Monday, September 17, 2007

Have you seen them?

This year's WNBA catchphrase is "Have You Seen Her?" How appropriate that was, especially during the playoffs.

I am not ashamed to say it but I love watching women hoops. Whether it's college or pro, women basketball is the closest thing to seeing the game played the way it should.

Below the rim. Precise offensive patterns. Proper screens. Mid-range outside shooting. Passionate play.

But I often had to play Sherlock Holmes to find the games. It might be on NBA TV, or might not. It might be on ESPN or ESPN2, or maybe not.

It might be on 7:00 pm Eastern time, or may be later. You had to catch it if you can.

Even Sunday's game five of the championship finals, the deciding game in which either Phoenix or Detroit would walk away with the trophy, the start time or channel was not listed in my local newspaper's daily TV guide. I lucked up and found it anyway:

By the way, the Mercury brought Phoenix its first pro basketball title by leading Detroit from tip to buzzer.

The WNBA has completed its 11th season. The primary reason why it is still around is two words: David Stern. As long as the NBA commish loves having it around, and co-signs his league's annual subsidies, the WNBA will continue to exist.

"The WNBA is the best league," boasts Ann Meyers-Drysdale, who in her first year as Phoenix general manager, brings home a crown.

However, she forgets to mention -- It's the women's only major league pro sport in America. The only hoops game in town during the summer.

Nonetheless, the WNBA continues to be seen through minor league eyes., and treated even less.

The 2007 post season was perhaps the WNBA's most exciting in history. Several first-round games were decided in overtime. For the second consecutive season, the defending champion played in the finals, and the championship series went the distance.

However, did you see them? ESPN, supposedly the WNBA's broadcast partner, preempted a couple of playoff match ups, including a triple-overtime thriller, in favor of the Little League World Series. I haven't seen such disrespect since the final game of the 1980 NBA Finals were tape-delayed and show as part of the late, late show.

But you won't hear that from WNBA President Donna Orender, who acts more like cheerleader than league top dog. When the league and ESPN announced a eight-year television package during the All-Star Game in July, both she and network exec refused to reveal the financial details. Quite a contrast to when the NBA's new TV package was released this summer.

Here are the details: Under the new ESPN/WNBA deal, each team will get approximately $2 million annually -- $26 million over the life of the contract. The NBA television deal with TNT, ABC and ESPN will net each team between $25-30 million.

No wonder Orender didn't want to talk about it. She got fleeced, but her cheery self won't publicly admit it.

"It still has a long way to go," USA Today's Oscar Dixon, who covers both the NBA and the WNBA, told me during All-Star weekend. When asked about the WNBA's long term survival, "I don't think it has reached its full potential."

Now that the season is over, many players are off to parts far and wide. The league stars head overseas, where the money is exceedingly better. At least, three times better.

The average salary for a WNBA player ranges from $32,500 for rookies, $50,000 for veterans, and a maximum $93,000 for superstars.
The average salary for a NBA player: $2 million

"We are on our hustle right now," says Washington Mystics forward DeLisha Milton-Jones. "I have not experienced a vacation since I started playing professional basketball."

"They got to make the money when they can make (it)," adds Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer.

Is the WNBA concerned about their star players virtually all year round? The wear and tear? Players not fully recovering from nicks and pains incurred during the season? Shortening a female's career? All of the above? You don't see NBA stars hoopin' it up 12 months a year.

"I definitely think that is a concern for the WNBA, the team owners, GMs, etc.," says Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings. "As a coach and a GM, I'm sure you are concerned with how much your players are playing." Not to think of, that many of them barely get back to their domestic club in time for the start of training camp -- many others make during it, and while still others, just get back in time for the season opening tip-off.

But according to Renee Brown, the WNBA second-in-command as basketball operations chief, the league aren't overly concerned about their players logging too much court time. "Not at all," she says. Playing overseas "is very competitive . . . the layout of their games are a lot different."

"The league was designed to allow players to play overseas," adds Dixon on the WNBA's summer schedule.

With the Olympics next summer, players such as Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor may opt out and stay in their native Australia, to train for their national teams. Ditto for Russian Svetlana Abrosimova of Minnesota.

Another problem now facing the league: its collective bargaining agreement now expires.

Among the pressing issues include better health benefits and of course, better salaries. However, the two sides are apart is on the salary cap: the players want it higher along with a soft cap to allow teams to exceed it but not be penalized if they do not spend more than the salary cap. Also, the players want a better free agency system: currently, the teams have the right of first refusal, and there's no bidding for players. The clubs basically can re-sign the player, keeping them out of the free agent market.

Also, the WNBA players union wants shorter contracts that will allow veterans to seek free agency sooner. Their shelf life is exceedingly shorter than their male counterparts, especially with playing all year round.

Of course, the players know that they can't push too hard -- no matter that Commish Stern loves them, if he feels that the WNBA hoopsters are getting too big for their Nikes, he will pull the plug. He threaten years ago to do so, and the players gave in -- just like the NBAers did.

"Our every expectation is that we will reach an agreement that will be in the best interest of the league and its ongoing success and our players," predicts Orender.

Let's hope so -- but then again, will we know?

Have you seen them WNBA players?

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