The WNBA Will Need More Than Parker's Spark

. Thursday, June 12, 2008
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Candace Parker received so much hype before even playing a WNBA game that her debut against the Mercury was almost like a formality for her entry into superstardom.

“I liken Candace Parker to when the Lakers acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and then in 1979 we acquired Magic Johnson and then in 1983-84 we acquired James Worthy,” said former L.A. Laker and Sparks coach Cooper in a matter of fact tone in a recent video. “But we got all those three players in one on one day in one draft.”

(Whoa... in case you’re counting, Cooper attributed 5 championships, 9 NBA MVPs, 6 NBA Finals MVPs, 38 all-star appearances, and an unsuccessful talk show to Parker in one fell swoop.)

Parker has indeed brought a needed spark to the longest standing women's professional sports league. So maybe it’s understandable that she has already been labeled everything up to and including, “The Messiah”, here to save the WNBA from financial doom.

Thankfully, now that Parker has actually played a game, we can try to make a more realistic assessment of her potential impact on the WNBA. Parker is definitely, “…the kind of player women's professional basketball must have as it seeks to embed itself in the public consciousness…” as L.A. Times columnist Kurt Streeter wrote after her unprecedented WNBA debut. She’s a basketball player who can play any position on the court (even if it’s not the best idea to play her at point guard). She’s not just “great”, she’s unique, potentially dominant, and almost the stuff of basketball fantasy.

And yet, it’s completely unfair to call her the savior of the WNBA...because nobody can do that alone.

The Realist’s Perspective

The realists around the blogosphere have already presented some good reasons why we should hold off on anointing Parker the savior of the WNBA: it’s a burden, she needs to pay her dues, and it’s a slight to WNBA veterans that came before her. These are all solid points, but don’t necessarily exclude the possibility of her saving the league eventually.

(By the way this type of rookie hype is not unheard of in professional sports – Lebron James had a Nike commercial showing his first game before he played it.)

Parker has superstar talent and superstars are necessary to elevate a sport. More importantly, in addition to the talent and vibrant personality, she knows she’s a superstar and she is used to handling the spotlight. She’s dealt with high expectations since middle school and always met them, including her history making victory in the Slam Dunk contest at the 2004 McDonald's High School All-American Game (when I first heard of her).

"I try to play basketball and whatever happens happens," she said in a Chicago Tribune article. "All that other added pressure is unnecessary."

I agree she has to pay dues – in fact, I normally hate it when these young athletes come in and gain instant stardom before actually accomplishing anything. The WNBA definitely has other great players. But really now, how many 6’5” players in the W can play 5 positions? The fact is, Parker is just on a different level in terms of her skill set so it makes sense that she’s getting this kind of media attention.

Without taking anything away from those who came before her, Parker has already had a massive impact on people’s perceptions of women’s basketball. But saving a league is a much taller task that takes more than one talented player.

An Historical Perspective

I dug up an April article from COSELLOUT that asked whether Parker and Candice Wiggins could do for the WNBA what Magic and Bird did for the NBA. It is worth revisiting now that we are watching a revival of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the current NBA Finals:
Can "Candace vs. Candice", the Olympics, and a new young talent pool propel the WNBA to new heights? Can men with old notions about women’s basketball realize that the quality of the game has steadily improved while they weren’t looking. Can the 2008 NCAA Women’s Finals have a similar impact (relatively speaking!) as Magic over Bird in 1979?

This does in fact seem like a unique moment in the history of the WNBA – the Candace vs. Candice NCAA finals, the Olympics, and Parker’s rise to superstardom make this an ideal moment to “propel the WNBA to new heights”. It seems like an almost perfect convergence of new talent, media exposure, and a major stage, to shift perceptions of women’s basketball. It would be foolish not to take advantage of such an opportunity.

With the Lakers and Celtics currently playing in the NBA Finals, even casual basketball fans have probably heard plenty about Bird and Johnson’s rivalry from the 1980’s. So it makes for an interesting case to consider in thinking about Parker’s potential to save the WNBA.

How Bird and Magic Rescued the NBA from the “Dark Ages”

When they entered the NBA in 1979, they brought the energy from a rivalry that began with Magic’s Michigan State team beating Bird’s Indiana State team for the NCAA championship. Prior to that, most teams were losing money due to a low public opinion of the game. Disputes among owners, drug use, and – by some accounts – negative attitudes about the increasing numbers of black players all hurt the league’s image.

Though they each one titles early in their careers, 1984 was probably the tipping point. ESPN columnist Damien Cox wrote a nice article about the potential for Sidney Crosby to save the NHL in which he also examined the impact Bird and Magic had on the NBA:
“Most agree, however, that the 1984 Finals that went seven games before the Celtics prevailed provided a powerful gravitational force that pulled the rest of the NBA upward. Stern saw the power of promoting the stars and the globalization of the game, franchise values skyrocketed and the NBA entered a golden age.”

(It’s worth noting that a sophomore phenom from the University of North Caaaaarolina was also drafted in 1984.)

But there’s more to this story: having two equally talented players leading teams with distinct styles of play was just the start. The key element of the NBA’s revival – and what Stern captured with an increased focus on marketing the athletes instead of teams – was the drama that this individual rivalry brought to the NBA.

Although it might sound overstated, the Boston – LA rivalry tapped into a number of underlying social dynamics that struck a chord with the public consciousness. It was about East vs. West, the blue collar ethic of Boston vs. the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and an outlet for post-civil rights racial tensions. Along with their contrasting personalities and distinct team identities, it made for great drama.

It was the drama created by the rivalry – not solely their superstar talent – that marked the transition of the NBA from just a game to great entertainment. For better or worse, as the entertainment value and interest in the individual stars increased, casual fans began to take interest in the NBA and set the stage for increased ratings. Drama created intrigue. Intrigue attracted the casual fan.

So the sports marketing lesson learned from the NBA’s rise in the 80’s is simple: drama sells. But the NBA’s drama was created by a combination of good talent, good strategy, and perhaps pure coincidence…or fate, depending on your worldview.

Unfortunately, the WNBA has a much more difficult path to establishing the type of drama that just seems to “embed itself in the public consciousness”.

Why Parker is Not Quite Enough to Save the WNBA

First, it’s becoming clear that the Candace vs. Candice rivalry has not had the same impact as the Magic vs. Bird rivalry because, well, Candice is not (yet) in the same stratosphere as Candace. The Magic and Bird rivalry was great because they were both able to carry their team to NBA championships. Each season brought another chance for one of them to establish themselves as the best in the league.

Aside from the fact that Candace dominated their NCAA championship meeting, Candice hasn’t had near the impact that Candace has had. There shouldn’t even be a conversation about rookie of the year…though someone will probably try to start it just to be controversial and manufacture suspense.

(I promise not to use “Candace” and “Candice” that much in a paragraph ever again)

Second, the WNBA is not the same as the NBA. Not to mention that it doesn't have near the established tradition that the NBA had when Magic vs. Bird arrived. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that people always want to compare the two and label the WNBA “inferior”. People just need to accept that the WNBA is a different type of basketball that needs to be appreciated on its own merits. It may seem obvious, but it’s a difficult challenge to overcome when the NBA marketing machine has done such an amazing job of embedding a particular brand of basketball in the public consciousness.

Even if Parker and Wiggins (or Sylvia Fowles, for that matter) could create a measure of drama, they’d still have to deal with this problem.

The third challenge is what I believe to be the core motivation behind the “Expect Great” campaign. Every single WNBA marketing campaign seems to illustrate the need to overcome a troubling social reality (…or construction): that people struggle with the notion that “womanhood” can include “athlete” without including “sex object”. Not to mention further stigma associated with racial identity or sexuality...

The WNBA has the burden of overcoming the typically unspoken assumption that an “unsexy” woman who plays basketball is not worth watching. It’s hard to ignore that the double standards that women are held to frame expectations about the WNBA. The casual fan will not consider the WNBA valid as long as it’s acceptable to publicly demean the athletes, regardless of the product on the floor.

This society is still not free from the double standards of sexism, men aren’t the only ones guilty of perpetuating it, and Parker is not going to save us from that alone.

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers…

Die-hard fans will love Parker because they can genuinely appreciate her mastery of the game. The most successful leagues -- right now the NBA and NFL – have found ways to appeal to the casual fan in order to increase their numbers. But what do casual fans want? Drama – the same thing that makes reality TV so appealing.

Put simply, a league’s success is not measured by excitement or hype, but numbers -- attendance numbers and television ratings. It takes a long time for a league to establish itself – even the NBA, National Football League, or Major League Baseball – and the WNBA probably has even more challenges.

Therein lies the challenge for the WNBA – creating a drama that appeals to the casual fan AND overcoming all the other barriers that women’s sports face. Parker, nor any other individual human being, can do that alone.

In the meantime we should just enjoy her rookie season because she’ll only have one of those (I’ll assume she’ll get multiple championships).

Related Links:

Inside Candace Parker’s Historic debut

The Magic Hour

Nike Commercial “Pressure” – a dramatization of Lebron James’ rookie debut…before he played it…

Sparks rookie Candace Parker is exactly what the WNBA needs,1,3357271.column

Candace Parker: A Special Player, But Not the WNBA's Savior

Storm Blog: TV Alert

Parker's dunk title a win for women's hoops

WNBA asks a lot, and Parker delivers,1,3667676.story

Can “Candace vs. Candice” Become Magic vs. Bird for WNBA?

Some expect Crosby to elevate NHL in first Cup finals, but is that fair?