Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Can Candace Parker Save the WNBA?

First, I'm not sure that the WNBA needs saving, per se. I understand that the league isn't terribly popular and that many games are not well attended, but I don't think it's in any danger of folding any time soon. And while many sports fans flaunt their dudeness by dissing on the women's game, the WNBA still has a better TV deal than the NHL.

That said, to say that the league has room to grow is an understatement. If the NBA is any indication, the most effective way to promote a basketball league is to lift up the star players. I have often wondered whether the WNBA has simply failed to market its star players or if the league is still waiting for the right stars to come along. On the one hand, Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson—arguably the best two players in the league's history—should be marketable stars: Both are future Hall-of-Famers, and both are likable and attractive. (I know the "attractive" thing sounds sexist, but good looks have been equally important in promoting male athletes.) On the other hand, Leslie played her college ball back when women's college basketball was mired in obscurity and didn't go directly from college to the WNBA (because the WNBA didn't exist yet); Jackson is from Australia and played for neither a major U.S. university nor the U.S. National Team. Since women's college basketball is still much more familiar to the casual sports fan than the WNBA, a bonafide star may have to come through the college system.

What about Diana Taurasi? She may be the biggest college star who has also excelled at the pro level. She's fairly well known and is featured prominently in a Nike ad with Ladanian Tomlinson and Steve Nash, but no one would consider her a superstar. As great as Taurasi is, I'm not sure she is dominant enough on the court nor charismatic enough off the court to transcend the game.

Candace Parker may be unique. She's been the best player in the college game for two years; she can dunk (occasionally, kind of); she's pretty; and she's got a great personality (fiery on the court, smiley off the court). Oh, and she went for 34 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists in her WNBA debut for the Los Angeles Sparks. Those are LeBron numbers, and she put them up 40 minutes (instead of 48). That has to be one of the best rookie debuts in any sport ever.

So, will the WNBA capitalize on this unique talent? We'll see. This season, only four Sparks games will appear on national television, one on ABC and two on ESPN2 (I'm not counting NBA TV as "national television") and none in the month of June. In my opinion, that's not nearly enough, especially since Parker shares the post with Leslie, the women's equivalent of Robinson and Duncan. How long will it take the WNBA to realize that Candace Parker may be the greatest thing that has ever happened to their league?


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