This Wednesday during a press conference the #1 Draft pick in the WNBA, Brittney Griner did the unspeakable. She casually, matter of factly and openly came out as gay in her first press conference as a professional basketball player. Griner enters the WNBA as one of the most successful college basketball players (male or female) ever, and she will do wonders for the Phoenix Mercury as a low post defensive stopper. However, what is more important than her play on the court is that her openness about her sexuality shows that as a league and a business the WNBA has finally grown up. Griner’s admission shows that the WNBA is no longer obsessed with finding that “crossover” star to “save” the league and might actually get back to the business of promoting good basketball.
I was a huge WNBA fan when the league premiered in the late 1990s. Not because I was trying to be progressive, or because I was trying to impress some woman, or because of a slew of other lame reason often associated with viewing women’s sports by men. I became a fan of the WNBA the normal way that most fans come to a sport: A friend got me watching. Micky (not her real name) was one of my best friends in graduate school and a basketball freak. She played high-school ball in Connecticut, she played as an undergrad at Dartmouth and she coached a girl’s rec team while we were in graduate school. She introduced me to the WNBA and her enthusiasm, knowledge of the players (many of whom she’d faced in college or high-school) was enough to rope me in. I immediately took to the Houston Comets. Now I’ll admit, they were one of the original eight WNBA teams, and they won the first four WNBA championships so maybe I was a bit of a front-runner, but it was really their style of play that hooked me into the game. I was a Comets fan because Cynthia Cooper, Cheryl Swoopes and the incredible power forward Tina Thompson played the kind of fast-paced inside-outside game of my favorite NBA team at the time, the Sacramento Kings. I would tell Micky all the time that I wished Chris Webber played in the post with as much guts and backbone as Tina Thompson. I was the epitome of what the WNBA wanted at the time: A straight African American male basketball fan who started watching the women’s game because it looked similar to my favorite NBA teams. The problem is, there weren’t enough of men out there for the WNBA to stay profitable, and the league severely misjudged how to bring more men like me to the game.
I didn’t watch WNBA games because the women were cute, that made no difference to me. And even though it was the early 2000s, it was not a surprise to me that many women in professional basketball were lesbians. Some of the first gay women I ever knew were from my high school basketball team. I went to Charlotte Sting games and saw large groups of gay women screaming in the stands. But the league, desperate for the wrong kinds of fans, tried to hide the sexuality of their players. The WNBA also tried to convince male sports fans accustomed to Sports Illustrated Swimsuit models that tall lanky athletic women in knee shorts were just as sexy as Kate Moss. The league foolishly spent years chasing after male viewers that they were never going to get with the belief that ‘feminizing’ women athletes and making them all out to be “the Girl next door” would somehow convince men that the game was worth watching.
Early WNBA ads were supposed to link the league with the old ABA of the 1970s which made no sense since the WNBA style of play was nothing like the macho highlight factory of that old league. Does this 1998 ad make you want to watch a WNBA game or pull out your old 8 Track and listen to George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars?
By the mid 2000s the league was in full “Girl Next Door” mode. After high profile players like Cheryl Swoopes admitted to being gay, the league was afraid they would be perceived as too “gay” and swung hard in the other direction. Players were constantly shown in dresses and with long hair in promotions. Anything to ‘fem’ them up. But who was this really going to appeal to? Sexist men who don’t like women’s sports weren’t about to change just because Swin Cash had a nice weave. For the WNBA 10th anniversary they ran a commercial with the tag line “Have you Seen Her” from the old Chi-Lites song. The clips made going to a WNBA game more of a social statement than a sporting event. This commercial could easily double as a PSA for the Girl Scouts. Where’s the balling? Where’s the heart? The game winners and the passion?
By the 2007-2008 season, the league was in horrible financial shape. Of the original eight franchises in the league, several, including the Houston Comets, would be out of business in a year. I had stopped watching the league, partially because my favorite players had retired or moved on to other teams and new players didn’t pique my interest. But the WNBA was convinced that their hard times had nothing to do with a lack of quality stars, rotating franchises or a poor economy. ESPN airwaves were bombarded by commercials that suggested the league was desperate for a savior. WNBA executives were just convinced that if they could find that one crossover star the league would bounce back. But finding the Tiger Woods, Jeff Gordon or Venus and Serena of the WNBA proved to be very difficult. Commercials trotted out Diana Taurasi, Chamique Holdsclaw and others all in an attempt to save the league. When Candace Parker, another league savior, came in 2008 she was basically begging people to save a dying league in the “Expect Great” series of ads. The problem was that the WNBA was using the wrong medicine to treat a life threatening illness.
Americans love football, basketball, baseball and hockey. Some of the sports work because they have long standing ties in a community but in many cases leagues survive because they maintain a steady happy fanbase rather than constantly seek to expand to other groups of viewers. Hockey has never tried to bring in black viewers, even with Jerone Iglina as a star of the Calgary Flames. NASCAR made a half hearted attempt to bring in middle class viewers with Jeff Gordon but basically settled on a working class and southern fan base. Of course sexism, classism and racism play a role in why women’s basketball has struggled, and why women’s sports in general have difficulty maintaining professional leagues in America. But another major problem with the WNBA was that despite a fan base of middle class lesbians, parents of young girls and a few basketball purists their public marketing strategy for over a decade seemed focused on skeptical old school male sports fans, a group that was never going to be a an easy sell. And fortunately it seems like all of this began to change when Griner made her announcement on Wednesday.
While overall television ratings and attendance of women’s basketball in America remains anemic, the league itself seems to have found a happy place in which to exist. You no longer see columns or spokespersons trying to play up the “Girl Next” door element of the league. The WNBA draft was held in prime time on a Monday night so that casual fans might actually run across the picks. While Skyler Diggins is a great player and her physical beauty has garnered her thousands of twitter followers and some love from Lil Wayne, she was not made the singular STAR of draft night. Instead Brittney Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins were rolled out as three new players coming in who will transform the league similar to how LeBron, Wade, and Melo were promoted in 2004. And most importantly, no one really batted an eye when Griner mentioned that she was gay. Trust me, as recently as five years ago, league officials and agents would have begged her to stay quiet about her sexuality. For fear that she would release the elephant in the room that the WNBA has the most out of the closet athletes of any major American sport. But that elephant has been stomping its way around for years, and the WNBA rather than trying to hide who it’s player are, who their fans are or where America is has decided to just embrace whatever comes and focus on good basketball rather than social engineering and bad commericals.
DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson.