Ignore for now that the WNBA more than doubled its attendance projections in its inaugural season. Forget for the moment that the league's TV ratings easily outstripped those for the purported pro sport of the future, MLS soccer. Set aside, too, these facts: that last Thursday's championship semifinals, telecast simultaneously in prime time on ESPN and Lifetime, drew larger-than-regular-season audiences, even though the games were going up against U.S. Open tennis, college football and Jennifer Aniston's hair; and that the NBA's little sister scored a decent Nielsen overnight rating of 2.9 for Saturday's title game on NBC.
No, nothing better reflects the magnitude of the women's basketball summer just past—the way the market and the moment met and entwined like the tendrils of Rebecca Lobo's French braid—than this: In the testosterone-fired precincts of East Texas, a pro football season began without the Oilers, and Houston didn't care. Last Thursday The Houston Chronicle announced that 76% of its readers didn't want the paper to cover the NFL team that flew the coop to Tennessee. Houstonians were instead contenting themselves with the Coop-flying of high-scoring guard and freshly crowned WNBA MVP Cynthia Cooper, and preparing to embrace her—their—Houston Comets, the eventual 65-51 victors over the New York Liberty in last Saturday's title game at the sold-out Summit.
There's a story behind this—of fans sick of athletes and owners whose loyalties are shorter-lived than mayflies, and of kids and their parents nauseated from having to accept as heroes male pros who buy drugs and sell autographs. "You can get Cynthia Cooper's autograph anytime you want to," says Comets coach Van Chancellor. "We're gonna do anything necessary to make this league go, because we're out a job if it doesn't."
If you still think WNBA is a radio station, let us fill you in on the summer's 50,000-watt, clear-channel, more-music, less-trash-talk phenomenon. It's the league in which a star (guard Michele Timms of the Phoenix Mercury) wrote an apology to the local paper because she had to call a halt to a postgame autograph session after a paltry two hours. It's the league in which, on the morning of Houston's 70-54 semifinal defeat of the Charlotte Sting, the working-mom commish (Valerie Ackerman) rapped with the working-mom star (Comets guard Sheryl Swoopes) for 30 minutes and not for one second about basketball. "We talked about breast-feeding, about taking a baby on an airplane, about the importance of having a supportive husband," Ackerman says.
Truth be told, it was not hard to see all this coming. You could see it in the growing enthusiasm for women's college basketball, whose attendance has almost quadrupled during the last 15 years. You could see it in 1995, when Connecticut's 35-0 national-championship season made believers of the media tastemakers in mid-town Manhattan. You could see it a year ago in Atlanta, where the Dream Team men bitched about hotel room service while their distaff counterparts literally turned cartwheels upon winning the gold. You can even see it today in a stat we'll call the Salary/Free Throw Percentage Differential Index (SFTPDI)—the ratio of a player's salary in tens of thousands of dollars to his or her free throw percentage. Nicole Levesque, who was plucked from a job (whose duties included waitressing) at a resort in Vermont to become the starting point guard for Charlotte, spent the summer earning $10,000, shooting 93% from the line and leading pro basketball with a low SFTPDI of .01. Contrast that with the figure for the Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal, whose SFTPDI last season was 22.14 (1,071.4/48.4). Now, whom are you going to buy a ticket and pull for? (Nicole says all tips are appreciated.)
No wonder the WNBA crowds, which averaged 9,804, rarely booed. They brandished homemade signs (last week's best: SUPER COOPER/U DA M'AM) and emitted not so much a roar but a high-pitched squeal, evocative of estrogen and preadolescence. In Phoenix last Thursday night, as it became apparent that the Mercury's season would end with a 59-41 semifinal loss to the Liberty, many of the 16,751 in attendance took pipe-cleaner-shaped balloons and began tying them together until they practically ringed America West Arena. It was as if the crowd had improvised some huge therapy session to take the edge off the defeat.
"We'd hoped to attract a fan base that included families, women and the core basketball fan who might be in withdrawal after the end of the NBA season," says Ackerman. "We guessed right about who we'd attract, but we underestimated their number. And we didn't expect the intensity of the attraction."
One such fan, Lydia Varela of Phoenix, is a grandmother who had never before followed pro sports but didn't miss a Mercury game all season. "Everything has always been about men," she said as she waited in line at Thursday's game to have a temporary tattoo of a Mercury logo affixed to her cheek. "Now it's about women, and it's wonderful."
There's a whiff of Leninism in the way the WNBA assigned top players to particular teams and paid out insultingly low, take-it-or-leave-it salaries (average: $35,000). But the league's every other step has been to a drumbeat pounded out by Adam Smith. Relentless marketing and promotion, and creative deals with the league's three TV network partners, have resulted in universal recognition of We Got Next, the WNBA's signature catch-phrase, as well as in brisk sales of team and league merchandise.
To be sure, the WNBA wasn't free of all of pro sports' unpleasantnesses. Two coaches (the Los Angeles Sparks' Linda Sharp and the Sacramento Monarchs' Mary Murphy) were fired, and several players were fined. At least one player worries that, paradoxically, success may sully the purity of purpose that accounts for the WNBAs appeal. "We sustained ourselves for years just on our love of the game," says Liberty forward Sue Wicks, a 30-year-old veteran of nine vagabonding seasons overseas. "We still have that love, and that's what the fans are connecting with. But now we're getting a sample of what it's like being a male pro athlete, and eventually we might take all this for granted. We might stop playing defense because scoring points is how you make the Ail-Star team, or stop diving for loose balls because by prolonging your career you can make more money."