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Finding the right audience for a classic WNBA Finals matchup

AP Photo/Jim Mone, File

For the last three decades or so, supporters of women’s sports have groused about meager coverage, and have worked themselves into a frenzy asserting that the male-dominated sports media actively conspires against them.

What few of these advocates have demonstrated is a grasp of how the commercial media actually works, or to indicate what they think would be satisfactory coverage.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is among the critics, and she’s really vocal about it, to the same local press she says ought to be doing better, and especially on social media.

After receiving the WNBA coach of the year award last week, she again urged more coverage and then threw out a number. A very high number.

In a series of Tweets, Reeve tied her ideal scenario of media coverage to the number of females playing sports in America:

While the rationale for this suggestion is absurd (as I’ll explain in a moment), I admire Reeve for stepping up and laying out a goal, and for fighting for greater exposure for some terrific pro basketball players I think do go greatly unappreciated.

Many of the best of the best will be in action as the WNBA Finals begin Sunday, pitting Reeve’s defending champions against the Los Angeles Sparks. It’s a battle between the two most dominant teams in the league this season.

Four Minnesota players featured for the U.S. in the Rio Olympics, where Reeve was an assistant coach to Geno Auriemma. She’s created a model of excellence in the WNBA that should be envied and emulated. The Sparks’ leading figures, Candace Parker and MVP Nneka Ogumike, should have been on that gold medal team.

It’s an epic matchup, and while I’ll be watching, the timing of this showcase couldn’t be worse for the WNBA’s aims of broadening its appeal. 

This is the busiest time on the North American sports calendar, and Game 1 of the WNBA Finals (as well as the championship match of the National Women’s Soccer League) is going up against the biggest colossus of them all, the NFL. The Major League Baseball playoffs are in full swing, as is the college football season, and the NBA, NHL and college basketball are drawing headlines in preseason mode.

For most of its 20 seasons, the WNBA has gone headlong into this scenario as its post-season winds down. In an Olympic year, the playoffs are delayed well into October. While the league has rebounded a bit on the attendance side from last year’s all-time low average, staging its signature event in the crush of all these other vastly more popular sports is a guarantee of scant media coverage.

The problem with Reeve’s 40 percent proposal is that television and media coverage doesn’t reflect how many people play a sport. Roughly a million boys play high school football across the country, but millions more watch the NFL and college football.

People like Reeve like to argue (with some justification) that if there were more regular, sustained coverage of female athletes, then maybe these young women would sit down and watch.

Yet, for women’s college basketball, the typical viewer on ESPN outlets (which shows more than a hundred games a season) is a middle-aged male, and men make up nearly two-thirds of the audience.

That may explain the frequency of Viagra ads, but it does little to examine why more females don’t watch the flagship sport of women’s college sports.

The WNBA doesn’t make it easy to watch its own product, either. Some early-round playoff games were relegated to ESPNNews, and blackout rules were in effect. Mystifyingly, some fans in Connecticut, whose WNBA team didn’t make the playoffs, were prevented from watching the New York Liberty on the road.

While complaints of media coverage aren’t totally without foundation, those making the most noise display a fundamental misunderstanding of the media industry.

Far too often, they concoct or cite outdated, misleading advocacy research obsessed with bean-counting and denouncing more popular sports. In their utopian fever dreams, the media would cover women’s sports as it does the NFL, NBA, MLB and college football, and somehow this gender imbalance would magically disappear.

That’s not how it works at all, as I’ve learned from 25-plus years of putting the theory to the test. There is no Title IX for media, as I have written before, nor should there be. I’ve taken a few shots for this, and so be it. However, I truly do believe there’s never been a better time to be a fan of women’s sports and the WNBA in particular. 

Only those who unrealistically think “equality” is statistical can’t seem to enjoy the moment or try to make things better. 

Finding the right audience for a classic WNBA Finals matchup

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