WNBA Media Roundtable: Examining Coverage of the League and Forecasting Its Future
With the WNBA playoffs starting on Tuesday, it felt like an interesting time to examine the league as a whole and how it’s covered by major publications, as well as hit on hot-button topics that have cropped up during the regular season. Keeping that in mind, The Crossover spoke with members of the media about their connection to the WNBA, how to improve it and more.
In answering the questions, members of this three-person panel were told to provide responses as short or long as they wanted. (These answers have been edited for clarity.)
When did you start following the WNBA? What got you interested in the league?
Meredith Minkow: I got interested in the league from my time working with the Timberwolves and Lynx. I did an internship there a couple years ago. I did a social media internship and started with the Timberwolves and then—I didn’t really know a lot about the WNBA at the time, I kind of just knew the names of some players. But I was told during the Wolves’ season that once the Lynx’s season had started, I would kind of be blown away by the games and how fun and passionate the fans were.
I was kind of confused at the time because Timberwolves games are really cool and everyone is super into it. But then once the Lynx season started and I saw how passionate the fans were and how loud it got and how packed the arena was, just being around the players and seeing how down to earth they are kind made me fall in love with the WNBA.
Richard Deitsch: I started following the league in the mid-2000s as a result of covering women’s college basketball for Sports Illustrated. Having watched and covered the best players in college closely—players such as Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Skylar Diggins etc... I have been naturally curious to see how they do in the pros.
Natalie Weiner: I started following the WNBA around when I started at Bleacher Report last year—it was a moment when I was just generally realizing the scope of women in sports. I'd never really given it a lot of thought (like many people, I think) despite growing up in Seattle, where there is a well-supported, successful WNBA team. The first time I really dove into the history of the league was when I wrote about the history of women dunking, which was really revelatory for me personally.
Why do you think the league and its players get so much vitriol on social media?
Minkow: I think that a lot of it comes from people being uneducated about the league. I think a lot of it is just Twitter trolls looking for drama online. I try not to feed too much into it but I was briefly helping on the Twitter account for one of those outlets and whenever we post anything on women’s sports related we just get a ton of kitchen jokes and I don’t know, people seem to take like a personal offense.
The league is possessive and the women in it are very educated and not afraid to speak on social issues and what’s going on in the world, which I think is awesome. So I guess there are people that take offense to it and it kind of rubs them the wrong way. But I think everyone that I’ve talked to about the WNBA that’s either come to a game or watched it on TV, everyone that I’ve interacted with has been pleasantly surprised by the competition and the game. So yeah, I think it’s just a mix of people being uneducated and kind of ignorant.
Deitsch: Sexism, pure and simple. It’s deeply rooted in our culture. That doesn’t mean everyone is sexist—only a Sith believes in absolutes—but WNBA athletes face a toxic mix of sexism and anonymity on social media, which makes it easy to say anything to them with zero repercussions. There’s also an element that strong, athletic women scare the sh-- out of some men. If you think this is white knighting, you are just telling on yourself.
Weiner: I mean, I think it can be extrapolated out to how women are treated generally on the internet; that is, badly. The WNBA is a particularly appealing target, I think, because it hits all the notes that people who tend to be internet trolls like latching onto—particularly the perception of "political correctness"—that is, that the reason for the league's existence is because women need to have equal time thanks to pesky feminists and their demands, not because there are just a lot of women who love playing basketball.
Also, the league includes mostly black women and many queer women of all races, which means racism, sexism and homophobia are all in play. That on top of the fact that women playing sports—trying to achieve greatness on terms that haven't been dictated by men, and are in no way related to how they look—is itself still subversive, almost 50 years after Title IX. There's a lot!
What do you make of the coverage that the WNBA gets from major outlets? What more could they do to promote the league?
Minkow: I think that there’s definitely a lack of coverage in mainstream media and local media. I know that when I used to work for the Lynx, the head coach, Cheryl Reeve, is very vocal about local media covering the team. I went to Twitter a couple weeks ago and found out that the L.A. Times doesn’t even cover the Sparks, which I thought was super interesting and very unfortunate. I mean that’s one of the top teams in the league, they have two superstars on the team and obviously have won a lot and they can’t even get local media to cover the team?
I think local media is a good way to start in terms of coverage. I know The Athletic has started to cover WNBA teams and I’d obviously like all of them to be covered. In terms of national media, I definitely think we have a long way to go. I’m kind of trying to push, where I work there’s a lot of people trying to push WNBA content and I don’t know. The numbers obviously speak for themselves and we can’t just ignore women’s sports if you’re a national news site. I think we have a long way to go but I think national media is starting to catch on and local media will as well.
Deitsch: As for media coverage, the only major entity that gives the WNBA just due is ESPN and even they short the league when it comes to the number of national games they air as well as placing games on ESPN2 versus ESPN News (which makes a significant difference in viewership).
Weiner: It's honestly next to nil at most places, and I think the answer is simple: cover it the way you do everything else. WNBA players are so tired of having to talk about sexism and how to promote the league, even though they all have excellent insights on those topics. They love basketball, and they want to talk about basketball—and all the other ways they're using the sport to try to boost their communities.
Certain promotions, like Jordan Brand remaking the Wings poster with Maya Moore, bring a lot of positive support to the WNBA. Do you think we’ll see more of that going forward or do you think companies tend to use them more as a one-off?
Minkow: I would hope that the Jordan Lynx poster thing was a wake-up call for Jordan Brand. I’m a huge Maya Moore fan and I just think she’s an awesome role model for not only young girls but young boys as well. I see them at the games and they’re all big fans. That billboard got a ton of attention and it was only up for like a week and then they took it down. And I know that Maya is the only woman they have on their roster and I feel like they could be doing a lot more to market her.
I mean Nike basketball does a good job with Elena Delle Donne and their signature athletes. I definitely see a big difference between how the men are marketed as opposed to the women and, if anything, the Wings billboard should be a wake-up call to the brands that they have a lot of star power that they’re not using.
I know that Skylar Diggins-Smith is a Puma athlete and I think she was the first basketball athlete that they had and they just have not marketed her practically at all. I haven’t seen much from them at all. And I feel like when they signed Ayton and Bagley, it would have been a great way for them to use her as they were trying to get into basketball. She has a huge following and she’s having an amazing season, and I just think that some of these brands just don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to marketing these female athletes, and they could just be doing more to do more things like the Wings poster. So hopefully there’s more in the future.
Deitsch: One of the best ways for the WNBA to promote itself is to get creative opportunities as Moore did with the poster. The league should push hard to be part of e-gaming as well as creative programs on social media. I'd also embrace legalized sports gambling and daily fantasy if I were the league.
Weiner: I hope we see more! It's definitely this ongoing chicken or egg thing as far as who needs to invest to boost the profile of the league and its players: is it the WNBA, the NBA, the team owners, the players themselves, the media covering them or the brands partnering with them? Realistically, the answer is all of the above.
How well do you think the WNBA is doing at branding itself and promoting itself to potential viewers?
Minkow: I don’t want to hate on the league at all but it’s pretty frustrating as a viewer and someone who is trying to bring more awareness to the league that I feel like there are a lot of marketing strategies that they could be doing better.
I know a lot of people complain that they want to buy a jersey and it’s too difficult. It’s a hard time getting them and just little things like that. Team stores not having WNBA gear and identifying players to market. I think that they kind of choose a handful and just kind of push those out, and this is the most competitive and well-balanced WNBA season that we’ve seen in a while. There’s literally a superstar on every team, and I think the WNBA could be using that to their advantage but I don’t really see that happening.
I really like the “Watch Me Work” campaign and the commercials they had before the season started with charities and organizations, and I think that’s definitely a good way to go. There’s just better ways that they’ve kind of dropped the ball on that could help the league a lot.
Deitsch: Each team should approach the Minnesota Lynx model which is essentially saying yes to every media request and publicly demanding to be covered based on excellence of play. The league should focus on getting as many national media appearances as possible, including on ESPN and other entities with a lot of distribution.
Weiner: Honestly, I think there's a bit of over-indexing on the women's empowerment aspect—it is a thing that is feminist in its essence, and I'm not sure we always need to gild the lily with schmaltzy videos (maybe I'm just still traumatized from the Women's Final Four playing that Pink song literally 9,000 times). That said, I think the social justice angle that the league took as far as ticket sales this year was smart, at a moment when sports are becoming an ever-more-visible arena for activism.
Leaning into the fact that the league is always going to be perceived as progressive makes sense; I just think that the leading thing should always be the phenomenal plays that they're making, and the super competitive games. Stuff like getting highlights live on social media as soon as possible, making sure game info and stats and everything are instantly and easily accessible and getting the games on TV should be paramount. If you're in a bar in the summer, there should be a WNBA game on just as a matter of course. Making it a normal part of the average sports fan's consumption, instead of an exceptional Woman thing (though for a lot of people, it is certainly that too!).
Do you foresee a future where the WNBA gets similar coverage to the NBA? Or will it always be relegated to being considered an inferior league by the many viewers?
Minkow: I think the goal is that it definitely is the level of the NBA. The more these big matchups are on ESPN and they see ratings, the more responsibilities ESPN and those NBA TV have to put these matchups on TV. Hopefully, with more games being aired, there’ll be more viewership. I think a lot of people forget that the WNBA is still pretty new. I think I read somewhere that, tracking wise, it was almost a little further along to where the NBA was in terms of what year they’re on.
I think it takes time but I definitely see a turning point. I think people on Twitter are getting behind it and the more these players are on TV and the more exposure they get, the more the league will grow. But we’re definitely at a time where we’re seeing that now. I don’t see it going backward, I can only see it going forward and that’s super exciting and hopefully, five or 10 years down the road, there’s as many WNBA games shown on TV as there are NBA games. But I’m hopeful that it’ll rise to the level of popularity that NBA games have.
Deitsch: The coverage isn’t going to be equal to the NBA in my lifetime but thinking it would or should be is unrealistic. Nor do I think the most ardent WNBA official would argue as such. The NBA is a 12-month sport. The WNBA is not. The NBA is global. The WNBA is not. The real question is why isn’t the WNBA getting more coverage than it gets now? That’s what should be addressed. It’s a fantastic, athletic league with great stories and interesting people that is overlooked by too many publications/outlets/media entities.
I remember covering a Lynx-Liberty game in New York a couple of years ago and none of the local newspapers were covering a game despite one of the greatest basketball dynasties (the Lynx) being in town. That’s a dereliction of editorial duty. What has to change is the mindset of those assigning stories, but more likely, what has to change is more diversity of sports opinion in newsrooms.
Weiner: Similar is probably a stretch. I certainly can see a future where it's appreciated like college basketball, though—"inferior" feels harsh, but it's never not going to be an alternative. The NBA is super entrenched and has a lot of extraordinary talent. If you're a basketball fan, though, you need to watch the WNBA too—that's the thing that I think people are generally missing.