The WNBA barely registers with most Americans, but for a small band of dedicated fans, there's nothing more important. I decided to check out a game to find out what makes the WNBA so vital for certain people, but the butt of jokes for others.
Nothing makes the average American male angrier than a woman playing sports... except maybe a blackout at the Super Bowl, full-priced buffalo wings, or a black president. After Title IX created a mandate to cultivate women's collegiate sports programs, female athletics grew in both size and scope. Women's college basketball rose in prominence to the point where the NBA created a women's division called the WNBA in 1996 to service a growing fanbase. Unfortunately, that fanbase stopped growing a few years after the league's formation.
The response from the majority of the United States in the past 17 years has either been casual indifference or outright antipathy. Sports writers struggle to find a reason for the league's existence and some disinterested observers take to their computers to denigrate the entire concept of women playing basketball.The hashtag #WNBA2K14 was trending last week, after a PC modifcation for the video game NBA 2K13 featuring WNBA players was teased on YouTube. The below tweet is just a small example of what happens when you give a talking asshole with arms and legs a keyboard and a modem.
I decided to see a WNBA game between the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx so that I could judge the sport with an open mind, without all the casual misogyny, but also with all of the many delicious craft beers they were sure to offer in the arena's bustling concourse.
Unfortunately, finding a beer was next to impossible because everything was fucking closed.The reports of WNBA games being sparsely attended are true. Most of the food and drink stands at Staples Center were shuttered like the above Mexican eatery. The concourses were barren of anything remotely resembling activity. It was like being in the epicenter of a plague outbreak or a meeting of gay Republicans.
Once in the stands, things got a tad more lively. ESPN listed the official attendance as 11,553, and most of those people were actively involved in the contest. After baskets from the home team, the crowd stood up, yelled, and clapped like they were at any other sporting event. The more passionate fans verbally abused the referee and threatened him with physical violence. For some reason, that made me feel more comfortable.
I made the mistake of standing in front of this couple for too long as I made my way to my seat, and I got yelled at for obscuring their view of the action. The look on their faces says, “I am going to sternly, but politely enjoy this spectacle, and if I don't get the pleasure of watching it unobstructed, I will punch you in the dick,” so I quickly moved myself out of their blast radius before they strangled me with their chain wallets.
With such a small crowd, it's expected that fan energy will dissipate during slower moments, so the Sparks organization does their best to keep everyone entertained. There's literally a contest or singalong during every timeout. At times, I forgot I was even there to watch a basketball game, because I started to fixate on the overly ingratiating DJ who kept trying to get me to sing along to “I Wish” by Skee-lo. It was like ten women got together to play basketball in the middle of the world's lamest county fair, although at least at county fairs, all the churro stands are open.
I fully understand why the public address announcer has to be so loud and the Sparks' mascot, Sparky, needs to be all up in my grill constantly. If there weren't all of these distractions, the 11,000 of us in attendance would notice the empty seats and deafening silence and hang ourselves with our commemorative Los Angeles Sparks “rally towels.” That's not going to be good for league PR, but the neverending stimulus also accentuates the sense that the game itself is not enough and that the WNBA is a minor league.
The most egregious misuse of my time was the Ole Skool Crew dance troupe. If you're familar with the 30 Rock clip where Liz Lemon joins the New York Liberty's Timeless Torches, then you've probably got a mental picture of this descent into madness. The Ole Skool Crew isn't just a hilarious series of misspellings. It's also a collection of older women who can still “get down” with their “bad selves,” and do so without your consent during halftime of Sparks games. To say I felt a crippling sense of ennui upon seeing old women dancing to Drake songs while a man in a dog costumed watched from the stands would be an understatement on par with claiming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “complicated.”
I don't bregrudge these ladies their right to bust a move or two, but I came to see basketball. I didn't pay for a dance recital. If I wanted to see old people dance, I'd go to a bar mitzvah or a Greek wedding. A dance troupe comprised of elderly women is the sort of thing that either gets people to come back week after week because of the bizarre novelty factor, or it reminds you that the spectre of death is breathing its cold, harsh breath over your shoulder at all times. The Ole Skool Crew do their damnedest to fight off mortality with some hip-hop, a little salsa flavor, and a whole lot of attitude, but to no avail. You can't stop Father Time, even with a well-timed Harlem Shake routine.
Whereas the NBA uses the sex appeal of their cheerleaders to keep their predominantly male audience entertained during breaks in the action, the WNBA uses a strange form of wish fulfillment for the older women who attend their games. The Ole Skool Crew's message is that even if you are a butch old granny, you can still be cool and you can still get funky. There's nothing sexy about that, nor is there anything sexy about the WNBA. They could so easily appeal to the carnal appetites of their fans, regardless of their sexual orientation, but they don't. The players are not objectified, the dancers are fully clothed, and besides the players, everyone in the arena is pushing 50.
This gray haired fellow won $50 after answering an obscure question about the Sparks correctly. I realize that saying “obscure question about the Sparks” is redundant, but even some of the other die-hard fans in the crowd seemed stumped. Plus, he was one of a smattering of men I saw in the stands besides myself. He deserved to make that awful, awful face when he won. He's a credit to our gender for being so open to new things.
When Candace Parker, the Sparks' star player was ejected, my fiance turned to me and said, “Why did she run off the court so fast? Do you think she got her period?” I laughed, but I also felt strange hearing a joke like that from a woman. It seems that even the WNBA's target audience has a hard time embracing the sport.
To everyone but the season ticket holders, the WNBA is the punchline to a crude joke. The only way to make the WNBA and other female professional sports feel more legitimate in the popular culture is for men to start respecting it. We have to actually treat it as equal to the men's game. Sure, there's no dunking and the passing is kind of sloppy, but these are the best female players in the world. As long as women playing basketball remains a curiosity, the need for a bunch of absurd “entertainments” like dancing grandmas will continue. When the Ole Skool Crew is dead and no longer twerking at halftime, and Sparky the loveable mascot hangs up his sneakers, will the WNBA survive?
Dave's new book, Letters from My Therapist is the WNBA of humor books. It's cheaper than the real thing, but easily just as entertaining. It's on Amazon and the iBookstore, so drop your Candace Parker jersey and go buy it.
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