By Derek May:
Last night I tried to watch the final game between the Connecticut Sun and the Chicago Sky that would determine which team faced my Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals starting this Sunday.
I said “tried.”
Why? Because I spent an hour and a half trying to get the EPSN app to load the damn game. I’ll spare you the technical battles waged, suffice it to say that neither my Roku, PS4, or anything else was able to get it to load after a variety of creative and infuriating attempts. And it wasn’t just me, my father couldn’t do it at his house either. The problem, we confirmed, was on ESPN’s end. Finally, we discovered that the Spectrum app allowed us to bypass ESPN directly, and I was able to watch the final 5 minutes of the game; and I’m so glad I did (what a dramatic ending!).
So why am I boring you with my evening of endless frustration? Because such an experience seems to be just an average night for a WNBA fan, and it’s simply no longer acceptable.
Here in San Antonio, TX, we LOVE our basketball. No, “love” isn’t a strong enough word. It’s part of us, in the very DNA of the city and its people. You literally can’t look out your window without seeing the Spurs logo somewhere: on a hat, a shirt, a license plate. We live and breathe it in large part because it’s the only major sports team we have, and the Spurs are a dynasty of championships, heroes, and overall “good guys” playing the game right under a wily and cantankerous master we call "Pop."
My parents have been Spurs season ticket holders for over 30 years now (not to brag, they even have their names listed on a wall inside the AT&T Center—ok, a little bragging). When the WNBA expanded into SA in 2003 through the Silver Stars, my parents got season tickets to them as well. I was excited to finally see the WNBA in action, and I somehow just assumed my basketball-obsessed city would immediately embrace them as they had our beloved Spurs. Some did, to be sure, but many didn’t.
Yes, the game was different. At the time, there was almost never a dunk to be seen. The games were shorter and the shot clock was longer then (college rules), and the 3-point line was closer. Oh, and the game is played by women. I guess that’s the thing that made the biggest difference. Forget that these were elite athletes at the top of their sport, that they had mastered the fundamentals of pure basketball in a way easily recognizable to any Spurs fan having bowed at the feet of the “Big Fundamental” himself, Tim Duncan. No, apparently it was just all . . . “wrong.”
I would attend sellout Spurs games of 18,000 fans on a Wednesday night against a crappy Clippers team (so bad for so long) then scratch my head at barely 5,000 attending a Silver Stars playoff game. Even more baffling was the far greater incentives for seeing a Stars game: lower ticket prices allowed me near-courtside seats for the price of Spurs nosebleeds. Access to the players was incredible: I collected SO many autographs and photos and got to actually talk to them and the coach (in more than 25 years I’ve never even SEEN Popovich in the wild), and moreover they LISTENED!! They took feedback about what fans wanted, how to improve the experience. It was so strange, it was like . . . they CARED!
But it wasn’t enough.
Games were sporadically shown on local television, even less on the national networks. Though my wife and I got our own season tickets for a few years, several games were puzzlingly scheduled for odd times, like 11 a.m. on a weekday, so we literally couldn’t attend them. When we tried to give away tickets, even our close friends would remark with shock, “We have a WNBA team in San Antonio?” (though they loved the games once they went). The cumulative result was that our Stars left us for Sin City under a new coach who I absolutely loathed, and those of us who cared were crushed. I personally felt so betrayed I couldn’t watch the WNBA for the next few years.
But then Becky Hammon did what she’s been doing her entire career: she changed the game.
Retiring from the Stars before the move, she slipped into a new role as the first female assistant coach for the Spurs like a hand in glove. Many praised the achievement, her command in the summer league, her takeover in NBA games when Pop was ejected. We all thought she was being groomed for NBA head coaching. But instead she took an irresistible offer to coach her former team (now redubbed the Las Vegas Aces) under the first WNBA million-dollar coaching salary with an unmatched but unfulfilled roster of talent.
And so I returned to the WNBA with her. And here is where things really changed.
Being a WNBA fan in your team’s city was often difficult and occasionally frustrating, but being a long-distance fan is all-but infuriating. Games are still shown haphazardly and at odd times. Since we’re not local, we rely strictly on cable and streaming to air the games, which they seem to do merely at their leisure. There seems to be no real rhyme or reason to who airs what, it’s a game-by-game crapshoot and confusing search. Now you might rightly suggest we simply purchase the League Pass app for a quite reasonable $25 per season (with the price actually lowering as the season progressed), and that was a tempting option—until we realized that the app isn’t supported on all devices, which would mean forcing us to invest in yet another one. Then there’s the frustration of what happens when ESPN does grace us with a game. More often than not, you’ll be tuned in to the end of one game leading into the start of the next, only to go to a commercial break and never go back. Why? Oh, they decided to switch it over to ESPN2. So you have to get out and back in again. And of course, many games are simply not shown at all, nowhere other than local TV.
My family laughs at me because I seemingly have a knack for finding odd sports on Sundays as I flip through the 15 versions of ESPN. I can magically summon a cornhole championship with ease. I’ve subjected them to easily viewable sports we never even knew existed: spikeball, pickleball, tag (yes, people run after each other on an obstacle course trying to tag the other) . . . I can even catch quite a few Aussie Rules Football matches (GO HAWTHORN HAWKS!!). But WNBA? Not so much.
I suppose all you have to do is look at the comments section of ANY sports-related organization to realize why this situation exists. “Nobody cares” (says the confident armchair internet quarterback). The legendary Sue Bird (the 4-time champion, 5-time Olympic gold medalist, 2-NCAA champion, #1 draft pick, all-time assist leader, widely considered the GOAT) “wouldn’t make a high school boys’ team” notes one Facebook genius. This is in between the endlessly clever “Who?” posts following her retirement after 21 freakin’ years dominating the league. The amount of online vitriol is staggering, even for the trolls of today. The pure venom being spouted against not only these athletes personally but the very idea of a league of women playing sports at all is truly sickening.
But amongst this endless bullshit is a kernel of truth: people aren’t watching or attending the games like they do for men’s sports. And as such, it seems almost logical that these women DESERVE less. They deserve a small fraction of their NBA counterparts’ pay, forcing most of these WNBA players to head overseas during the offseason (also meaning they don’t get a break like the men do). They deserve to fly commercial. They deserve to ride buses. They deserve it all, because “nobody cares.”
I care. The city of Seattle that set a new attendance record by selling out their arena to watch Sue Bird play cared. The millions (yes, millions, dammit!) of us who scour the cable channels and online streamers, who put up with all this ridiculousness just to watch our teams care. And the further millions of young girls, women, and young men who get to see athletes balling at the top of their game, providing role models and inspiration, care.
Game 3 of these semi-finals between the Seattle Storm and the Las Vegas Aces was some of the greatest basketball you’ll EVER see. I’m not saying that as an Aces fan, or as a WNBA fan. I say that with confidence as a basketball fan. You can’t watch that gritty, back-and-forth physical battle and tell me women’s basketball is soft. You can’t watch miracle shot after miracle shot and tell me they can’t make exciting plays. You can’t watch the league MVP hit a game-tying bucket with 2.7 seconds, then seeing the GOAT nail what feels like a game-winning/career-capping dagger, just to watch the league’s Most-Improved player send it into overtime with 1.8 seconds and tell me this is boring basketball. If so, you have literally no idea how this game is played, what it means, or what you’re talking about.
And these women have been doing it FOR. YEARS. Since I’ve been watching, the women’s game has only gotten more exciting. It’s faster, it’s grittier, it’s chock-a-block with big names, big shots, and big personalities.
But the trolls are right—just for the wrong reasons. If the world of sports makes it so difficult for fans like me to watch, how is it ever to gain new followers? If cities aren’t promoting their team, how are people to know about them? If you can’t access a variety of merchandise, how are people to show it off? A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum said it better than I could months ago:
The WNBA is no different than any other entity, it needs support to not just survive but thrive. To its credit, the NBA has done a decent job of getting the word out and making it not just acceptable but cool to be a WNBA fan. We’ve seen Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, Devin Booker, and many more on the sidelines, truly enjoying games. They put out tweets and wear jerseys in recognition. And it’s not just lip service: many players truly respect the skills and performances of these female athletes, just as the Spurs routinely reinforced that Becky was just “coach,” regardless of gender. We’ve seen rappers cheering from floor seats. Tom Brady gifted all-star Kelsey Plum with his jersey after a game. And even owner Mark Davis chose to watch his Aces play rather than attend that other boring little team he owns: the Raiders.
Actions like these make a difference, and consequently, the league is growing—slowly but surely. But more than 25 years after the WNBA came into existence, fans like me still struggle to watch it. Trolls still spam every post. People still don’t know where these teams are or can even name a player. The biggest news right now is how Phoenix Mercury player Brittany Griner is stuck in a Russian jail as a political prisoner over less than a gram of CBD oil. And WNBA players are STILL talking about going to play in Russia this offseason, because they have to earn a living. Can you imagine even an NBA rookie having to do that?
The WNBA likely struggles no more than any other women’s sport in all areas, but it may also be the largest of them and hold the most potential. We may never change the minds of knuckledraggers who think Sue Bird wouldn’t make a high school boys’ team, but the league can’t win over anyone if it doesn’t stop shooting itself in the foot. Things need to change, and the burden is not the fans’ alone to bear. It needs to start within the league working for better access, better representation, and better exposure. Networks need to honor their commitments and make it easier to watch the games they purport to show (there’s apparently an ESPNW, but I can’t seem to find it). League Pass apps need to work with all major devices as well as their NBA version do (that seems like a freakin’ no brainer).
They can and must do better, otherwise the trolls win. And that would make us all losers.
Be sure to tune in this Sunday,
Sept 11 at 3 p.m. ET to see the
Las Vegas Aces take on the Connecticut Sun
in the WNBA Finals!
Derek May, of San Antonio, TX, is Editor-in-Chief and occasional writer for Flapper Press. He has written nearly 50 movie reviews for movieweb.com and completed 13 original feature film and television screenplays, many of which have been winners or finalists in such prestigious competitions as the Walt Disney and Nicholl Fellowships, the Austin Film Festival, and the Creative World Awards. He served as a judge for 10 years for the Austin Film Festival and Texas Film Institute screenplay competitions. His latest project has been the highly acclaimed stop-motion animation fan series Highlander: Veritas, which will release its second season in July 2022.