You are televising the WNBA, and this is your problem: Despite having an All-Star forward who has dropped 46 points in a game (the Minnesota Lynx's Katie Smith), an undersized, underdog rookie guard who's lighting up the box scores (the Portland Fire's 5'8" Jackie Stiles, page 46) and a 7'2" flyswatter who recently had a triple double (the Utah Starzz's Margo Dydek), the only media buzz your league has garnered all summer came last week when Phoenix forward Lisa Harrison made, then modified, the statement that she'd consider posing naked if she won Playboy.com's Sexiest Babes of the WNBA contest. The worst part is, with ratings dropping every year since the league's inception in 1997 ( NBC's Nielsen average has sunk from a 2.0 in the first season to a 1.3 for the first four games of 2001), you have to consider whether any publicity might be good publicity, even if it smacks of a Dennis Rodman-meets-WWF stunt.
The two networks that televise the league pay no rights fee to do so. NBC (which also broadcasts the NBA) and ESPN (whose radio division airs NBA games) can provide at least three reasons the WNBA has trouble on TV: Summer is the toughest time of the year to televise sports, the league is still building a brand, and viewers are still learning where to look. (Last year the Lifetime network also carried games.) ESPN's spinmeisters will also tell you that every one of the network's female demographics is up during WNBA games this year, including a 48% jump in females 12 to 17 However, the truth is that the league has yet to appeal to a mass audience ( ESPN is averaging a paltry 0.4 rating this year, unchanged from the 2000 cable rating), and if it weren't for the support of its parent organization, it might have already fallen off the radar. "Without the NBA, the WNBA's coverage would be next to nothing," says Paul Schulman of Advanswers PHD. Schulman, who buys TV time for advertisers, likens the WNBA to the NFL-affiliated World League, which is televised by Fox. "The NBA business card is what got it on the air, and it's what keeps it on the air," he says.
So as long as NBA commissioner David Stem backs it, the WNBA will have a home on the dial. ESPN hopes increased coverage (39 games including playoffs, up from 18 games last season) and new "basketball is beautiful" promo spots will attract viewers. Others have suggested gimmicks such as risqu� uniforms and lower rims but, as Schulman says, "I don't think Vince McMahon tactics are going to help." In other words, Playboy.com might provide publicity for a week, but only the play of ladies like Smith, Stiles and Dydek can build you a fan base—and, maybe, better ratings.