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WNBA Finals serving up a basketball delight

Jeff Wheeler/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire
Jeff Wheeler/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Forget “business metrics.”

Forget TV ratings.

Forget attendance figures.

Well, don’t really forget them; just nudge them to the side for the moment.

All of those indicators are up and encouraging and they are very important to the WNBA in this, its 20th season, which for fans and supporters is certainly worth celebrating as much as a milestone anniversary.

As the WNBA Finals continue, however, it’s what’s transpired on the court that’s been dazzling, and that’s the point here.

The first two games between the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks have absolutely sizzled. Alana Beard’s 3-pointer at the buzzer won Game 1 for the Sparks, as nearly 600,000 viewers watched nationwide on ABC. That’s a record rating for the WNBA on that over-the-air network, and while it may not seem like a lot, it was going up against the NFL.

Before nearly 13,000 fans in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Maya Moore erupted for 21 points and 12 rebounds as the Lynx tied up the series 1–1. Her coach, Cheryl Reeve, mic’d by ESPN, gave TV viewers another dramatic gift by griping to the referees that L.A.’s Nneka Ogwumike, the freshly-named WNBA MVP, is “the biggest flopper in the league.”

All that was missing seemed to a parody Twitter account, @cherylreevesjacket, which apparently has been deleted. It was created due to this incident, which could very well be repeated during this Finals. Come back, @cherylreevesjacket, wherever you are. Your sport needs you now, more than ever.

As the series shifts to the West Coast this weekend, all of those business numbers and issues can wait to be dissected and acted upon during the long, cold winter to follow.

It’s the basketball product that the WNBA has had the most difficult challenge in selling in its two decades, and not just because of skeptics and sexists and erratic media coverage and the endless buffet of options for sports fans to watch and consume.

While the WNBA has boasted some of the best female players to ever play the game, the product hasn’t always been as compelling as it needs to be.

In fact, it’s been downright hard to watch at times. The factors have been noted before: jammed summer schedules, commercial air travel and exhausted stars shuttling between the low-dollar domestic league they want to promote and their overseas teams that pay them the serious rubles, yuans and liras.

Most notably, Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury sat out last season, paid more by her team in Russia not to play stateside than the WNBA maximum. During Sunday’s 20th anniversary celebrations at the Finals, she was notably absent, having left for the already-wintry climate of Ekaterinburg, the last outpost of civilization before Siberia.

There were times during the 2015 season, with Taurasi in absentia, that I wondered if more players like her would soon follow; that is, making a choice between one playing existence or another.

Elena Delle Donne, who was the league MVP in 2015, doesn’t play overseas. Candace Parker of the Sparks sat out the first half of the WNBA season after arriving from Russia and was close behind in the MVP voting. It was no accident that they both looked rested, refreshed, sharp and energetic: They were.

As the current WNBA season approached the month-long Olympic break, the headlines coming from the league were more about social justice.

Lynx players were involved in Black Lives Matter protests that prompted a boycott by security officers and resulted in minuscule fines that the league later rescinded in embarrassing fashion.

While the WNBA has long championed social causes, including its embrace of gay and lesbian rights, there have been times when I think that emphasis hurts the league’s ability to broaden its appeal.

Not necessarily because of the substance of those issues, which can and continue to be controversial, but because it takes away from showcasing the WNBA as a basketball entertainment product.

Thanks to a new playoff system that enhanced the chances of a Lynx-Sparks Finals, we’re now being treated to that. To continue the beautiful, joyous basketball that enthralled in Rio this summer is the best advertisement the WNBA could hope for.

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