The Phoenix Suns' glass-walled offices are filled with hall of famers, legends, champions and local heroes. None have had a bigger impact on their sport then Phoenix Mercury General Manager, Ann Meyers Drysdale.
The list of Ann's sports related "firsts" range from first female athlete to win a full university scholarship, first NCAA division player ever to record a quadruple-double, first woman to tryout with an NBA team and first woman enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Perhaps though, the most important first for this fierce competitor was bringing the first professional basketball championship to Phoenix when the Mercury won the WNBA title in 2007.
Last week Ann graciously spent an hour introducing me to a league that I have mostly ignored for the past 13 years. She suffered through questions that no NBA general manager would imagine being asked as she leaned across her desk with a personality and energy that can only be described as a force of nature and willed her enthusiasm for her sport onto me.
"What I say about the WNBA...the passion not only that the fans have for the teams but the players in playing the game. You'll find watching them play that you'll get caught up and appreciate the passion they have for their work."
Ann Meyers Drysdale knows a thing or two about passion and sports.
I, on the other hand, am by nature a skeptic. While not born in Missouri my motto is "show me". But if the WNBA game is played with half the dedication and energy that Ann's shown through her career then they will have earned one more fan looking for a summer refuge while the NBA drafts and reloads.
The NBA game is played with a level of talent, skill and athleticism that is unmatched anywhere in the world. When combined with constant effort and will-to-win it is without question the highest form of athletic competition anywhere (water polo not included). On a strictly athletic skill basis the WNBA will never compare.
Ann Meyers Drysdale agrees saying, "Is it the talent level of the NBA. No...But we're not comparing the WNBA to the NBA. "
It is not surprising then that in a recent poll of our readers, 50% cited lower talent level as the reason for not following the WNBA while only 19% were opposed to women's sports in general. The rest were already fans or immediately open to the idea of learning more. While by no means scientific, I find this to be an interesting snap shot of where hard core NBA and Suns fans are with regard to the Mercury.
Ann understands this talent gap and had an interesting response. I expected to hear more about the passion and dedication that comes from doing something you love for a relatively modest salary (WNBA pay ranges from $35k to $100k). Instead, she talked about how women's sports are more relatable to men.
"Realistically, how many of us honestly can hit the ball like Tiger or do what Tiger does. But it's interesting to watch men watching women play professional tennis and play professional golf. Men relate better to the professional women because they feel they can compete on that level. We've even seen that in the WNBA."
It's a unique idea but I don't think I agree.
I am a fan of basketball and of all sports played with passion and dedication that can be found at levels ranging from a good pee-wee league game on up to our highly touted NBA super stars. I became a big fan of the D-league players who's $13k-$22k contracts are not the primary motivation for their hard fought games. The best contest I saw in the last year was when the U10 soccer team I coach overcame a 1-5 deficit to win the game.
You only have to look around the stands at any paid sporting event to know that we follow our teams and participate in sports for reasons other then our ability to relate to the athletes. I play tennis for the love of competition and the exercise, not because I have any illusion of hanging with Venus Williams. Like 99% of the families I know, I help my kids participate in sports so they can learn the valuable lessons that going 0-4 at the plate in little league can teach.
Later in the discussion Ann talked about the level of competition in the WNBA and desire of her players to be role models to young girls and boys and as an average non-athletic sports fan I was much more persuaded.
"People want to come see Diana Taurasi. They want to see Cappie Pondexter because once you can get them out there the first time to see the level of their play...they are not going to go in there and fly in for dunks but some of the things they do on the level that they play on is pretty remarkable and it's exciting."
This is what I am going to be looking for. Not how high above the rim or how fast the women play the game but how hard they play and how their skill translates to a competitive and entertaining contest.
On the business side of the game, Ann was ready to deflect any insinuation that the WNBA was not a viable league. As the first player selected by the short-lived WBL, Ann knows about failed leagues and it is understandable that this great defensive player would be a bit touchy about the sport that she's dedicated so much to.
"It is on record that the WNBA has a better rating on TV then the NHL. There are sponsors that are involved...You can't compare us (financially) to the NBA. The NBA has been around what, 56 years. 57 years. If you looked at the NBA in their first 15 years, our numbers on the court are better as far as what we average points-wise, and shooting percentage, free throw percentage and so forth and we are averaging more than what the NBA did in those first fifteen years in attendance."
There's no question that when you look at the NBA in it's thirteenth year (1959) you saw a league who's eight teams averaged 5,077 per game which is well below the fourteen WNBA teams who averaged 7,938 in 2008 (which ranks fifth in all indoor sports globally and well ahead of the European men's basketball leagues).
It's Ann's job and her nature to be bullish about the WNBA and her 25 years in broadcasting certainly gives her the skills to be a great ambassador. That doesn't make her points any less valid.
For a league entering it's 13th season, the WNBA seems as healthy as any of the other non NBA, NFL and MLB leagues in this difficult economic environment.
This season marks the first of an eight year TV deal that will for the first time provide shared revenue for all thirteen WNBA franchises and attendence has risen steadily year over year. Six of the league's thirteen teams are independently owned including the newest team, the Atlanta Dream who enter their second season in summer. The rest of the teams, including the Phoenix Mercury, are owned by an NBA franchise
That's not to say there aren't problems.
This off season the league lost four time champion Houston Comets when a new ownership group could not be found and the rosters this season will be cut from 13 to 11 players in a cost-cutting move in line with the overall economic climate.
The loss of the Comets and the two roster spots per team will result in 39 fewer players which is equivalent to laying off 20% of an organization's work force.
Always the optimist, Ann see's the 'plus' in that saying, "Unfortunately, we lost one of the best franchises around in Houston last year. What they accomplished by winning four championships in a row was incredible but by cutting down the number of teams and the number of players in this league you know a lot of players have lost jobs and that's very very difficult but in saying that, to me each team is a lot better too."
As for the future of the league and the opportunities for growth, Ann is patient.
"It's like in any sport, like in baseball, they will tell you when you have a father taking their son or daughter to a baseball game when they are three years old you hope to instill that in them. Then by the time they are 33 they're going to be doing that with their children. That's what we hope to do in the WNBA."
Stay tuned for part 2 of the interview in which we get into the specifics of the Mercury and how they intend to bounce back after missing the playoffs last season.