WNBA shoots air ball with broadcasts

The proud reflective gaze of women’s athletics will reach new heights over the next week.
This Saturday more than 100,000 fans will pack the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., to watch the U.S. women’s soccer team take on China in the Women’s World Cup final. On Wednesday, thousands more will gather at Madison Square Garden in New York to witness the WNBA’s inaugural All-Star Game. Millions more around the world will watch these respective events on television.
However, if TV coverage of the World Cup and the All-Star Game are anything like a typical NBC broadcast of a WNBA game, you can count me out. I don’t want to hear about how Jenny Basketball is returning to the game after two months maternity leave, or how she’s having off-the-court troubles with her marriage.
Just give me the action, the play-by-play and a little color.
I love to watch sports for the competition, the agony of defeat, the glory of victory. As a lifelong sports nut I never cared whether it was men or women competing; I just wanted to watch for the entertainment of it. From pro football to women’s figure skating, I’m game.
For some reason many women’s athletics sportscasters, like those with NBC Sports, feel the need to continuously saturate viewers with unnecessary off-the-court commentaries of the female athletes.
During a Houston Comets-Detroit Shock game Saturday, NBC broadcasted a seven-minute feature piece on Houston forward Tina Thompson. The clip went on and on about how Thompson is very outspoken and wants to be a judge someday. Its underlying message: You young girls out there can grow up to be a judge, too. Hence, the piece also seems to convey that women shouldn’t plan on a career in pro basketball, but that it’s a nice step.
Why do they think these affirmative action-like kicks will boost the following of women’s sports?
ESPN’s Michelle Smith reported that “The WNBA will not sell on the basis of team play, but can on personalities.” She said the league’s target audience wants to get to know the players and that that “takes precedence over win-loss records or the ability to drive the lane.”
The league is doing a good job in marketing to its target audience of young women and girls. But at the same time the WNBA is greatly limiting its potential for audience growth with its too Oprah-esque analysis.
I cannot speak for all men, but I would bet most would not care to watch a feature on a WNBA player planting flowers in her backyard garden; nor would most young women and girls care to watch Mark McGwire hanging sheetrock in his garage. These millions of potential viewers are more interested in the excitement of the game.
It’s true that men — and probably most women — find men’s sports more entertaining. And yes the WNBA cannot offer acrobatic alley-oop dunks like the NBA, but that doesn’t mean men won’t watch and enjoy women’s sports.
Smith stated that since Michael Jordan’s retirement, the NBA was forced “to de-emphasize its personalities and re-emphasize its game and the teams that play it. That won’t work for the WNBA,” she said, “because it can’t sell its high-flying game or its thunderous dunks.”
However, just like women’s tennis can sell the court gracefulness of Steffi Graf, and the NFL the unbelievable agility of Barry Sanders, so can the WNBA sell its intense action. Excess commentary is not going to draw more viewers — men or women — to the action, it will only detract from it.
The women’s basketball league may never offer the action the NBA does, but the men and women who love to watch Shaquille O’Neal dunk a basketball will most likely be attracted to Chamique Holdsclaw for her smooth moves to the hoop — not her personality or her love for country music.
Besides, the WNBA doesn’t have to go head to head with the NBA season. Why should the league and NBC feel it necessary to compete with the men? They would be wiser to concentrate on offering its viewers the most exciting sport on television during the summer.
It will be nice to see this week the respected abilities of prominent women like Hillary Clinton, soccer star Mia Hamm and Holdsclaw — instead of Monica Lewinsky. But the networks’ live broadcasts of women’s sporting events should focus on the action and suspense of the game. Save the in-depth, off-the-field commentaries for the talk shows.
This is sports, dammit. Let’s see some sports. Sports meaning: Jackie Joyner Kersee’s sailing long jump, Venus Williams’ drilling serve, Gabrielle Reese’s killer spike, Julie Foudy’s monster kick.
Sports does not mean Martha Stewart; if it does, I will change the channel.

— Nick Doty’s column appears weekly. He welcomes comments at [email protected]