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Sound the Alarm

Before it all goes up in flames. Everyone can see the impending danger. Let’s just call it ahead of time.

Let’s just save the WNBA now.

Amidst all the jokes, stereotypes, and bad marketing efforts, executives have been trying to re-brand the league for years.  I have searched tirelessly for a solution myself.  From We Got Next to Basketball is Basketball, women’s basketball is still seeking to solidify its existance.  Let’s just stop the comparisons and focus on what the WNBA is now.

A league consisting of 12 teams, that consist of 11 players, which are paid delicately for their efforts.   A league that’s front office staff is lean, where each team’s front office staff is lean or shared with their neighboring NBA team. A league that’s pride is  found in their dedication to presenting positive role models, which helps the community, and in turn provides a pivotal platform for the women’s movement.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way shortcutting the league. The WNBA is the most reputable and most successful professional women’s sport league in history.  And in all honesty a loss of the WNBA would dig the women’s movement right back into a hole. A deep hole.  And that’s the point of this alarm. The owners aren’t sleeping on this one. Several sports writers argued that pro sports aren’t recession proof, and even though it’s a bit delayed, we are now clearly seeing the impact of the recession on how teams are running their business practices. Full time positions are rare, unpaid internships are plentiful, ticket prices aren’t dropping, and breaching the salary cap isn’t an option for most general managers.

The WNBA bears many examples of these changes.  For instance, this offseason the Washington Mystics couldn’t reach ‘contract terms’ with long time WNBA employee and former Mystics VP and General Manager Angela Taylor. This season was just Taylor’s second with the DC area team. The Mystics have been resurrected under her leadership, reaching the playoffs both years following a 10-24 record in 2008. What really went wrong?

Secondly, Michelle Voepel, women’s basketball analyst for ESPN, recently wrote about seemingly retired WNBA All-Star Sheryl Swoopes. After Swoopes sustained a back injury and was waived by the Seattle Storm before the 2009 season, she could not find her way back into the league,”her agent went to all 12 WNBA teams, asking the veteran minimum salary — if she made the team. No takers. Not even Tulsa…” Though Voepel was lobbying for a retirement ceremony for the three-time gold medalist, the truth is that no team would chance signing Swoopes, paying the veteran’s minimum and potentially losing one of the eleven roster spots during the season. Rookies are starting to look better every day; you can’t beat young, healthy, and inexpensive talent. Sadly, Swoopes is the first player ever signed to play in the league.

With the ongoing restructuring of basketball and business operations to cut expenses for teams, the WNBA is operating as lean as possible right now. Since the NBA and David Stern have majority ownership of the league, the WNBA stands at taking an even bigger hit if the CBA negotiations don’t smooth over quickly. Though the outlook is cloudy at best, the biggest asset to the WNBA is the number of people who want the league to succeed. David Stern doesn’t want to pull the plug and he doesn’t have to.

The proposed solution is simple. Restructure the WNBA as not for profit organization. Yes, 501(c)(3) status!

Think about it.

What would really change? As stated before, the league takes pride in its positive role models, community involvement, and exploiting (in a good way) successful women. Sounds like it meets the nonprofit requirement of advancing society to me! In essence the league would be providing the service of entertainment and extensive community service projects, maybe even qualify under teaching a sport to the youth. Business practices would stay the same, Team Marketing and Business Operations would still continue to push efficiency, and teams that are in the black can continue to funnel profits back into business and team improvements.

If I’m David Stern, I just got a write-off. If I’m an owner I feel a better about my pending loss. If I’m a current WNBA employee, I’ve already been working in ‘no-profit’ anyways. If I’m a player, I still get to play at home and get paid before I go back to FIBA and Euro League. If I’m LifeLock, Foxwoods, Bing, or Farmers, I just got a write-off AND plenty of advertising.   And if I’m a fan, tickets for my middle school basketball team are now tax deductible.

By no means is this as simple as stated, but keeping the professional women’s league is better than having no league at all. Sure there would have to be more rebranding efforts and changes in business practices. But what if the new Women’s National League (if you will) housed the rest of the budding women’s professional sports leagues? Women’s National League Soccer, I mean Women’s Professional Soccer, would surely catch on to the characteristics of the WNBA. New professional women’s leagues would have a platform to move across the country.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, sound the alarm, then start brainstorming how we can continue to make this league sustainable for many generations to come. Email me with some of your ideas.

Published in Basketball Personal


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