Pre-Season Opening Night in Seattle: Courtney Paris, Ashley Walker, Crystal Kelly...and a Great Atmosphere

. Friday, May 22, 2009
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Paying to see a WNBA pre-season game seems like a completely irrational choice compared to the alternative of sitting at home (or a bar) to watch Game 2 of the NBA’s Western Conference Finals.

Yet, I suppose the fact that I went to the Seattle Storm’s pre-season opener against the Sacramento Monarchs demonstrates how eager I am for the WNBA season to get started.

I have been to WNBA games in Key Arena before and the energy has always been high. So I was really curious to see what it would be like in this pre-season opener after a long, dark, rainy Seattle off-season (it had been gray and rainy earlier this week…and it’s May). But even though the crowd was relatively small at just under 5,000 people -- many of them kids – they more than made up for it with their energy. At times I couldn’t believe it was just a pre-season game. It was a great place to be overall…but more on that later.

Given the atmosphere, any hope of maintaining an analytical lens for this meaningless game was quickly tossed out the window.

I hadn’t really caught up on any media day information anyway so I went to the game not really knowing the state of either team. I figured I would just go and see what caught my attention. After all, it’s a pre-season game – teams are shaking off the rust, coaches are still evaluating players, and players are still learning how to play with each other in the team concept. Despite those factors, there are a few notes worth pointing out.

The first thing that struck me was the play of Ticha Penicheiro, but that’s to be expected from one of the all-time greats. Even though she is nearing the end of her career, her presence is felt every time she’s on the court. She appears to have total command of the game at every moment she’s on the court. She is one of the most decisive basketball players I’ve ever watched – male or female. And it’s an especially noticeable difference when her play is compared to that of the other point guards in the game who are unmistakably no more than back-up players, if not destined to be cut. I could go on...

But what really stood out for me was the play of the young post players in the game – Ashley Walker, Courtney Paris, Crystal Kelly. Kelly was someone who caught my attention during her rookie campaign last season as an extremely efficient post player. Paris is obviously a much more highly touted rookie who I actually saw play in person a few years back when Oklahoma played the University of San Francisco. I had never seen Ashley Walker play but heard good things about her career at the University of California – Berkeley.

But why is this so significant to me?

When I first tried to watch the WNBA back in the 1990’s one of the biggest critiques my dorm-mates and I had about the league was the lack of quality post play – compared to the NBA, it was rare to see players bang and fight for rebounds or establish position and pull off a drop step in the post to score on their opponent.

Watching now over a decade later, the improved post play is one of the most striking elements of the game. It’s possible that I’m just off base on this point, but it just seems like the post game is definitely evolving and part of that is likely the increasing visibility of the professional game over the last decade.

I find that analyzing post players is always easier to witness live than through the narrow lens of the television or computer screen, so it was great to get a chance to see these players up close.

Of course, this was only a pre-season game so it’s hard to make any broad claims about these young players. So I’m really going to rely on my subjective observations rather than the less subjective statistics. And overall, I think both teams have reason to be hopeful about their post players.

Crystal Kelly: Building on a solid rookie campaign

What impressed me most about Crystal Kelly last year was her instincts. Despite limited minutes and a shifting role on the team, she could just jump into the game and figure out how to rebound, get to the free throw line or score easy baskets. It’s not really something you see very often from rookies. With a year of experience under her belt and a full pre-season to work with her teammates, I would definitely expect her to become an even more efficient player throughout this season.

Really, last night was more of the same from Kelly. She sees the game extremely well. She does an excellent job of finding spaces in the defense and getting there as quickly as possible. When she gets the ball, there are few young players as decisive as she is in either attempting to score or passing the ball and finding herself another opportunity. She does not waste motion at all in moving around the court – in a way she embodies the old mantra be quick, not in a hurry.

However, as usual Kelly does these little things so quietly from play to play that it’s easy for her to go unnoticed, especially in a pre-season game when the point guard play and overall team ball movement are still suspect. It will be interesting to see how she does this season as she gets a better grasp of the team’s offense and her teammates get used to her.

Courtney Paris: Shall we believe the hype?

Sure, you may look at Paris’ line of two points, five rebounds, and one block and think, uh-oh, she’s not ready.

I would instead urge patience.

Let's put this in perspective: it was only her first game so I think the strengths that she demonstrated are actually more impressive than her weakness are disheartening.

Paris will clearly be a good rebounder for the Monarchs from the start. She’s got a big body, she’s not afraid to bang, and she is probably tough enough to fight with almost anyone in the league for rebounds.

That toughness she displays when fighting for rebounds is exactly what will help her offensively as well.

There was one play in particular in the first half where she literally came down the middle of the court, threw her forearms into the chest of her defender in stride, made a quick pivot, and established pretty good position on the block. She’s not afraid of contact and that’s a great sign for a young player. The problem comes after she touches the ball.

First of all, while she is tough and big, it seems that she’s not used to the strength of professional players. She’s going to have to adjust to the fact that she will feel more resistance from WNBA players than she did at Oklahoma. There were times in the second half where Kasha Terry – about 55 pounds lighter than Paris – was able to hold her position pretty well against Paris.

Second, once she got the ball in the post, she was rushing her moves. When her initial move was stopped, she wasn’t really able to recover and transition into a second move. Part of the trouble was that the Storm were doubling occasionally after Paris put the ball on the floor the first time. Since she went into her move so quickly, she wasn’t able to anticipate that double, got stuck, and had to make a frantic pass out of the post or take a poor shot. With a little more patience in the post, I imagine her footwork and hard-nosed play will allow her to become a much more effective post scorer.

Lastly, I think it’s important to note that these two things – strength and patience – are things that young post players always have to work out when they make the leap to the next level. After she adjusts to the opponents, adjusts to the offense, and figures out her role on the team I think she’ll be fine.

I think it will be interesting to see how Kelly and Paris fit into the Monarchs rotation. Both seem to have immense potential on an aging team. If they can continue to develop, they should have a very nice frontcourt duo for the future.

Ashley Walker: "A nose for the ball"

I had never seen Walker play before last night…but wow -- it's hard to miss her once she steps on the court.

She’s all over the court, wherever the ball is. Really, I could not even tell what position she was playing at times as she would be in the post fighting for rebounds on one play and then out guarding Hamchétou Maïga-Ba on the next play. Regardless, she just seemed to be making plays.

From Brian Agler’s post-game comments posted in audio format on the Storm’s website (at the 1:50 mark):

Yeah you see those types of players, those very good rebounders. Those are natural things you don’t teach a lot of that…that’s just a natural nose for the ball. You’ve heard that term a lot. You know those people just for whatever reason have it. They anticipate well, they sort of see what’s going to happen before it happens and just have the ability to make plays.
Really, she has very similar instincts to what I would ascribe to Crystal Kelly. The big difference is Walker really fights for boards in the post. She got three offensive rebounds simply as a result of out working her opponent and being in the right place at the right time.

She is probably a more versatile scorer than Paris or Kelly in that she seems to be able to do more with the ball in her hands, but like Paris, it seemed like she is still adjusting to the changing competition. I don’t recall her pulling off a strong post move, but she more than makes up for that by being able to hit short jumpers and create second chance opportunities.

Walker has a chance to be a real force in the WNBA. She’s tough, strong, and clearly has great instincts. She had some defensive lapses, but that was because she was guarding players clearly faster than her out on the perimeter, which is clearly not her strength at this time in her career. It will be interesting to see how she’s integrated into the offense long-term with the return of Lauren Jackson and the solid play of Ashley Robinson and Camille Little.

I think Walker is on her way to distinguishing herself on a solid Storm team.

An amazing atmosphere

Despite solid play from these three post players, the most striking thing about this game was the atmosphere, which I alluded to at the beginning of this post.

I was talking to a jazz musician the other day about the power of hearing live music – how it adds another layer to the music when you can watch the coordination of the artists, their emotions expressed through body language, and the energy that is put into making each note. It’s a value added to the listening experience that cannot be reconstructed with a studio recording.

Attending a live professional basketball game is similar to me (though not directly analogous) and part of that is because of the crowd – that energy cannot be recreated sitting at home.

For example, during one sequence in the third quarter, Ashley Robinson grabbed an offensive rebound and quickly put the ball back in with a short running bank shot. Then on the ensuing defensive possession, Robinson blocked a shot and the crowd just went nuts – you would have thought it was a mid-season game of some consequence.

To be sure, I imagine this is not too dissimilar to the pre-season in any sport – you have to be a special kind of rabid to shell out hard earned dollars to watch teams work out their bench players’ kinks. However, what’s unique about the WNBA environment is that it feels more like a community in the building.

When Robinson made those plays, people weren’t just yelling drunken cheers or turning to their neighbor and saying, “Wow, that Robinson sure can play.” The whole game they were not only calling players by their first name, but they were just shouting out words of encouragement as though they knew these people. I suppose it’s hard to describe in comparison to a NBA game or a college basketball game, but it definitely has its own unique feel; a friendlier, more positive atmosphere.

But what really got me was a moment near the end of the game.

I was writing down some final thoughts with about a minute to go when everyone started standing up. The game was pretty much over, not to mention the fact that it was meaningless to begin with. I had already checked out mentally and sort of got lost in my own thoughts about the game.

Then a boy in front of me – no older than six – with the most adorable big brown eyes and wavy brown hair stands up and looks over to his mom who had been quite motionless and disengaged for most of the game. He looks back at me as I’m jotting down a few more notes and I catch his gaze but quickly look back down and keep writing.

For some reason I looked back at the kid a few moments later and see him grinning. I sort of grin back and he starts smiling at me expectantly while widening his eyes, sort of begging me to stand up. I laugh, put my pad down and stand up with just about every other able-bodied person in the building.

At that point, he taps his mom on the shoulder and motions back to me as if to say, hey, if that dork taking notes all game is standing, so should you! She sighs and stands and he looks back at me with the most contented smile.

Now perhaps I’m just a sucker for a story like that because I used to be an elementary school teacher and I just think the innocence of childhood is among the best things humanity has to offer. But it was just amazing to me that this kid almost didn’t even care about the time and score, which is what we’re all coached to focus on during a close game. This kid was just completely lost in the moment and expected everyone else to join in with him. When the buzzer sounded the crowd gave the team a standing ovation and the kid looked back at me on his way out, still with that big smile.

Those moments don’t seem to come along very often and when they do, I absolutely treasure them. And there is something about the WNBA atmosphere that just cultivates this amazing spirit when you’re in the arena. I have no idea what it is – normally at sports games I’ve identified about three dudes I would fight (if I was a little bit taller…and bigger) by the fourth quarter. Something else was going on there in that pre-season WNBA game in the last minute. Something special.

(Edited for grammar and flow: 5/25/09)

Related Links:

Game recap from Jayda Evans:

Post-game interview with Ashley Walker

Storm Defeat Monarchs In Exhibition photo gallery

Transition Points:

It’s a shame players are going to have to get cut. When Kimberly Beck went down in the third quarter, my first thought was my lord, I hope she doesn’t get cut due to injury. When she did re-enter the game, it was great to hear the crowd applaud her.

There’s often an assumption that male WNBA fans attend games either with female partners or daughters, but it was great to see the large number of fathers with sons out at the game tonight as well. These players aren’t just role models for girls -- honestly if I wanted a son to learn the game of basketball, I’d be more likely to take him to a WNBA game than NBA game. That’s a personal choice and really a false dichotomy anyway since they’re played at different times…but you get the point…

My logic for skipping the NBA playoffs
last night was that I’d have at least two more chances to watch two teams I despise compete for a trip to the NBA Finals. I honestly don’t care who wins and every clutch shot Derek Fisher makes just makes me cringe (I’m an authentic Bay Area Laker Hater ever since they traded Eddie Jones back in 1999). Now that the Lakers lost, I have three more chances to catch that series. Double sweet.

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Rethinking Gladwell: Maximizing talent vs “insurgent strategies”?

. Thursday, May 21, 2009
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There are probably a few hundred commentaries floating around the web about Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece entitled, “How David Beats Goliath”.

While the early commentaries were positive saying the article was “worth a read” or provocative, the latest commentaries have torn Gladwell to shreds for the most part.

Most of the critiques are focused specifically on his framing of basketball strategy (I find that the basketball arguments are best articulated by Brian McCormick’s article at the Cross Over Movement blog). The two major themes of McCormick’s argument are that teaching girls to press abdicates the coach of responsibility for skill development in youth basketball and that the press as a strategy has diminishing returns at the higher levels of basketball.

I agree with McCormick on his assessment of basketball strategy in Gladwell’s article (with a caveat described below).

However, I am also sympathetic to the fact that Gladwell was not actually talking about basketball in that article at all. He was talking about the underdog broadly. And a few people who defend Gladwell’s article have picked up on that point.

In an article written yesterday (thus giving me another chance to finally jump in with my opinion) entitled, “Leave Malcolm Gladwell Alone” by John Gassaway at Basketball Prospectus, Gassaway writes the following.

What I took from Malcolm Gladwell’s piece was that far too often coaches–much like everyone else–rely on custom and the settled inertia of habit when instead they should, particularly if they’re facing a team that’s better than theirs, ask themselves a simple question: How can I surprise and discomfit my opponent? Gladwell found two coaches who have asked themselves precisely that question, as did T.E. Lawrence some 90 years ago. Coaches, writers, or anyone else can surely benefit from trying to attain their own prosaic “Aqaba, from the land!” In this Gladwell is better than correct. He is correct on something foundational.
While multiple people have taken this “element of surprise” argument from Gladwell’s article, it seemed like Gladwell clearly had a more specific claim. And perhaps that more specific claim was lost in the fact that his article tried to connect rather divergent examples and extract common principles, occasionally at the exclusion of critical attributes…which led to the complaints about his representation of basketball strategy.

Thankfully, Gladwell actually restated his argument more concisely…in two separate places. Which opened up a whole other can of worms for me: should we even accept his fundamental premise? And if we were to develop a theory of the underdog that “worked” for basketball, how would we do it?

Gladwell’s Argument

After I read Gladwell’s article and made a few notes, I came across two separate explanations of the article from Gladwell himself:

One from his own blog on May 13th (emphasis added):
The press is not for everyone. But then the piece never claimed that it was. I simply pointed out that insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David's only chances of competing successfully against Goliath, so it's surprising that more underdogs don't use them. The data on underdogs in war is quite compelling in this regard. But it's also true on the basketball court. The press isn't perfect. But given its track record, surely it is under-utilized. Isn't that strange?
And another from a ESPN Page 2 e-conversation with Bill Simmons (always a fan of the WNBA) also on May 13th (emphasis added):
Then, of course, Pitino takes one of his first Louisville teams to the Final Four in 2006 and this season's team to the Elite Eight, and no one's going to argue that either of those teams were filled with future Hall of Famers. Given that, then, why do so few underdog teams use the press? Pitino's explanation is that it's because most coaches simply can't convince their players to work that hard. What do you think of that argument?

After my piece ran in The New Yorker, one of the most common responses I got was people saying, well, the reason more people don't use the press is that it can be beaten with a well-coached team and a good point guard. That is (A) absolutely true and (B) beside the point. The press doesn't guarantee victory. It simply represents the underdog's best chance of victory. It raises their odds from zero to maybe 50-50. I think, in fact, that you can argue that a pressing team is always going to have real difficulty against a truly elite team. But so what? Everyone, regardless of how they play, is going to have real difficulty against truly elite teams. It's not a strategy for being the best. It's a strategy for being better.
So the point Gladwell is trying to make is not really about basketball at all – he’s using a basketball example to represent a broader principle that had apparently captured his interest: substituting effort for ability and challenging convention.

At one point I was really sure that I hated this underlying argument. Now I’m not sure what I think because it still just seems like a narrow and shortsighted argument…for two reasons.

My counter-argument: Re-articulating insurgent strategies…?

What I came to realize is that what I take issue with in Gladwell’s article is a matter of articulation more than a true disdain for his argument. So let’s just take his premise and examine it a little more closely:

...insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David's only chances of competing successfully against Goliath.

1) Is there really a true substitution of effort vs. ability in the case of successful underdogs or is it a matter underdogs developing the ability to do something very well?

For example, it is unclear whether Ranadive did in fact have to teach fundamental principles of defense – exploiting angles, good defensive stance, steering ballhandlers, or properly trapping (as explained by Glenn Nelson of HoopGurlz) -- in the process of teaching the press. The way he framed the Redwood City case did in fact represent the point he wanted to make about effort over ability. However, one could argue from the same argument that with the help of Rometra Craig – a defensive stopper who played for Duke and USC, according to Gladwell – is that this team actually just developed the ability to play defense really well.

Which brings me to one of my initial gripes with the article – a good press is not imposing “chaos” on an otherwise orderly game of basketball. As Kevin Pelton describes on Basketball Prospectus in his article entitled, Gladwell On Underdogs,
...if you talk to head coaches, you find that there is so much that is out of their control that they become borderline obsessed with consistency. From a mathematical perspective, consistency is good for good teams and bad for bad ones, but it’s easy to see its allure to the coach.
Basketball is not really an “orderly” game to begin with, so it’s not as though the press is imposing chaos. The press is a systematic means of speeding up the game by forcing the offense to make quick decisions.

As Glenn Nelson pointed out, you have to have a pretty good command of some basic defensive principles to even make a press work. Moreover, you really need to have quick guards that can even rotate to apply the pressure. A slow “David” would be foolish to apply the press.

Which leads to my second point…

2) Is defying convention really the best underdog strategy? If we think of the NBA circa 2007, we can see that defying convention was actually an underdog and dominant strategy – both the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns played an up-tempo small ball strategy. Now if you really want to argue that a team with Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion is an underdog, that’s your own business (which is an entirely separate point).

Being innovative at some point is probably the most effective strategy for anyone to win anything. Does the underdog bear an increased burden to be innovative? Possibly. But what happens when an underdog (Golden State) faces a dominant team (Phoenix) that employs the same unconventional strategy?

Prior to adding Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, Golden State lost 3 times to Phoenix. After adding them, they went 3-2 over two seasons. One could argue that what happened there was a change in talent, not the deployment of an unconventional strategy (that Nelson has used forever with differential effects).

So just being unconventional is neither sustainable nor inherently effective for the underdog. They have to have the ability to apply their effort to a strategy that wins games.

So I would argue a slightly different point that we might find more applicable to a wider range of underdogs – what the underdog does is know the conventions exceedingly well such that they are able to challenge the assumptions that the dominant team’s dominance is built upon. Therefore, it’s not just being unconventional for the sake of doing so, but making a reasoned decision to attack the dominant team at a blind spot that may have been disguised by their own assumptions of dominance.

Maybe what the underdog needs is a really good understanding of their own abilities and the abilities of their opponents and a strategy that attempts to exploit weaknesses. When you frame underdog strategy in that way, suddenly you come to the conclusion that the underdog might not ever be defying convention but challenging assumptions of what that convention means in practice.

And this still leaves a third question that I don’t have an answer for within Gladwell’s framework…

3) What is an underdog?

Kentucky’s 1996 team was not an underdog. Pitino’s team was loaded – “eight [NBA] journeymen and one marginal star” as Gladwell asserts is what I call loaded (and people often forget that Derek Anderson may very well have been the best player on that squad before his injury).

Given that Pitino’s 1996 squad could make a legitimate claim as one of the best teams in NCAA history, it’s puzzling to use them to support an argument about “underdogs”.

(This leads to another point that one could glean from watching the 1996 Wildcats: full court presses in my experience work best when the other team is taking the ball out after a made basket, which means the effectiveness of the press is partially dependent on a team’s ability to score baskets, which means that contrary to Gladwell’s argument, pressing is probably a better strategy for teams that can score more frequently.)

But it seems like Gladwell here is not talking about an underdog in the game to game matchup sense (as in who’s favored) but more about maximizing talent.

And that’s where I want to go here – the better discussion for youth basketball in particular is how do you maximize talent while simultaneously encouraging positive youth development (not only skill development, but learning that learning is hard and failure is a part of life)?

For that, I look at a different model from men’s NCAA basketball in 1996.

The 1996 Princeton Tigers

If you haven’t seen Princeton’s 1996 upset of the defending champion UCLA Bruins, check out the clip…and think about Coach Pete Carrill’s description of the game and his relationship to conventions:

Back cuts are quite conventional.

I’m not saying this clearly disproves Gladwell – it could be the exception to the rule. But in watching NCAA tournaments year after year in which there are a number of true underdogs (by any definition of the term), this certainly calls into question whether being unconventional is the way to go for an underdog.

What can we gather from this story?

Perhaps we could extend Gladwell’s inquiry by saying that what the underdog did here was control the tempo of the game to maximize their abilities.

Would we say that Princeton substituted effort for ability?

I wouldn’t…and in fact, I’m not even sure what that really means – unfocused effort does not win basketball games. It’s usually some combination of effort, ability, discipline, and reflection. Sometimes that might mean challenging conventions, sometimes not.

You figure out how to control the game, you execute your strategy, and find a strategy that puts your players in position to succeed.

Implications for Youth Development

The idea that underdogs substitute effort for ability is problematic for me because I’m not sure it reflects reality…or what reality it reflects.

I’m not going to apply this to other social phenomena at this time because there are some significant differences between underdogs in basketball, war, politics, or the workforce that I think are really difficult to ignore.

But in terms of youth development, if I were to coach an underdog squad, I think I would focus on their strengths and bolster those in addition to strengthening their weaknesses so if they wanted to go on in basketball they would have the skills to do so. In other words, I would maximize their talent and empower them to play to their best ability, rather than trying to challenge conventions.

And to reiterate, it’s not clear from Gladwell’s account that Vivek Ranadive failed to teach some skills. I would in fact assume that the girls did learn quite a bit about basketball strategy…since there was a D1 player present in Rometra Craig. A press does not work if you cannot score…or defend…or cut off certain angles.

To be clear, it’s not that Gladwell is completely wrong as much as that he’s just partially right – certainly effort is one part of the equation, but I would venture to guess that there is much more than that to basketball, war, or politics.

I’m not as revolted or disgusted by Gladwell’s article as others, I think the article just reflects a shallow understanding of successful basketball and what underdogs do in order to succeed.

Transition Points:

The PostBourgie blog makes an important point
about a problematic racial undercurrent of Gladwell’s article that I think the Princeton-UCLA example is susceptible to as well. An excerpt:
But the other part speaks to a very old, very insidious meme in the sports world, and basketball in particular: Black players are natively talented, and white players work hard and play smart. This is in no way a compliment to black folks, of course, what with its insinuation that black athletes are lazy, dumb, and possessed of some kind of peculiar physicality. But the idea is so much a part of the way sports are discussed in America that people will try to shoehorn reality into it.**

Remember the whole Geno Auriemma controversy around his comments about race and how some people dismissed his claims about racial stereotypes mattering in sports? This is exactly what I believe he was talking about and demonstrates how pervasive these stereotypes are in society. And the problem is not that they affect how we see sports, but that those perceptions have concrete consequences for how we understand race (and gender…and class) in the world beyond sports.

What intially caught my eye about Gladwell’s argument
is the age-old belief (myth?) of hard work leading to success. The same myth that everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Booker T. Washington to George Bush or Barack Obama might advance. We in the U.S. love the idea of “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps”. We U.S. citizens love the Horatio Alger myth. Hard work is fundamental to our adherence to the “American Dream”.

And it’s a farce.

But there is no need to challenge the Horatio Alger myth here – even the Wikipedia page contains a summary of those critiques. The point here is that there is something else at work underlying the success of an underdog. And really, I don’t think Gladwell believes that… so consider this point moot.

It would be really interesting
to look across a broader range of NCAA “Cinderellas” and see how they worked within/outside of conventions…but that would take way more time than I have.

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Expect Great ’09: A case study and reflection

. Monday, May 18, 2009
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Unfortunately, I don’t have any juicy information about the opening of WNBA training camps that you couldn’t get elsewhere.

So instead, I thought this was a good opportunity to comment about another major occurrence yesterday – the television premiere of the newest Expect Great ads.

As excited as I was about yesterday’s NBA game sevens, they were a huge disappointment, which is probably why my mind just wandered to this post.

I watched with 3 of my friends at my friend C’s house (pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of the innocent). As the games continued to suck, our attention wavered and we started talking about all kinds of random stuff, including watching YouTube clips of C’s brother’s band at one point.

So what ended up grabbing my attention was my friends’ responses to the Expect Great commercials. Of course, the commercials are what inspired me to write this blog so naturally I’m interested in how well this newest iteration “works”. And what better way to do that than with a bunch of over-educated dudes watching basketball?

Anyway, C is in love with his DVR and has now decided that he has no use for commercials. So we “accidentally” caught the WNBA commercials only twice (I’m not sure if they were on more than that throughout the afternoon). But I think the conversation (and non-conversation) was enough to make a point about this year’s first iteration of ads.

We are all graduate students (meaning we have a lot of time on our hands to think about inconsequential aspects of the world around us). None of them are WNBA fans and they don’t watch as far as I know. I’m not sure if they’ve ever been to a game. None of them played high school basketball, though I have played intramural basketball with C and R, both of whom did play a high sport. All of us, however, are NBA fans, and at least C and G are NCAA fans as well.

A random note that should not matter, but usually manages to come up in conversations:
C just got married last year (no kids yet), R is engaged, and G is pathetically single, like me.

Obviously, I had seen the ads before online and I’m assuming they had not. And prior to watching it with them, here’s essentially what I thought:

I agree with those who say they are an upgrade from last year – the gloomy tone is gone and the images are…interesting – but they still fall way short of building a buzz about the league among their target audience.

After watching it with my friends, here’s what I think now:

Whereas last year’s initial spots targeted men, grabbed their attention, and challenged them to interrogate their own biases (thus turning off a number of lunkheads who were shocked that women were allowed to leave the kitchen), this year’s ads are still targeted at men, but fail to grab their attention and hardly get them to interrogate their own biases.

My thoughts on last year’s ads

Just to recap, here’s what I thought about last year’s Expect Great ads:
My friend and I were trying to figure out if these “Expect Great” commercials were effective and whether we liked them. After some deliberation, the verdict was “no” on both counts.

The tone was probably too gloomy and it was just uninspiring. I also have a hard time getting over the grammatical incorrectness of “Expect Great”. I guess it grabs attention because it’s so awkward….but whatever…

So after thinking about what the commercials needed to communicate, here’s what we came up with: in order to appreciate the WNBA people have to stop comparing it to the men’s basketball as inherently “inferior”.

People have to be able to envision basketball without 300 pound 7-footers and highlight reel dunks. Somehow people need to redefine their own conceptions about what basketball is and how the women’s game fits under an umbrella that includes many distinct variations: the NBA, FIBA rules, And1 Mix Tapes, NCAA basketball, and everyday streetball.
That of course essentially frames the goal of this blog – to just appreciate the WNBA on its own terms and find ways to highlight its bright spots (some of the best female athletes in the world competing to see whose team is best).

So here’s what happened yesterday.

Data: My friends’ responses

So when the ad flashed on the screen for the first time, we were all just zoned out or in the middle of a conversation or something. The ad passed by without anyone even bothering to pay attention to it. If anyone did have a thought, they just didn’t share. My only thought was – man, that fell as flat on the big screen as it did on my computer.

But when it came on the second time, there was a different response, it went roughly as follows.

[Commercial ends]

[Collective reflective pause]

“You know I was just reading that Sheryl Swoopes is coming out of retirement this year…like she just had a baby two years ago or something,” says R.

[Collective bewildered pause]

“Yeah, I just read that Candace Parker is having a baby and might not be playing this year,” says C.


“Actually R, Swoopes played last year,” I say. “In fact, she played right here in Seattle for the Storm.”

“Oh,” says R somewhat surprised. “Well I thought someone was coming out of retirement or something.”

[Pause – I realize now he’s talking about Holdsclaw…but before I can respond…]

“You know I would really like to go to one of those games this summer if any of you are up for it,” says R.

“Yeah, I’ve been to a few. I was planning on going this summer,” I say. “We should get together and go sometime.”


Data analysis: Conflating old narratives

What I find absolutely fascinating about this is that R had essentially conflated three different major WNBA “narratives”:
  • Holdsclaw coming out of retirement
  • Swoopes, clearly a star around the time we were in college, who did have a child
  • And Parker, who just had a child
Clearly, R has some fledgling interest in the game and would go if given a reason (in this case, I would take him). But do the commercials on their own really tell him anything about the league or somehow give him a narrative to latch onto?


And thus he is left grasping at straws to create connections among a bunch of images of players he doesn’t even know.

The Holdsclaw story would certainly grab attention, but given that she’s left teams twice for personal reasons, making that story prominent for this season is probably inappropriate.

However, it is Lisa Leslie’s last season. People do know Swoopes. But I imagine the average male who knows those players knows nothing about the current league or who is even playing in their own city – even when it is Sheryl Swoopes.

C might have read the ESPN the Mag article about Parker or seen something on, but probably couldn’t tell you who Parker plays for.

Keep in mind, this was one of the most intelligent conversations I’ve had with men about the WNBA since the league started (I had a college roommate who is now a sports producer who just knew everything about every sport).

So where does this leave us?

Implications for Future Research

Obviously, I can't really generalize or make any causal claims based on this case study "data". However, it does lead me to some insights we could gain from this.

First of all, if the WNBA wants to target male fans (which I'm not saying is the best strategy) my group of friends are the type who I think the WNBA should be targeting. They're far more likely to show up at a game than the clown in the bar who is looking forward to lingerie football. Lingerie football and the WNBA are just incommensurable. Let the lunkheads do as they please, WNBA. We'll address them at some later date...

In this particular group of males, we do not see the blatantly disrespectful and dismissive remarks that we might find at the local dive bar or a Lingerie Bowl fan club. So they, like me, would probably be interested in the WNBA purely for the sport of it. They just need a reason.

However for this group – and many males like my friends – I imagine the WNBA equation looks something like the following:

WNBA = Leslie + Swoopes + Holdsclaw + Parker

I’m sure that there would be additional names added to this equation depending on location and age. And there may be additional individual differences based on where people went to college. But in my experience – this and others – even players like Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, and Diana Taurasi are relative unknowns on a national scale.

The problem, of course, is that Leslie, Swoopes and Holdsclaw are past their primes, if not retiring. And Parker won’t be playing for a while this season.

So when taking this “data” (really just grounded assumptions) into consideration, what can we say about WNBA marketing?

The first impulse might be to say that we need to pump up these “unknown” stars to demonstrate that indeed, the league has made progress since inception and there are reasons to watch.

But upon further reflection I thought of something else – with Leslie retiring, isn’t this the perfect time to come up with some “passing the torch” campaign? Something reminiscent of the “We Got Next” campaign? Like who has next after Leslie, Swoopes, and Holdsclaw are off the radar? Yeah, sure there’s Parker but now that she’s out for a bit, why not introduce the next squad who has next?

I thought the Olympics set the stage nicely for a “passing the torch” campaign – the Leslie to Fowles handoff was essentially executed in Beijing as far as I’m concerned. So why not expand that theme a little?

In addition to Fowles, there’s Candice Wiggins, who’s like lightning in a bottle off the bench. Then there’s a set of young players like Cappie Pondexter, Candice Dupree, Sophia Young and Seimone Augustus who can flat out play.

Fowles, Wiggins, Pondexter, Dupree, Augustus, Young…and of course there are others...

They got next. Why not tell us to watch them in your commercials?

Why not give people an actual story to follow of some sort?

This is not to say that Bird, Jackson, and Taurasi are somehow uninteresting – you know I love Taurasi. But why not build a narrative – no matter how contrived – that people might hear about and talk about and actually want to go see develop?

What if the conversation with my buddies involved hearing about the next dominant post player in the WNBA in Fowles? Or the scoring ability and intensity of Candice Wiggins (who some people may know from her NCAA days? Or Augustus’ ability to score 30 points on 80% shooting on one of the best defenses in the league?

You want my buddies to Expect Great? Tell them what’s been going on in the last decade since they last paid attention to Leslie, Swoopes, and Holdsclaw. Tell them what’s on the horizon and help them step into a developing story.

I’m not even suggesting a second iteration of “We Got Next” – the slogan could certainly change, but I think that spirit would be perfect for the WNBA right now. But everybody likes to be the one who picked up on the next big thing before they were the big thing. Why not help people get there?

Random images of people they don’t recognize and pictures of girls in the crowd ain’t gonna do it.

Transition Points:

The NBA has had similar campaigns “passing the torch” campaigns to promote Kobe and Tim Duncan in the post-Jordan years. Of course, it was all with the help of their corporate friends:

But some of it was the NBA’s own promotion of the game. Anybody remember the hype around the Kobe-MJ matchup in the 1998 all-star game?

There was also a brief effort to compare Dwyane Wade to Jordan (a disservice to both men) on a lesser scale as well.

We can debate whether these efforts were “effective” – and honestly, they annoyed me to no end -- but there’s no doubt that this set of players have ended up carrying the torch for the NBA while the world waited for LeBron to just take over.

And as though the anticipation around a Kobe-LeBron NBA finals showdown needed more hype this year, the commercial that got us all going during yesterday’s games was Nike’s Kobe-LeBron puppets commercials.

The thing is, I could imagine Kobe being that…um…”proud” of his accomplishments… I think it would even funnier if they added a Carmelo Anthony puppet just begging for some attention…

Something else I thought about: Right now may not even be the time to really campaign hard for the WNBA -- it's not starting until June 6th. So maybe right now is just the time to plant the seeds since there's not much to watch yet...maybe the WNBA will have a second iteration closer to June 6th tip-off? Who knows...

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