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The League For Obsessives And For No One Else

Alyssa Thomas of the Connecticut Sun is guarded by the Atlanta Dream
Screenshot: WNBA League Pass

To be a WNBA fan is to be a diehard fan, because there are not many other ways to do it. Following the league requires a level of effort I dutifully put in, but also a level of effort I kind of resented on Friday night, feeling a little drained after the launch of this very website.

In their final game of the regular season, the Connecticut Sun were playing the Atlanta Dream, a team headlined by crafty rookie guard Chennedy Carter and the stunningly good Betnijah Laney, whose goodness stuns because it emerged from nowhere. (In her first four years in the WNBA, Laney averaged 3.6 points per game. This year, her fifth, she’s averaging 16.7.) Actually finding the game proved a challenge; I clicked around the guide, sheepishly visited a website with the desired audience “Googlers of atlanta dream sun game tv,” flipped to the right channel and patiently sat through a few commercials, only to learn that said website had bungled its sole, simple task. NBA TV was airing not the Dream-Sun game, but what appeared to be a Tracy McGrady retrospective. I watched a frenzied T-Mac drive to the rim and recommenced the search. The game, it turned out, was streaming exclusively on the WNBA's Facebook page.

If you are like most people, your sports preferences are accidents of upbringing or geography. This rewards stable, entrenched institutions and it punishes the other kind; the big get bigger and the obscure stay obscure. The Pistons, miserable though they've been, are a low-maintenance interest. Every game plays on the same channel and coverage is not terribly hard to come by. Most rewarding of all, Pistons fandom bestows upon its adherents a bunch of inherited grudges against Larry Bird, or put more elegantly, a sense of belonging to something that predates me and will outlast me. 

All that isn’t quite true of the WNBA, though I belong to a fairly young cohort of sports fans who have never known a world without it. The Detroit Shock made for a personal appreciation of basketball shaped as much by Swin Cash and Cheryl Ford as by Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton, but after a decade in Detroit, the Shock relocated to Tulsa and then to Dallas. Following a women's team is no longer like breathing the local air, but a choice to be made constantly, or a series of escalating dares. Would you visit the dreaded Facebook for the sake of your sport? Or, to introduce the NWSL's case, would you subscribe to CBS All Access?

Not unrelated: 10 WNBA teams have been contracted or moved in 24 seasons, both cause and symptom of the feeling that contemporary women's leagues float around without grounding history or the prospect of longevity, that they begin and end with you. A line could be drawn from the ‘99 World Cup to the women’s soccer stars of today, but not a straight line: the NWSL is America's third attempt at pro women's soccer since then. That the patience demanded of fans is seldom reciprocated by leagues makes impossible the idea of a casual, even slightly disengaged fandom. You're all in, or you're out.

Facebook was the only way to watch the defending champion Mystics, still hanging on without Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud, punch an improbable ticket to the playoffs in the very last game of the WNBA season yesterday. It was the only way to witness this game between two title contenders end with the Storm's Jewell Loyd asking OG Anunoby to hold her beer.

The WNBA’s woes—the woes of any women’s sport with woes, really—tend to be ascribed to individual apathy, an easy target. Adam Silver has wondered aloud why relatively few young women watch the WNBA, a dead giveaway that he's never tried finding one of these games himself, or ever been a committed fan of one of the teams to fold or relocate. The commissioner of the WNBA, Cathy Engelbert, last year said that more fans at games would mean more corporate sponsorship money which would finally allow the league to pay players more. The argument there is both a deflection tactic—the NBA can afford to pay WNBA players however much it wants to, and it has plenty leverage to upgrade them from Facebook streams—and a discomfiting message that this league, for the near future, will remain very needy.

The decision to watch or not watch NBA basketball, by relieving contrast, requires no calculus at all, no thinking toward the existential. Watching a sport is no fun when it feels like eating vegetables or performing some capital-N Necessary duty. The Dream-Sun game itself was nice, but the chase was not enjoyable. For that reason, I confess to being the nihilist WNBA fan who spends hardly any time convincing other people to try it. Following the league being the slog it often is, to hack away at the problem one apathete at a time feels unproductive.

But mindlessness is not entirely a virtue. One person’s indifference can certainly matter, because in aggregate, it can lead to outcomes like this very website's "WNBA" category page being populated with nothing but a "Coming soon!" message, four days into its existence.

When women's sports are structured such that the ways to approach them feel limited to poles of obsession and indifference, it's not unreasonable to absolve the average person from paying attention. But the structural problems that keep women's sports on the fringes are nothing more than the result of decisions being made by large groups of these very same average persons. The precarious existence of the WNBA and its individual teams exists in a feedback loop with depressed fan interest, and breaking that loop will at some point require individual decisions adding up to shifts in institutional priorities. It will require Adam Silver to stop meekly scratching his head about why not many young women are watching WNBA games, and start spending the resources necessary to firmly ensconce the league, its teams, and its players as permanent fixtures in the minds of young American sports fans. It will require media companies, like this one, to make the effortful choice when it comes to covering women's sports. That's effort not to be resented, but to be spent freely and sincerely, the same way this site might approach anything else.

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