Women’s basketball, latest recession victim

As the WNBA fades, it's taking the hopes of Title IX-era female athletes along with it.

Topics: Basketball, U.S. Economy, Broadsheet,

Last week’s bad economic news included fresh evidence that the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) is taking on water. The league’s mandate that teams cut their rosters from 13 to 11 players follows the demise of the four-time championship Houston Comets, once the WNBA’s most dominant team, this past December. “The way I figure it, the overall reductions — the 13 spots lost when Houston folded, plus two more cuts from each of the 13 remaining teams — means that there are 39 less spots in the league,” says one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history, Sylvia Hatchell of the University of North Carolina.

It’s terrible news whenever any organization eliminates 20 percent of its workforce and people suddenly find themselves unemployed in a weak economy. But as the WNBA struggles, and if it folds, it’s taking along something else with it: the hopes of the first generation of Title IX-era female athletes who went through high school and college thinking they might someday actually be able to make a living playing a professional team sport.

The WNBA currently represents the only significant women’s professional team sports franchise in the U.S. (The Women’s United Soccer Association failed after only three seasons, in 2003, and women’s football and softball have never taken off, despite several attempts.) And its inception in 1996 changed the scene for aspiring women athletes.

“For me personally, knowing that the WNBA was there as a possibility made a difference in my goal setting as a high school student, my work ethic as a college athlete and my fulfillment as a professional athlete,” says Kara Lawson, 26, who chose to pursue basketball over soccer after the WNBA’s inception during her sophomore year of high school. Lawson was one of coach Pat Summitt’s stars at the University of Tennessee prior to being picked fifth in the 2003 WNBA draft, and is now a point guard for the 2005 WNBA championship Sacramento Monarchs, as well as an analyst for ESPN. (Lawson also won a gold medal in the most recent Olympics as part of Team USA.) While grimly noting that the roster cuts mean that one in five WNBA players will lose their jobs, Lawson also spoke about its negative effect on the developmental side of the league. “A lot of your 12th and 13th players are young players who have the potential but need a couple of years to learn the professional game. Now you don’t have the luxury of seeing if someone can get in shape or work on their jump shot or get used to the speed of the game.”

Of course the flip side of that equation is the pressure the roster cuts put on older and better paid players. “Our players get the message that making a roster won’t be easy and they’ll likely have to beat out a veteran player to do so,” says coach Brenda Frese of the University of Maryland Lady Terrapins, the 2006 NCAA champions.

It seems quaint to point out that competing for so few spots at one another’s expense isn’t necessarily a boon for sisterhood. But even the biggest cynic should consider what the need to stand out from the pack will do to a game that’s currently distinguished by qualities that are too often missing from the NBA as athletes vie for the biggest contracts and sponsorship deals: teamwork, passing, strategy and defense.

None of the people I spoke with thought the game was over yet for the WNBA. I wish I could share their optimism.

What I think about a lot these days are the high hopes that attended the kickoff of the WNBA’s first season in the summer of 1997 at the peak of the Internet bubble. There was a big marketing campaign and clever prime-time TV spot commercials that introduced Lisa Leslie of the L.A. Sparks, Rebecca Lobo of the N.Y. Liberty, and Sheryl Swoopes of the Houston Comets as the league’s marquee players. Swoopes, often referred to as “the female Michael Jordan” (she wore his number, 22), even became the first woman basketball player to have Nike name a shoe after her. Talk about high achievers. Swoopes helped lead the Comets to their four consecutive championships from 1997-2000, was voted the league’s most valuable player in 2000, 2002 and 2005, and is a three-time Olympic gold medalist. She’s widely considered one of the great athletes of her time.

But because of WNBA salary caps — $772,000 for an entire team in 2008 — Swoopes never earned more than $97,500 for an entire four-month season. (By contrast, the NBA 2008-09 salary cap has been set at $58.68 million per team; the rookie picked 30th in the NBA is paid $797,600 for his season.) Just this past Saturday, two days after the WNBA announced the roster cutbacks, Swoopes, now nearing 38, was waived from her most recent team (the Seattle Storm), likely signaling the end of her professional basketball career.

And possibly the end of an era for the rest of us as well.

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