By DAVID LEONHARDT*
Basketball is more fun to watch when a gym is closer to full than empty. High school games can feel electric with only a few hundred people in attendance. Pro games can feel depressing with thousands in the arena if there are more empty seats than full ones.
So I was excited when the Washington Mystics, my local W.N.B.A. team, recently moved to a new, smaller arena. Women’s basketball doesn’t draw as many fans as men’s basketball and can feel subdued in a cavernous N.B.A. arena. But the Mystics have a devoted, diverse group of fans — maybe the most racially diverse fan base I’ve ever seen — and moving to their new 4,200-seat arena in Southeast Washington was a great idea.
Unfortunately, I found the experience of attending a game there — last month, between the Mystics and the Las Vegas Aces — to be disappointing, even shoddy. One game doesn’t prove anything, and there have been shambolic N.B.A. games over the years. But I do think the Mystics’ problems fit a larger pattern, one that includes the players’ pay and travel arrangements, among other things.
For all of the claims that the N.B.A. (effectively the W.N.B.A.’s parent company) makes about women’s empowerment, the league disrespects its female athletes in multiple ways. Just as the unfair treatment of female soccer players has recently gotten attention, the situation in basketball deserves some, too.
One example: W.N.B.A. players are paid so little that many play during the off-season in China, Russia, Turkey, Western Europe and elsewhere — where the pro leagues often pay more. Last year’s M.V.P., Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm, tore a tendon while playing in Hungary and is missing this season, as Tamryn Spruill explained in SB Nation. “We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists,” Diana Taurasi, of the Phoenix Mercury, has said.
‘10, 9, 8, 7 … ’
The problems at the Mystics-Aces game started even before the fans got inside the arena. The entrances were a mess, a combination of too few lines and not enough competent security guards. I got inside before the game started, but many fans did not, despite arriving well before game time. They waited in lines that stretched around the block, and they were, understandably, not happy about it.
Once inside, I couldn’t understand why the game didn’t start at 7 p.m., as scheduled. At first, I wondered if the Mystics’ executives knew about the scene outside and were pushing back the start of the game until more people could enter. But no: The arena’s clocks weren’t working. The players stood around, dancing to the arena music to pass the time.
Eventually, the game started, and it was chaotic. There was a do-over on the jump ball to start the game, because the clock didn’t work the first time. An air horn had to be used to announce substitutions, at one point startling one of the Aces’ stars, Liz Cambage, as Matt Ellentuck of SB Nation noted. The shot clock didn’t function for much of the game, and a public-address announcer counted it down verbally, throughout the entire arena — “10 seconds, nine, eight … ” The whole scene was amateurish.
When N.B.A. executives are criticized for their treatment of the W.N.B.A., they typically respond that the women’s league doesn’t bring in enough revenue to justify more spending. But that’s shortsighted. I’m not saying W.N.B.A. players should make as much as N.B.A. players. I’m saying they should be treated decently. It wouldn’t require a huge amount of money, and it would be an investment in a league that the N.B.A. claims to value.
The N.B.A. deserves credit for starting the W.N.B.A. 23 years ago. It can do better, though. Its annual revenue of $9 billion seems like enough money to afford functioning shot clocks.
For more …
•The league refused to pay for first-class plane tickets for the players to attend this year’s all-star game, according to Bill Laimbeer, the Aces coach and former N.B.A. player. The league has also refused to hire charter flights for teams; last year, the Aces chose to forfeit a game after a 25-hour delay-marred cross-country trip.
•David Berri, an economist at Southern Utah University, has estimated that W.N.B.A. players earn a combined 22 per cent of their league’s revenue, compared with the 50 per cent of N.B.A. revenue players in that league earn. Mechelle Voepel of ESPN and Nancy Lough of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, have more on this.
•The W.N.B.A. has a new commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, a former chief executive of Deloitte. She has said her top priorities include improving the “player experience” and “fan experience.” I hope she succeeds. Perhaps she can persuade Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, to think about the lessons from this recent Wall Street Journal story — about the investments that cash-rich men’s soccer leagues in Europe have recently made in the women’s game there.
* David Leonhardt is an op-ed columnist with the New York Times