest-living women's professional league in sports history. Those who thought the little sister of the National Basketball Assn. would never last seem to have miscalculated the power of the social causes attached to it. "Fans support our league for reasons that go beyond the game of basketball," says WNBA President Val Ackerman.
A startup company with a feminist tilt, the Women's National Basketball Assn. attracted 2.5 million ticket buyers last season, 75% of whom were women and girls rooting for their home team to win -- and this league of their own to succeed. League games or highlights are televised in 150 countries, and despite low ratings, about 3 million viewers -- half of them men -- watch WNBA games every week during the season. One sign of arrival: WNBA trading cards will debut this season.
Beyond that, you could argue that the WNBA has been a catalyst whose staying power inspired the new Women's United Soccer Assn., a professional league. And the WNBA is central to this milestone of a statistic: Corporate sponsorship of women's sports has reached $1 billion annually, according to the Women's Sports Foundation.
STORM CLOUD. Still, the league has yet to turn a profit. It saw per-game attendance dip in each of the past two seasons, it receives no rights fees for its NBC- and ESPN-televised games, and it will soon have to dodge a storm cloud: a labor dispute that could burst into the open next year.
Depending on whether you use the league's numbers or the union's, WNBA players averaged $35,000 to $55,000 in pay last season, and -- guess what -- the players want more. (Some 20 NBA stars each pulled down more than the entire WNBA payroll of $11 million for some 200 players.) "I'm not complaining, because this is my dream, playing professional basketball," says Betty Lennox, last year's WNBA Rookie of the Year, who made about $40,000. "But I think it's just not fair what we're paid."
What the WNBA is selling in its 16 markets is bootstrap basketball, positioning its players as feisty role models and bastions of teamwork -- sweaty but frugal girls-next-door. Also, in a move that has caused some controversy, WNBA franchises are plainly marketing to their loyal lesbian fans. The Los Angeles Sparks and Miami Sol have made ticket-selling trips to local lesbian bars. The Minnesota Lynx advertise in one of the Midwest's best-read gay-lesbian magazines. The Seattle Storm sponsored a Gay Pride Night last season to which a group of 300 lesbian activists bought tickets.
"We're involved in a real-life game of Survivor, where the fans are the ones casting the votes," says Ackerman, adding that lesbians aren't the only focus group in the WNBA's sights. The Phoenix Mercury markets to Native-American women, the Washington Mystics to women federal workers, the Charlotte Sting to military servicewomen, and all franchises to youth basketball players and their parents. In Minnesota, the Lynx even have in-home ticket klatches that are, essentially, basketball Tupperware parties.
PLAYERS' DILEMMA. It's all remarkably warm and fuzzy for pro sports, but money has a way of poking coziness in the eye. At the end of this season, both the league and players -- represented by the NBA union -- have the right to open the collective bargaining agreement. No work stoppage is allowed until after the 2002 season. But the players face a difficult choice: Should they shut up and play, or take a stand and risk damaging the league? Meanwhile, the 29 NBA owners -- equal partners in the WNBA adventure -- will look painfully paternalistic if they put a full-court press on their relatively underpaid female employees.
"The entire women's pro sports landscape is at a critical juncture," says Jay Gladden, a University of Massachusetts sports-management expert. "The fundamental questions are: Can the WNBA carve a niche for itself? Is the niche large enough to sustain them?"
Let's hope so. After all, how can you not want to stand up and holler "hoo-ray!'' for this 5-year-old -- scuffed knees and all -- who's seeking her own way in the wide but way-too-male world of sports? Weiner writes about sports from St. Paul, Minn.