Making It

Passionate players, delirious devotees and rising TV ratings: As it approaches its 10th birthday, the WNBA is showing signs that it can survive and thrive
October 02, 2005

No one should doubt how important winning the 2005 WNBA title was to Sacramento Monarchs third-year guard Kara Lawson. After commandeering the game ball for the last 0.4 of a second of her team's title-clinching 62-59 Game 4 win over the Connecticut Sun on Sept. 20, Lawson, who had played in two NCAA title games for Tennessee and lost both, pranced with it along Arco Arena's press row in front of 15,000 screaming fans. Then, when she returned home from celebrating late into the night with her teammates, she slept with it. She declined to bring the ball to the parade that the city of Sacramento had for the team the next day because, she says, "It would be too easy to lose it."

The same can be said for a lot of things in the WNBA, be it a lead, a title or the momentum that the league has started to build. After surviving the WNBA's first best-of-five finals series, Sacramento became its third new champion in three years, emphatically marking the end of the era of minidynasties like Houston and L.A., which serially dominated the league in its first six years. "Houston won it when the league was young," says Sacramento's 35-year-old All-Star forward, Yolanda Griffith, who keeps adding elements to her game to ward off the influx of talented, athletic players after her job. "Now we're so competitive, you lose sleep thinking about what you need to do to win."

Better players and an anything-can-happen vibe are two reasons why more people seem to be catching on to what true believers have always known: WNBA games are great entertainment. The atmosphere is usually loud and buoyant, if not delirious--Arco's 15,000 faithful, many wearing purple or silver wigs, created a deafening din with their thundersticks for Game 4--and the play on the floor impassioned. Television viewers took note. According to the WNBA the finals had a 27% increase in viewership over last year even though the series featured none of the pro game's most marketed stars, such as Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi, Lauren Jackson or Sue Bird. Viewership was up in the regular season, too, by 9%. (The league's average attendance dipped slightly, from 8,593 to 8,173.) The WNBA also continued its march toward profitability. New president Donna Orender, a former PGA executive who took over for Val Ackerman last April, expects to be in the black by 2007. "We're here to stay, and we're here to grow," says Orender, a former star in the old WBL, the women's hoops league that before the advent of the WNBA was the longest-lasting women's pro league in history. (It operated from 1978 to '81.) "We have a tremendous product."

Consider the Monarchs, who are all about team basketball, self-sacrifice, perseverance and hunger. After waiting nine seasons to make their first finals, Sacramento didn't waste their opportunity. Deploying a well-developed bench and a notoriously disruptive defense that is as exhausting to play as it is annoying to face--Connecticut coach Mike Thibault has likened it to a trip to the dentist--the Monarchs stifled the Sun's explosive offense, holding the Eastern Conference champs to 64 points and forcing them into nearly 15 turnovers a game.

Even in defeat, Connecticut, which made its second straight trip to the finals, scored a win for the league's evolving business model. The Sun, which is owned by the Mohegan Indian tribe and plays in the Mohegan Sun casino complex, is one of three WNBA teams not affiliated with an NBA team. (The others are the Washington Mystics and the Chicago Sky, who will start play in 2006 with former Hornets and Warriors coach Dave Cowens as coach.) "Everyone says [independent ownership] is the model of the future," says Orender. "I say the model is passionate, committed ownership, tied to passionate, committed fans, tied to passionate, committed sponsors."

Approximately 3,000 happy people showed up downtown at 5 p.m. on Sept. 21 to celebrate the Monarchs' victory, the city's first in a major professional sport. At a ceremony in which Monarchs owners, Gavin and Joe Maloof, were given a key to the city by Mayor Heather Fargo, the brothers gave coach John Whisenant, the 2005 Coach of the Year, the keys to a new Cadillac Escalade. They said they would have done the same for each of the players but couldn't because of the WNBA's limits on compensation. The players will get their bling in the form of a ring--"platinum," Griffith suggested into a TV camera for the Maloofs' benefit. But Lawson, for one, won't do anything as reckless as wear it. "I'll put it away for safekeeping," she says. In a young league, in a women's game, success is precious and must be handled with care.

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"Bauman's 72 homers stood as a pro record until Barry Bonds hit 73." -- FOR THE RECORD, page 28

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)