Storm + Mercury + Key Arena = The Perfect Way to Market the WNBA to NBA Fans

. Wednesday, August 5, 2009
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When Bethlehem Shoals of (a blog about the NBA, but not merely about basketball) asked me to recommend a Seattle Storm game for us to go to, the choice seemed obvious.

“The best game for a NBA fan to see will be the Mercury on Aug 4 or Aug 21,” I wrote back.

The Mercury feature two of the top candidates for WNBA MVP in Phoenix wing players Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, a high-octane offense that almost any NBA fan would recognize as reminiscent to Phoenix’s NBA counterpart, and as Mechelle Voepel wrote last month, Storm vs. Mercury just has that panache”.

And last night's game certainly did not disappoint. Nor did the Key Arena atmosphere.

Although the Storm lost to the Phoenix Mercury in overtime 101-90, the game featured heroics from Storm point guard Sue Bird (again) at the end of regulation, a Taurasi-like performance from Taurasi, and Storm guard Tanisha Wright torching the Mercury for 21 in the first half en route to a career-high 25 points.

And oh yeah, Bill Russell was there too…and even more importantly, a Storm Trooper tried to step onto the court after a particularly bad call from the ref in the second half.

However, I spent most of the game talking to Shoals and another male friend, who I shall call Rudy (yes, the basketball version). Neither of them had ever been to a Storm game and both had expressed interest in going at various times this summer.

All three of us fit that 18-35 year old male demographic and I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching both NBA and NCAA men’s basketball with them at various times. I would consider both informed NBA fans that appreciate professional basketball as a sport as much as for its entertainment value. Rudy is a New York Knicks fan who I’ve watched, played, and talked basketball with for about four years now. We have all attended graduate school and are overeducated to different degrees.

These guys aren’t the “average lunkhead male” – they appreciate the game of basketball and have the ability to formulate sentences without grunting and demeaning women.

So long story short – they both enjoyed the game (in different ways perhaps) and said they would like to come back.

During the game we had one of those running conversations full of tangents, non-sequiturs, and worm holes, talking about the league, making comparisons to the NBA, and talking about Bill Russell. And there were elements of our conversation during the game that I found interesting in the context of my ongoing interest in how the WNBA could market to male NBA fans.

So to help answer the question, how can the WNBA market the game to male fans?, I ask another question:

What sort of first impression(s) might the WNBA make on (over)educated male NBA fans?

The crossover worm hole

Shoals met Rudy and I on the east side of Key Arena and immediately tossed me into one of his warped worm holes. A tweet sums up the issue nicely:

"Talking with @kpelton about who has the best crossover-as-fake, not just handle, in the league. I vote Wade, he suggests Rose. Et toi?", he tweeted.

Good lord.

If you knew me, you would know that I was not actually annoyed at the question because it’s stupid or somehow insignificant. The question was annoying because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Shoals and I had been to the Adonai Hood Classic on Sunday as well and we talked about the issue there while watching Jamal Crawford. But as we started to come up with answers at the Storm game it became clear that the answer changed depending on any number of other variables that influence a player's decision to make a crossover.

Anyway...Pelton had apparently suggested that Cappie Pondexter had among the best crossovers in the WNBA and I agreed. So in addition to mentally running through every different variant of the “crossover” that I could imagine, I began the game paying close attention to Pondexter’s crossover. And of course, with Wright’s phenomenal first half performance, her ability to get to the basket with her crossover also became a part of the conversation.

But even though I’ve watched Pondexter play quite a bit, she never ceases to impress – as I told Shoals and Rudy, she is a triple-double threat almost every night. And her crossover is a major part of that.

She not only has arguably the best crossover in the WNBA, but also uses it extremely effectively in a number of different ways – on the fast break to get by whoever is standing in between her and the basket, in the half court to gain separation for whichever type of jumper she feels like punishing her defender with at the moment, or simply to penetrate to the basket to set up another player for a scoring opportunity.

Pondexter didn’t actually have a stellar game – going 6-19 from the field – but she also grabbed 8 boards and recorded 5 assists, at least backing up claim that she’s a triple-double threat.

Making NBA comparisons

At various points during the game we attempted to make comparisons to NBA players, since their frame of reference is the NBA. I normally hate doing that (because really it does a disservice to all sides), but since Rudy kept coming up with them, I rolled with it and it ends up being a good way to familiarize oneself with the game.

For example, we decided that Storm forward Lauren Jackson was like the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki with the heart to play inside, Storm forward Swin Cash like the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Jeff Green with a better perimeter game, and DeWanna Bonner like Golden State Warriors forward Brandan Wright (not necessarily in terms of style play, but skinniness). Rudy at one point suggested that Storm guard Tanisha Wright is like the Utah Jazz’s Deron Williams, but I rejected that.

However, what’s interesting is that Pondexter – and Taurasi – seemed to defy comparison. Which is actually an interesting insight because it suggests that the WNBA actually adds something to the basketball universe. Imagine that?

WNBA player versatility

Skills seem to be much more evenly distributed across positions in the WNBA than the NBA, meaning you don’t have post players who have no skill other than being tall and dunking. On the perimeter, multiple players are able to initiate the offense.

And as Shoals mentioned later via email, “a bunch of versatile skilled players is the NBA's wet dream.”

Shoals was alarmed by the fact that 6’5” forward Lauren Jackson was hovering around the three point line and that guards Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright seemed to be splitting the responsibility of initiating the offense. Part of the reason why Rudy made the comparison of Wright to Utah’s point guard Deron Williams is that Wright almost appeared to be the point guard at times because she had the ball in her hands so often.

Taurasi was leading fast breaks, shooting threes, aggressively trying to block shots, and occasionally running the offense. Mercury center Tangela Smith was 4-6 from three point range and Storm center Camille Little hit a three to tie the game at 81 with 44.7 seconds left in regulation. I mentioned that if they watched a team like the Detroit Shock – who really don’t have a traditional distributing point guard – they might have been even more confused.

Shoals is a fan of versatile players and the blurring of positions that seemed to be occurring on both teams actually seemed to be one of the more exciting elements of the game to him. It makes basketball much more fluid and actually makes offenses much more interesting to watch, if you know anything about x’s and o’s.

Yes, males of the lunkhead persuasion will complain about missed layups and lack of dunks, but as Shoals pointed out, overall, few missed shots are actually bad shot attempts. Because there are so many versatile players who can move the ball and find different ways to score, the scoring opportunities created are pretty solid.

This is basketball in which style does not take precedent over substance, but the substantive abilities of the players give the game a style that the NBA aspires to (a “wet dream”)…or once had.

The WNBA as throwback game

It was interesting that Bill Russell was in the crowd because at multiple times throughout the game, Shoals mentioned how the game reminded him of the type of basketball you see in old footage of NBA basketball in the sixties.

“Weird Russell was there, that game reminded me of sixties ball,” he tweeted at one point.

For the uninformed, that is not a slight of the WNBA game – for someone who appreciates the sport of basketball, it’s a complement. In fact, both he and Rudy commented that given the choice between the WNBA and men’s NCAA basketball, they would probably watch a WNBA game. Shoals was quite adamant about this and I’ll leave him to explain that at some other point.

When you have versatile players and offenses predicated on passing and cutting without dunking, you don’t get worse basketball, you get sixties NBA basketball. Shoals noted at one point that even the post players get their points by cutting and being in the right position rather than on the two man isolation game that tends to dominate the NBA. Personally, as someone who appreciates ball movement and fluidity in basketball, that makes the WNBA one of the most appealing syles of play.

Framed in that way, it’s no wonder that someone like Bill Russell “is on record as being a big fan of the WNBA's style of play” as Kevin Pelton noted during the game on his live blog. As Bob Ryan alluded to in his article, “The Game You’re Missing” last year, if you actually know anything about basketball, you almost have to appreciate WNBA basketball.

If you don’t appreciate basketball, just say it… but don’t disrespect a game you know nothing about.

Engrossed to the point of standing during timeouts

In between all of our meta-analysis of basketball as a phenomenon, we did actually pay attention to the game.

Key Arena – and other arenas around the league – have a ritual of standing until the home team makes its first basket.

Rudy liked this – it seemed to add to the collective atmosphere when everyone sat down at the same time after the first shot. Shoals, who nobody could describe as a “joiner”, was initially less enthusiastic, grumbling when I implored him to stand up at the beginning of the game.

However, in overtime, as Shoals and I were standing and chatting about something or other, he stopped mid-sentence and said, “Wait – do we have to stand during timeouts too?”

Why we were standing during a timeout like dunces is beyond me… but that’s beside the point.

The point here is that the game was engaging in a way that just sort of grabs you and forces you to get caught up. Part of that is a direct result of being in Key Arena – it’s just an amazing basketball venue and when the crowd gets going, it’s difficult not to find yourself caught up in a wave of Storm fanaticism.

But a major part of it is that this is just good basketball and true fans of the sport would find a hard time not getting swept up in it.

The other side of the 18-35 year old demographic

Petrel of the Pleasant Dreams blog emailed me yesterday in response to my post about WNBA marketing and reminded me that there really is no monolithic 18-35 year old male demographic. Within that demographic there are people who are non-sports fans or sports fans who are not moved by the idiocy of shock jock sports radio. But more importantly, there might also be a cross-section of that demographic who is able to appreciate the WNBA game simply because it’s good basketball.

The unfortunate reality is that precision ball movement, cutting, and versatility – the strengths of the WNBA game – are simply not conducive to the short attention span clips of Sportscenter that people have become so accustomed to. To appreciate the WNBA, you can’t expect to be wowed by a highlight reel dunk; to appreciate the WNBA, you have to learn to appreciate the nuance of basketball.

And the best way to do that is probably to show up to a game.

Transition Points:

Thanks to Patrick from the Chasing the Title blog for providing us with these tickets.

Part of Shoals’ infatuation with Bill Russell stems from his interest in having Russel write the intro to his next FreeDarko book, which he is currently doing research for. He’s spent quite a bit reading about the man. Rudy actually went over to Russell and shook his hand, but apparently got no real response from the legend. Just one of millions of hands shaken.

In an attempt to stop over-analyzing basketball, I missed most of the halftime show to go grab a beer. However, Shoals’ girlfriend who was with us, thought the dogs during the halftime show were among the best part of the Key Arena experience.

It’s hard not to admire Tanisha Wright’s game and Patrick Sheehy has a great article on SPMSportsPage profiling Wright. Definitely worth a read. Although I’ve often focused on her offensive abilities, Sheehy does a good job articulating her impact on the defensive end.

I also watched the Los Angeles Sparks’ loss to the San Antonio Silver Stars earlier in the day, a matchup between the Storm’s two previous opponents. Would those games – a triple-overtime win against the Sparks and an overtime win against the Silver Stars – be as effective in swaying NBA fans? I’m not sure… the Mercury’s high-octane style of play is really perfect to entice new fans…we’ll see what Shoals thinks of future games. By the way, down two with four Olympic caliber post players on the floor, why do you settle for a jumper from point guard Kristi Harrower and a three from a frigid cold Tina Thompson…I don’t get it.

Storm Troopers need to remain a prominent part of the Key Arena atmosphere. Here's why: Shoals commented at one point that the refereeing in the WNBA seems to be less invasive than that of the NBA game, making the point that there aren’t quite as many stoppages of play…but I think that was more a function of the Mercury’s style of play. For the most part, their calls were inexplicable. While I don’t complain about the refs often because they make consistently inexplicable calls against both teams, I thought it would have been plenty appropriate for a squad of Storm Troopers to rush the court, capture the refs, and detain them until further notice.