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Cut the B.S., ESPN: Your lack of WNBA coverage is the problem

NBA greats like Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant repeatedly express vocal support for the WNBA. It’s too bad the same cannot be said for the so-called “worldwide leader in sports.”

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Arizona Diamondbacks
Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi throws out the first pitch for the Arizona Diamondbacks a week after becoming the leading scorer in WNBA history.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent espnW article, Sean Hurd claimed that the appearance of Lonzo Ball on the basketball scene, and the increasing popularity of the NBA Summer League, will further challenge the WNBA’s ability to sustain an audience.

Hurd’s solutions to this conundrum are for the WNBA to: 1) “create more drama around its players and teams;” and 2) “create robust rivalries.”

Hurd’s viewpoint is surprising in its myopic, outward focus. He puts the onus squarely on the WNBA to sustain strong viewership, while egregiously neglecting the role of sports media, like the network he writes for, in the success or failure of any sport. The WNBA has been failed by sports media overall, but by ESPN especially, which seems to employ a policy of gender-biased, discriminatory coverage.

Furthermore, Hurd’s heralding of an on-court fight between WNBA players in the midst of a heated rivalry in 2008 as a “captivating storyline” shows a shocking lack of insight into the damaging societal effects of bad behavior-created spectacle. Additionally, it shows tone deafness to the many positive “captivating storyline(s)” that exist without violence. One look at the Golden State Warriors shows that teams do not have to be filled with bad boys or bad girls to have interesting storylines.

Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors was a major story in the 2016-17 NBA season, as is often the case when a major player changes teams. If Hurd needs a story to cover, how about the impact of Candice Dupree signing with the Indiana Fever? In 2014, Dupree — with her gorgeous Ray Allen-esque stroke — shot 74% from the field during the Phoenix Mercury’s WNBA Championship-clenching game against the Chicago Sky. Her scoring load was so high because Brittney Griner was out with a pretty serious eye injury that was caused by Sylvia Fowles. Where were the articles questioning whether the play by Fowles was dirty, similar to the type of drama surrounding whether Zaza Pachulia’s play on Kawhi Leonard during the 2017 Western Conference Finals was dirty?

So, here, we have two WNBA storylines that could be covered this season for any writer bothering to look:

  1. Build some hype around any game featuring Griner and Fowles (now with the Minnesota Lynx) battling under the basket at center.
  2. Spin up some drama about Dupree facing off against her former team. In fact, the Mercury host the Fever today — Wednesday July 19th at 3:30 p.m. EST — streaming live on Twitter.

A third storyline would be Diana Taurasi making history by becoming the leading scorer in WNBA history. While we’re at it, her marriage to Penny Taylor was pretty big news, too. Yet, coverage of both stories on the ESPN and espnW websites is limited or nonexistent.

Chicago Sky Center Imani Boyette (sister to 2017 NBA champion JaVale McGee) said it best:

Irony, indeed.

If ESPN would simply cover the league closely across its various platforms the way it does the NBA, the storylines would emerge. For Hurd to point the finger at the WNBA for ESPN’s lack of coverage — instead of actually writing a piece covering the WNBA — is a journalistic disgrace. As demonstrated above, the storylines are there — despite Hurd’s claims to the contrary.

Empty or hard to find: Exhibits A-C

ESPN is the only sports network in the U.S. that claims to be “the worldwide leader in sports.” If it intends to use this slogan as an identifier, the network must accept responsibility for the ways it continues to fail the WNBA. Isn’t this kind of close examination of the network’s functioning the purpose of the ESPN’s Ombudsman/Public Editor?

The major complaint I have had for years — which WNBA fans also rail about on Twitter — is the challenge of finding game information. Hardcore fans will do whatever it takes to gather this information, but what about those fans who are on the margins? To put it in the bluntest terms possible: the WNBA has no chance of building its audience if fans cannot figure out where to view the damn games. For a network claiming to be the “worldwide leader in sports,” providing game information for all leagues it covers is the most basic of its requirements.

When a fan goes to ESPN’s NBA Schedule page, he or she finds the date and time of games, arena/city information, and viewing information that includes not only where games can be viewed nationally, but where they can be viewed in local markets as well. Yet, when a WNBA fan goes to ESPN’s WNBA Schedule page, he or she discovers this:

Exhibit A.

The WNBA is in the middle of its season, approaching the All-Star Break, and this is what you have to offer, ESPN?

This has been such a point of contention for me over the years that I have sent multiple messages to ESPN, via Twitter and through its website, asking — no, begging — them to provide the same comprehensive scheduling information for the WNBA that it provides for the NBA. In a moment of sheer desperation, I even tweeted at ESPN with an offer to maintain its WNBA scheduling page for free.

Of course, my tweet and other messages received no response, which I view as either a major middle finger to women’s pro hoops or simple laziness. With the new WNBA-Twitter deal (read more in “The W’s winning trajectory” below), there is no need to research a bunch of local market information. Here, in a single press release by the WNBA, is a list of the dates and times of the 20 games streaming live on Twitter this season. At minimum, can’t ESPN have an intern plug this information into the WNBA Schedule page?! This is such a basic administrative task that for it not to be done speaks volumes.

Next, to even arrive at the empty scheduling page, fans must first find ESPN’s WNBA page. In this screenshot dated July 18, 2017, we see that ESPN has zero WNBA coverage in its “Top Headlines,” despite important stories, such as injuries to star players and the upcoming All-Star Game. We also see, next to the ESPN logo, the leagues the network wishes to promote: NFL, NBA, MLB, NCAAF, Soccer, NHL:

Exhibit B.

So, instead of making visible a league like the WNBA, which is in the middle of an active season, ESPN chooses to promote:

  • NFL — which isn’t even in training camp yet;
  • NBA — whose season ended in June;
  • MLB — ding! ding! ding! active season;
  • NCAAF — school’s still out for summer;
  • Soccer — okay, fine; and
  • NHL — whose season also ended in June.

Finally, a fan will click the little breadcrumb trail to see more selections and find the WNBA listed after Golf, NCAAM, WWE, esports and Analytics.

Exhibit C.

This level of disrespect is galling, and I call on the ESPN Ombudsman/Public Editor to address these issues publicly.

The W’s winning trajectory

In keeping with the underlying theme of ESPN’s neglect of professional women’s basketball, Hurd, in his article, also failed to identify the many things the WNBA has done right to foster its own growth:

#1. In 2013, the WNBA extended its deal with ESPN, reportedly worth $12 million per year, through 2022.

#2. During the WNBA’s 20th season in 2016, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver named seasoned executive Lisa Borders as the new WNBA president.

WNBA President Lisa Borders (center) with Connecticut Sun players Chiney Ogwumike (left) and Morgan Tuck (right) at the 2017 NBA Awards.
Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TNT

Upon her hiring, Borders stated that she believes in inclusive decision-making and that she intends to spend the early part of her term “listening to everyone from the league staff to the owners to the chief operating officers to the players and the fans and all of our stakeholders to understand what we’ve done in the past, what we’re doing today, and then chart the future together.”

Well, she has accomplished this, in quite visionary fashion.

#3. Borders struck a deal with Twitter, which allows the social media site to livestream 20 WNBA games per season in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The idea to livestream on Twitter came from Seattle Storm guard, Jewell Loyd — evidence of Borders’ commitment to “listening to everyone” with a stake in the league.

The Twitter experiment has had a strong beginning, with more than 1.1 million viewers tuning in for its first live-streamed game between the Phoenix Mercury and Dallas Wings. Additionally, Borders forged a deal between the WNBA and FanDuel, which opens yet another avenue for fan engagement.

It is brilliant of Borders and the WNBA to strike out in these new directions to grow the league — not only without the help of ESPN, but with the network seeming to work against it. Given emerging technology and social media, it is well within the realm of possibility that the WNBA will one day not need ESPN anymore. So, if the “worldwide leader in sports” isn’t careful, it will soon find itself obsolete.

After all, the network has had two decades to do right by the WNBA. But here we are, in 2017, with the network not even bothering to list viewing information for WNBA games on its website.

Thanks, guys!

As the saying goes, game recognizes game ... which is why Kobe Bryant was on hand, with his daughters, to see Diana Taurasi shoot her way into the history books.

Other NBA players and teams showed their love for the WNBA GOAT, including newly-crowned NBA champion, Kevin Durant.

And, throughout the years, NBA players have given props to the W, including Golden State’s two-time NBA champion Stephen Curry.

NBA players genuinely love the WNBA because they love the game of basketball and know “mad skills” when they see them. It’s just too bad major sports media, particularly ESPN, refuse to show the W the same commitment and respect.

Now, the ball is in your court, ESPN.

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