We Got Lame
I remember back when the WNBA started, back in 1997. I remember how the league's slogan, "We Got Next," was one of the best marketing slogans I'd ever heard. It was simple, tough, to the point, like the players. I remember being inspired by these bad-ass ladies, all muscle and sinew and skill. And I remember the great commercials that ran promoting the league: Joan Jett singing the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song as images of the best female basketball players in the world hooped in slow motion. It was like feminist porn.
Oh, and I remember the backlash, too. People made fun of it. OK, mainly guys made fun of it: "How many set shots can you see in one game?" "I played a little ball in high school—I could beat these chicks!" "It's like watching the Special Olympics."
These guys—these sedentary, regular guys, who spent more time on the couch watching sports than playing them—felt superior to the WNBA's finely tuned, specially trained, bad-ass athletes.
You know, I was cool with that, because I knew the truth: No, guys, you could not beat Rebecca Lobo in a game of one-on-one. She would school you. And Lisa Leslie can dunk—can you? You can fool yourself as much as you want, but these women are better athletes than you, and they are better than you at basketball. It's kind of the same way I feel about those horrible people who insist that Barack Obama is Muslim or that he's not really a US citizen, or who even spout explicitly racial insults about him: You can rant and rave all you want, but you've lost. We have a black president, so get over it. Or, to put it more succinctly: Whatever, dude.
So for a while, I was happy with the WNBA. At first, its marketing didn't water down the toughness of these women, didn't particularly eschew showing photos of its stars with short haircuts. It didn't exactly celebrate the true dykish nature of the league, but the subtext was always there (as was Rosie O'Donnell, owner of courtside seats).
But then those freaking halftime profiles began, and my enthusiasm faltered.
You know what I'm talking about: those cheesy little stories that take up halftime air, those stories that are supposed to give you a feel for the players and their lives and bring you into the league. They're always stupid, no matter what sport. But with the WNBA, they proved downright offensive.
Because, you see, it seemed like every other profile proved to be some variation on the tale of a WNBA player and "how she balances life as a world-class athlete…and a mother," or some other similar drop of syrup. In the rare instances there wasn't a baby involved, the profile made sure to mention the ubiquitous boyfriend/husband repeatedly, complete with shots of the happy couple, enjoying a normal home like.
Lots of players talked about wanting to have babies; I can't recall one who said, "Nah, it's not for me." The baby talk was explicit and constant, but any tiny smatterings of queerness hanging in the air were camouflaged as soon as possible.
Basically, the WNBA protested too much: "We're straight! No, really! We LOVE babies. And therefore, by extension, penises!! Seriously—did we mention we're straight?"
Besides the halftime profiles, the instrument the league most often used as a heteronormative sledgehammer was Lisa Leslie. Leslie's one of the best basketball players in the world, and she was the star of the WNBA's inaugural year. At 6'5", she's also one of the few women in the world who can dunk, which she did in a 2003 WNBA game. But, OMG, that first season! For the duration of it, the media, the league, the sportscasters—anyone who mentioned Leslie—had to mention the fact that she also was a model. (Or at least, she had aspirations to be a model. Until the league started inundating its audience with images of Leslie at photo shoots, I'd never actually seen anything to indicate she actually did all that much work.)
It should have come as no surprise, really. Leading up to its inaugural game between the LA Spark and the Phoenix Mercury, whenever anyone involved in the league spoke, you heard the word "family" more than the word "basketball." On and on they went, blathering about how the WNBA games were a perfect family activity, and promoting family packages at games.
It was offensive for many reasons, but here are just two: First, the overkill reeked of desperation, a frantic effort to distance the league from any hint of anything but heteronormative things. And second, it was just so hypocritical. Yes, of course straight women and hetero families like sports and also play sports. But so do dykes. Where's our love?
After all that, I pretty much stopped watching. I just got sick of it.
This week, the league began its 11th season the same way it has since its first one: In trouble. The league doesn't make money. Television viewership continues to fade, as does attendance. Several teams have folded. It's bad—in fact, every season since that first one, the NBA has subsidized the WNBA's existence, because the latter can't sustain itself (hmmm…the men supporting the women, because they can't make it on their own…for all its queerness, I guess there are some things in the league that remain entrenched in hetero tradition). Clearly, the family-oriented marketing, the insistence on tamping down any dyke-ynesss or alternative-ness—these strategies aren't working.
And yet, still…that insistence continues. The league can't stop pushing its superstar, Candace Parker (who can dunk too), not because of her strength, smarts, and skills on the court, but because she just had a baby. And the media won't STFU about it either. Parker landed a coveted "5 Good Minutes" interview spot on the popular ESPN show "Pardon the Interruption" to talk about her baby. How come she didn't get it when she first dunked in a pro game?
And then there's this:
Yet another fashion spread featuring 6-foot lady ballers from the New York Liberty—the so-called "Glamazons"—couture-clad, posing awkwardly with basketballs.
It's not working. No one is buying it, WNBA, and you're bleeding money to boot. You are a laughingstock.
And that makes me so, so sad.
So here's what you should do:
1) Embrace the dykes. Lesbians love you, and lesbians have money. It doesn't have to be some big, grand thing, but how about a same-sex, two-for-one ticket deal? Or, I don't know, Virginal Woolf bobblehead night. You've already gone down the road with the associating some New York Liberty marketing with New York Pride activities. That's working—so why not expand on the relationship between lezzies and teams, nationwide.
2) Embrace the rebels. Market yourself as a true alternative to other activities. The players who aren't having babies—what are they doing instead? They probably lead pretty interesting lives. They could be role models for single folks, or people who are wary of dominant culture. They could reach an untapped market.
3) Let go of the mommy fetish. Of course it's great if players have kids, and if families come to games. But the focus on the family strategy hasn't been working for over a decade. It's time to trash it.
In short, WNBA, it's time accept your fan base. Sorry that it's a bunch of dykes but, well, get over it.
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