Reading stories to my kids before bed is always one of the greatest joys of my day. Their sheer excitement to pick a book is bliss in itself, although tears often ensue when they each want the same book or they fight over who gets to hold it while we read. You may think I’m crazy for saying this, but 3 year olds and 5 year olds are not always sweet. One of the staple books in our collection is The Little Engine That Could. Even into our adult lives, we’ve all found inspiration at some point from the book’s mantra, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” I’m still convinced that Dory from Finding Nemo was based off of the Little Engine with her encouraging words of, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” They’re even both blue and they’re both female…insert double-take followed by mental explosion here. It wasn’t until I was reading the story to my own kids for the first time that I realized the given pronoun: “The very little engine looked up and saw the tears in the dolls’ eyes. And SHE thought of the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain who would not have any toys or food unless SHE helped.” I’m certainly not about to create an argument for a feminist allegory, but knowing that leads us down other tracks as we consider how long women’s basketball has been trying to climb up the mountain to the voice of, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”
In many ways, women’s basketball, especially at the WNBA level has been climbing the mountain since their inaugural game on June 21st, 1997. In case you need help doing the math, that’ll be 25 years this summer. While the league is still growing, floundering abounds as well that has yet to be rectified. The paradox of women’s basketball is that, unlike on the men’s side, the pinnacle point is college. Young female hoopers pour in the same hours and work that the boys do to earn coveted DI scholarships, but because of what lies beyond, college is the point of divergence for men and women. Right now every NCAA men’s basketball fan is holding its breath to see if their team’s star is heading to the draft, staying for another year, or jumping into the transfer portal to improve draft positioning. Every men’s hooper dreams of NBA fame and dollars, and even those who never grace the hardwood at the highest of levels know that the NBA is Everest.
Pop quiz #1: Name 5 WNBA players. Got them? No? So the average sports fan will probably get as far as Brittany Griner and Diana Taurasi, and we’ll throw in Chiney Ogwumike but likely because of her work on ESPN as part of the duo of “Chiney and Golic Jr.” as opposed to her WNBA success. The reasons for Griner’s and Taurasi’s names being at the forefront are because of their work in college at Baylor and UCONN respectively. They became household names there. Some of that is because of their winning ways, some because of a little controversy here and there (Griner did throw a wicked right hook breaking Jordan Barncastle’s nose in a college game), but mostly because they didn’t let you forget them. Griner’s imposing force even led to a discussion about her potentially playing in the NBA. Taurasi was donned “White Mamba” by the Mamba himself, the late Kobe Bryant. They forced their way up the mountain and took everyone with them they could. They entered the WNBA with the mindset of doing the same, but the uphill climb is far more arduous and thus many sports fans have forgotten that they are still playing.
South Carolina’s domination of UCONN in this years women’s title game reached 4.85 million viewers and peaked at 5.91 million. It was the most watched women’s title game since 2004 when the OG legends Geno and Pat went head-to-head. While some see that as growth within women’s basketball it is just the swinging of the William Wallace sized double-edge sword that must be dealt with: fan investment in women’s basketball is not about the players, it’s about the coaches. While there are still big time women’s players that make a name for themselves, take Paige Bueckerss, for example, they are the anomaly in what drives women’s basketball. No one can contest that women’s college hoops has some of the best coaches on the planet. Throw Geno, Dawn Staley, Tera VanDerveer, Kim Mulkey, or Jeff Walz over to the men’s side and they wouldn’t miss a beat. There are certainly coaching titans for the women and always have been, but the uniqueness of modern NCAA men’s basketball is that even though fans laud the K’s and the Cal’s, at the end of the day fans are coming out to see the players play. While March Madness 2022 was headlined as Mike Krzyzewski’s last ride, the modern era fan is tuning in to see which small school player is going to ball out and upset a blue blood or which potential lottery pick is going to lead his tradition-rich team back to the promised land. Flip the coin to the women’s and the investment is billed like a heavyweight boxing match, it’s “Geno v Staley” just like it was “Geno v Pat” in 2004. Coaches drive the college women’s game and thankfully they are doing a great job of it, but there in lies there rub, they can’t do it for the WNBA at the same time that they are doing it for the college game.
Pop Quiz #2: Name 3 active WNBA coaches. I know you have Becky Hammon in with her having been center stage of almost becoming the first female NBA head coach. Instead of shattering the glass ceiling, she succumbed to what was sadly always going to be her fate in the WNBA. Not to say that the WNBA is a consolation prize, but it’s hard not being dismayed by a lost opportunity to break a barrier. Back to the quiz answer: Did you get Derek Fisher? Mr. 0.4 himself is in his 3rd year leading the LA Sparks. If you went 2 for 3 I’m impressed. There have been some interesting names that have come through the WNBA coaching ranks including Muggsy Bogues, Michael Cooper, Bill Laimbeer, and Cheryl Miller, but could you imagine the fan interest and the financial investment that would come to the WNBA if Geno traded his Husky mascot for the Sun? Yes there is a WNBA team called the Connecticut Sun, get with the program! And in the same era Dawn Staley got quoted saying, “You can run but you can’t hide, Geno!” and took over another WNBA team? Those head-to-heads showdowns would be top news stories and maybe even be broadcast somewhere besides Prime Video and Facebook which is where many WNBA games air. With all the talk about who is going to coach the LA Lakers, maybe some big name coaches will forgo the melodrama that continually plays in that league and head over to the W. Next year’s WNBA playoff coaches could include Doc Rivers, Steve Kerr, or Pop allowing them to coach actual basketball instead of be a glorified sports psychologist with a clipboard.
Supporters of the WNBA want to look and feel and pay and attract like the NBA does but they want it right now, and there are talented coaches in the WNBA, but growing the league means growing its brand and branding is not about raw talent it’s about marketability. While the pump is primed and engines are ready to take off, the WNBA still waits for the one train to take them over the mountain. The NBA has been around for 75 years and is only now a players league. Great coaches were the ones that paved the way and developed the NBA into what it is now as we watch it on our Instagram feeds. Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, K.C. Jones, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich were trailblazers that helped generational stars become legends. That narrative has only recently shifted as the stars now make or break coaches, but again, that shift is relatively new. The WNBA needs to rely on its own timing to create its identity, but they also need the right people to do that… just like the NBA did. The little train full of toys and candy for the boys and girls on the other side of the mountain sat helpless for a long time and was ignored by many who could help. It didn’t take the strongest train or the most popular train, just the one that was willing to hitch it up. The women’s game is beautiful, but consumers are fickle. It’s a game that’s ready to finish its rise, and once fans experience what the league has to offer, it’ll have the chance to develop in its own way and become it’s own unique sporting event. But until household names of coaches start pulling the train, the WNBA will simply have to just keep swimming for awhile longer.