Monday, September 29, 2008

The WNBA: Finals are here, critics appear

For all the hype around the team, it was pretty disappointing for me to watch the Seattle Storm die a slow, painful, early death in the WNBA playoffs this year. And as if that weren't enough, Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker couldn't even carry the LA Sparks through the series against San Antonio. Now the Stars are headed into the finals against the winner of the tied series between New York and Detroit in the East.

So how many of you consider yourselves sports fans? And how many of you have actually watched a WNBA game this season? And out of curiosity, how many of plopped down to watch an NBA game during their season? I have to admit that I've been slightly shocked that the WNBA is still around after 12 years. Professional women's sports teams are notoriously impossible to sustain in the US, and elite female athletes have often fled to Europe in hopes of pursuing an actual career. But the WNBA is still here. And it's stronger than ever.

I came across an opinion piece from the LA times by a woman named Melissa Rohlin. You should read her piece first before you go any further. If you don't want to take the time, here's her basic point: the WNBA is boring and professional women's basketball sucks.

Ms. Rohlin claims that she played basketball her whole life. She had dreams of playing professionally someday herself. She was "the first to get to the gym and the last one to leave," and she worshipped local role models like Kobe Bryant.

Rohlin doesn't seem to have continued playing ball in college, but she's still an avid NBA fan. An an avid WNBA hater. She thinks the women are just plain un-athletic. I mean, men are jumping 4 feet in the air, throwing down dunks like nobody's business, and sprinting down the court at the speed of light, dishing no-looks passes to their teammates and working the crowd into a frenzy. It's exciting!

And the WNBA is just plain boring.

Candace Parker--I don't care if you won the McDonald's All-American dunk competition when you were in high school (over 5 male competitors). So what? Kobe would school you any day. And Sue Bird? Are you even related to Larry? Because his passes were so much more crisp and accurate.

Wait, wait, wait. Is Rohlin actually claiming to be a FAN of basketball? Or here's the bigger question. Is she actually claiming that the WNBA is boring because women just aren't good athletes?

There's a fundamental issue underlying Rohlin's claims that makes me sick to my stomach. She's saying that the WNBA is boring because women are inferior athletes. She's chomping into an apple, then sucking on an orange, and complaining that the orange just isn't crisp and crunchy enough for her taste. And the apple just doesn't have enough citrus.

Ms. Rohlin--I, too, was that kid in high school showing up early to practice and leaving late. I, too, had the dream of playing hoops in college. I didn't end up following that path, but good LORD do I love the WNBA.

In fact, I'm going to say that any legit female basketball player with an appreciation for the game should love watching the WNBA. I even argue that those of us who were the true gym rats in high school and college are the ones who can appreciate the women's professional game the most.

Should we really be embarrassed that it was such a big deal to see Candace Parker dunk in a game, when it would be "laughable" to make such a hoopla around an NBA player doing the same? Ms. Rohlin, you are an idiot.

I doubt you ever threw down a dunk. In fact, I doubt you were ever much of an athlete at all. I dare you to body up against Tina Thompson in the post, or try to drive past Sue Bird. Just try to stop one of Lisa Leslie's bank shots. Maybe you'll only be impressed if Candace Parker actually jumps over you to slam the basketball. Is that what it would take?

I watch the NBA and I grew up with posters of Michael Jordan on my walls. And yet I knew that I wasn't going to grow up to BE him. When the WNBA came along, I couldn't imagine anything better for every girl growing up in America who needed to have their own role models to look up to in their sport. How can you, as a self-proclaimed athlete, claim that the WNBA is boring? Answer: you never learned how to appreciate the game, and that's why you have to hate on it.

There's my scathing review of your article. If you want an amazing perspective from one of the best women's basketball players in the world, check out Diana Taurasi's response here.

And let's play a little 1 on 1 sometime. I'll kick your ass.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The L Word - Homophobia in Sports

You can't talk about women in sports without addressing the L word issue. It affects every aspect of women's participation in sport--from a woman's personal comfort on a team, to the role models she has in coaches and older players, to the team dynamic, and all the way up to pro athlete marketability. People crack jokes about how lesbianism runs rampant in women's sports and yet there are still only a handful of athletes who are "out and proud."

Unless you're Ellen DeGeneres and you can laugh your way through it, it's really hard to navigate sexuality when you're a public figure. (Actually, I take it back. It's never easy to navigate your sexuality when you're a public figure...especially when you're gay).

And when your sport becomes your career, you have to make careful choices about what you're willing share about your personal life and how it could affect your next endorsement deal. Sheryl Swoopes officially "came out" in 2005 with an endorsement deal with Olivia (a San Francisco-based travel and entertainment company for lesbians) and she seemed to weather it well. But then again, she's Sheryl Swoopes. She was the first woman to have her own line of Nike basketball shoes and she is a 3-time WNBA MVP. She made numerous appearances with Olivia for years, talking about her decision to come out and embrace her sexual identity despite the consequences it may have on her endorsements. Read this article for her own words on the matter.

When you take a step back from the pros and take a look at collegiate sports, homophobia is also prevalent. Coaches are constantly trying to recruit the best talent for their program and many won't hesitate to suggest that competitor teams are full of lesbians. This negative recruiting tool is designed to scare parents into preventing their daughters from joining a program where they may fall victim to lesbian attacks (whatever those are).

But there are a number of female athletes who have been very successful even after coming out. Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Rosie Jones to name a few. And more recently, Natasha Kai from the gold medal winning US women's soccer team in 2008.

This year, Billie Jean King celebrates the 35th anniversary this year of her victory over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match. She now runs the Women's Sports Foundation, which promotes girls and women's participation in athletics, and even has a task force for addressing homophobia in sports.

The times may be changing a bit, but homophobia still runs deep in our society. The California Supreme Court recently made a ruling to allow gays and lesbians to marry in the state, however there's a proposition on the ballot this November that could amend the California state constitution to remove that right (again).

If you're a female athlete, chances are you've had to deal with homophobia before. Whether it's your own or one of your teammate's or gossiping about other teams and coaches. It's very real. I intend to blog about this more but I wanted to open up the forum and get people thinking about their own experiences with this issue. Please feel free to comment on the post and let me know what you've witnessed.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

WNBA Playoffs are here!

After a long break for the Olympics, the WNBA heads into the Playoffs today. More than a few of these women have a gold medal under their belts and they're hungry for more success. I'll be watching the Seattle Storm pretty closely this year. They lost star player (and Aussie) Lauren Jackson to bone-spur surgery right after the Olympics, but she's on track to recover by the time the Finals rolls around--if all goes well. Sheryl Swoopes is back from a concussion and Swin Cash is battling through her back pain, but things are looking up. Sue Bird, one of the leading league MVP candidates this year, will lead the Storm through the Playoffs.

You should also keep your eye on the LA Sparks. The Candace Parker-Lisa Leslie duo is incredible to witness. They're the only two women who have dunked in regulation WNBA games. Leslie is now a four-time Olympic gold medalist and Parker left the Tennessee Lady Vols a year early (yep, first woman to skip the degree and dive right into the pros) and she is undoubtedly the league's rookie of the year.

Unlike collegiate March Madness, with 64 teams crashing onto the national bracket and clawing their way forward, the WNBA Playoffs features only the top 4 teams from each conference. In the Western Conference, the San Antonio Stars take on the Sacramento Monarchs, while the LA Sparks battle with the Seattle Storm. On the Eastern side of the bracket, the Indiana Fever face the Detroit Shock, and the Connecticut Sun will duke it out with the New York Liberty.

Check out the WNBA website for all the juicy details.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

McDonalds and The Economy

Marketing and sponsorship big wigs convened in New York over the past two days for the 6th Annual Relay Worldwide Sports Sponsorship Symposium. The two main topics on everyone's mind this year were 1) the Beijing Olympics and 2) the less-than-Olympic-performing economy.

I've been appalled each time I've seen McDonald's as a major partner with the Olympics. I loved the commercial this year with a U.S. female gymnast chowing down on a chicken sandwich. I mean, how many times do these female gymnasts actually wolf one of those puppies down? Never--if they're at all concerned about keeping their mostly prepubescent bodies trim and lean. But the Golden Arches was the first official restaurant of an Olympic games in 1996 in Atlanta, and they've been feeding the world's athletes ever since. This year, US swimmer Ryan Lotche bragged about his huge MacDo meals in the Olympic Village in Beijing. For someone like Ryan, who's burning more calories per day than he can actually ingest, that might make a lot of sense. Just don't check his arteries in 20 years.

Apparently McDonald's considers their time in Beijing a success. They installed their first drive-thru restaurant (where confused customers drove through the line, then parked their cars and went inside to eat), and they have grand plans of infiltrating the Chinese fast-food scene in the same way they've conquered the U.S. market. We'll see if they show up in London in 2012.

As for the more serious question facing the sports industry, much of the focus of this conference was how to continue to grow your business in a time when consumers are massively cutting back on extraneous expenses. They're not gonna slap down thousands of dollars on season tickets anymore if they've already traded in their Chevy trucks for a more fuel-efficient Prius. Priorities have shifted.

But many sports marketing executives argued that this is an opportunity for companies to provide a better product for their consumers in order to keep driving the business. Improve the in-stadium experience with enhanced media features, deliver more channels for keeping tabs on your local team, like mobile TV and video, and make your customers feel like they're putting in the same amount of money for those season tickets but they're actually getting a vastly improved product--it's almost a steal! Mark Tatum, Sr VP of Marketing and Partnerships for the NBA, claims that the sports industry might even be at an advantage right now. People will need an outlet from all their financial fears and concerns, and many will likely turn towards sports as a way to blow off some steam. I mean, what could be better than drowning your sorrows in a $17 plastic beer cup at a Giants game in AT&T park with all your 41,000 closest friends?

Unfortunately, there did not appear to be females on the keynote speaker lineup, nor could I find any commentary about the conference from them. I guess men continue to dominate this industry the way Big Macs dominated China this August...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sarah Palin: High School Athlete, Vice Presidential Hopeful

I heard the announcement that Sarah Palin had been named McCain's running mate over a radio morning show on my drive into work. No one knew anything about her so they were taking calls from anyone who could provide even the smallest amount of insight into her life. One of the callers mentioned her participation in sports in high school and how she braved through a broken ankle to help her team win the state championship in 1982. He argued that she showed real grit and character as an athlete and we could expect those same qualities to make her a successful Vice President.

Now, I absolutely agree that sports can teach a person a lot. Playing a sport will teach you about teamwork, cooperation, setting goals, self-discipline, performing under pressure, performing through pain, pushing your physical limits, and pulling through emotional challenges. And watching how an athlete trains for and plays her sport will reveal a lot about her character. But I'm not convinced that it will make you a great VP...

Christine Brennan commented on Palin's athletic background, too. Here's one of the excerpts:

"I had a great upbringing under Title IX," Palin told Alaska Business Monthly shortly after becoming governor in late 2006. "I can't imagine where I'd be without the opportunities provided to me in sports. Sports taught me that gender isn't an issue; in fact, when people talk about me being the first female governor, I'm a little absent from that discussion, because I've never thought of gender as an issue. In sports, you learn self-discipline, healthy competition, to be gracious in victory and defeat, and the importance of being part of a team and understanding what part you play on that team. You all work together to reach a goal, and I think all of those factors come into play in my role as governor."

You can read the full article here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Val Ackerman: A Woman Whose Name You Should Know

Val Ackerman, President of USA Basketball and former President of the WNBA, is one woman who has rubbed shoulders with the best of the good ole boys in the sports world.

When she returned from the Olympics in China, she found out that she'd been selected as the recipient of the 2008 Hall of Fame John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award. Take the time to read the article, and then scroll down to the very bottom of the page to see all the former recipients. Then tell me how many of them are women...

Ackerman seems to be one of those people who is blessed with natural executive and business acumen, but she has also worked hard to get where she is today. She dominated the New Jersey high school athletics scene, captured a few All-American titles playing basketball at the University of Virginia, and then headed to law school and worked for a huge firm for a few years before she found her way back to basketball. She got to know David Stern and some other NBA big wigs before being appointed to run the new WNBA venture. She guided the WNBA through its first eight seasons and then became the first female President of USA Basketball.

Now that's a resume.

Congratulations, Val! You've inspired us all.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Bay Area Women's Professional Soccer Team!

Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), the brand new professional women's soccer league in the US, announced this week that they'll be adding a team in the Bay Area! No idea what the team will be called, where it will play, who will be on it...but they have investors and a coach. That's a step in the right direction. I'm guessing they'll be based somewhere in the South Bay, since the San Jose Mercury News jumped on this report.

I'm excited that I'll have a local team to check out. I've been so curious about how this new league is progressing. I sincerely hope that the league survives this time around--but they're going to need one helluva fan base to support them. Investors are great, but they can't sustain the league indefinitely. I want to go to one of these games and see how many other people show up. How much are the tickets? How much are the hotdogs? Is it only soccer moms and girl scouts in the stands, or is there finally a broader appeal?

You should all buy a ticket and come with me to the game. It's the least we can do.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Debbie Phelps - Sometimes it pays to be a Mom

Debbie Phelps, mother of the famed Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps, is now an endorsed Mom. Check out this article about her new deal with Chico's brand clothing.

Let's be honest--maybe she does deserve a little credit for giving birth to such a phenomenal athlete (who has always praised his mom for giving him his Olympic work ethic).