WNBA All-Star 2003 Media AvailabilityWNBA President Val Ackerman
Saturday, July 12, 2003
Welcome to the fifth annual WNBA All-Star Game, here in New York. I thought I'd make just a couple of comments at the top and take any questions anybody might have.
I'll start off by saying, how excited we are to be back in New York City for the fifth game. This is a city where the WNBA has been very, very warmly embraced. We've had great support from fans here from the very, very beginning. So we are really happy to be back. We expect a great crowd today, and it's actually been a very busy week for us, the last few days have included a variety of activities where we have engaged our players and the league with the community here in New York. It's something that's very important to the WNBA.
The week really started on Tuesday when we dedicated a reading center up in Yonkers in connection with the Liberty, that will be something of a permanent memory of our weekend here. We had an open practice yesterday, I think some of you were at, where we had many kids from the community who had an opportunity to come and see the players a little bit more up close than they might otherwise have had the opportunity to do. We have a Street Jam going on now over on 35th Street in connection with Macy's, where we have an opportunity to have our fans get a little bit closer to the league and some of our players and have another experience besides simply coming to the game. And then of course we have the game starting at 4:00 today, which I think will be a great match-up, a very competitive match-up this year.
It's interesting, this is the first year where we come into the All-Star break where the Eastern Conference is actually ahead of the Western Conference in head-to-head competition prior to the All-Star break. It's never happened before in the WNBA, so it's happened this year for the first time. I know the West is anxious to keep its streak going and the East is equally anxious to get their first All-Star win. I think it will be a great matchup. And clearly, the combination of the All-Star veterans, the stalwarts, the Lisa, Sheryl, Spoon, Chamique Holdsclaw coming in yet again for another All-Star appearances, and as we do this year, having a number of first-time All-Star players, in particular are three players from Detroit, Swin, Cheryl and Deanna Nolan, who are having incredible seasons in Detroit, probably the turnaround story of the year and our tallest player in the WNBA making her All-Star debut, Margo Dydek from Poland.
Among other things I think it will be a great way to launch the second half of the WNBA season. I think it will be very exciting and I can't even begin to predict how it will end up. We have a great second half of basketball looming, as well.
With that, I'll just close and take any questions any of you might have.
Q: What did you think of yesterday's decision by the Department of Education on Title IX?
Ackerman: A question relating to the announcement by the Department of Education, that, I guess Title IX's enforcement guidelines and legal standards will stay in place, is a very important result for women's sports, and a big victory in many respects.
We were thrilled by the decision. We have been following very closely over the past several months and have been working very hard to make a contribution to the debate. As some of you may know, we have a petition on our Web site in support of keeping Title IX's guidelines intact. We have 30,000 signatures signed on to that petition. I and our players have had an opportunity over the last several months to speak to representatives from Congress. I had a chance to speak at the commission. So we tried very hard to engage in the process, and it really is an important decision.
And now, what we hope happens is that the enforcement work continues. Women still seem to be behind in terms of the roster spots, the funding and so on, at both the high school and collegiate level, so what we would like to see is people looking ahead now to the job that still remains to be done in making sure that the women and girls get the opportunity they deserve.
Q: On Tuesday Major League Baseball's All-Star Game for the first time will determine home-field advantage for the World Series. Can you ever see the WNBA All-Star Game being played with that factor involved; why or why not?
Ackerman: You know, I would tell you, it's not anything we've given a lot of consideration to.
I think baseball may have had certain reasons for doing that. I think in the WNBA, we like how the regular season determines the home-court advantage in our playoffs. Our playoffs are actually a bit different to begin with from baseball, in that because of the layout of our games, our national television obligations, we end up putting the better team on the road for the first game and then giving them the home-court advantage in Game 3. I think before we were to adopt anything that might resemble what baseball has done, we might look at that going forward, how we do that, and perhaps in time adopt a format where we put the better team at home for the beginning of each round, as opposed to on the road.
But there are reasons that we do it the way we do, and in some ways, it creates a certain level of excitement because of that. So I think we are probably going to look over time to that first, and whether or not we do adopt something that baseball has -- we are a different league with different considerations. So I can't say it would never happen but it's not anything that we would be actively considering at this point.
Q: Have you given any more thought to some other cities, and what's your feeling on maybe a new franchise in Pittsburgh?
Ackerman: A question relating to future markets.
We are working on it. We are very interested in the future and seeing what additional cities might be good candidates to host a WNBA team. As I'm sure you know, we now have the flexibility under our operating model to be in place where is there is no NBA team in that city or in that region, and we are now studying all of our alternatives.
As it relates specifically to Pittsburgh, that's exactly the type of city that I we think might have a good profile. There is no NBA team obviously and from what I know about that part of Western Pennsylvania, there is some real interest in women's basketball. Our own Swin Cash obviously has roots in Pittsburgh. The Duquesne team brought us Korie Hlede, Suzie McConnell Serio has come from Pittsburgh and she and I have talked about the prospects of having the WNBA at some point being in Western Pennsylvania. So I can't give you a timetable at this point for when it might happen, but cities like Pittsburgh are very much on the radar screen, and my hope is that over the course of the next couple of season, we go a little bit further along in identifying the right cities, identifying qualified ownership that would step forward, that's important. It's not just a matter of being in a desirable place; you need a buyer to come forward and to invest in our teams and everything that goes along with that. That's the sort of process that we are undertaking now.
Q: What are the plans for the Olympics next season, since it's going to occur during August, the last three weeks, basically of the season?
Ackerman: We have not finalized the schedule for next year, but we are looking at it very, very closely. Because to your point, the Olympics next year do coincide with our season. Unlike the 2000 Olympics in Sydney played in September after our season has ended, we are up against an Olympics that's going to played during an important part of our season.
What I envision happening, without being able to give you the exact details is, we will allow the players who are involved to go, to play for their national teams and go on, and then find some way to continue to play our season while they are gone, but with a reduced number of games.
MLS, I believe, adopted something like this with the World Cup where they were able to play through, and then somehow, the good news is that our players would be able to return in time for our playoffs, which would take place next year after the Olympics are concluded. So the good news is that those players would be able to come back and be able to do that during what's truly the most important part of our season.
But we have not quite finalized it but I think that's the kind of framework that we are going to be looking at.
Q: To follow-up on that, you would not consider like a three-week hiatus and then extend the season into September, like the NHL did?
Ackerman: We've talked about it. I think the NHL had a much shorter hiatus. They had something along the lines of half of that and they were fortunate because the Olympics were in Salt Lake City the year they did it. They did not have to worry about traveling overseas to a different time zone, etc. My view is three weeks is a bit too long for our teams to go dark. I think it's best to keep going, maybe play a few more games, maybe we can go a little bit later into September next year to take into account those circumstances, but I think it's probably not the best option to be completely dark while it's going on.
Q: When do you think it will be possible for the Finals series to be extended to five games?
Ackerman: I don't know. I don't know the answer to that. It's something that I think would have some real benefits. I would do it in the Finals before we did it in the earlier rounds, and maybe that's a way to phase it in.
It would depend on things like the television coverage we would be able to get for all five games, support for us in all of our playoff games are on national television games for the playoffs, so that's something that would have be to worked out with our networks. We would have to make sure there was the appropriate amount of time to conduct it.
It's something that I think can happen. I can't tell you when, but that might well be the next iteration of our playoff schedule.
Q: Sheryl Swoopes said yesterday, maybe jokingly, that there's only been one All-Star Game played in the West, in Phoenix, and she says it gives the East a little bit of an advantage. The East is likely to break the lock today, do you see next year a response to her little joke, that there will be a future time when there will be more All-Star Games held in the West?
Ackerman: The answer is yes. We will absolutely be in the West. I'm sure Sheryl would like it to be in Houston and since we have they have a new arena coming online as everyone knows that would be an important factor as well.
The West has not done too badly playing in the East, I would add, but, yes, it's very much our intention to take the All-Star Game back out of New York. We have a number of our cities across the league, including cities in the West which have expressed an interest in the game. And while I can't tell you that we would have a precise formula of back and forth East or West in one year to another, I do envision being out West in the foreseeable future, for sure.
Q: How beneficial do you think it is for WNBA coaches to have their players in the country during the off-season, and do you think you'll see more players from this league play in the WBL in the future?
Ackerman: There are benefits in both. When you have players in market as a number of our teams have had in the off-season, it's helpful for the team because it allows them to keep alive a lot of their community relations initiatives. They can send players into schools, appearances, interact with the fans during the off-season and there's some real benefit to that. Fortunately there are already players in our league that elect to do so, and that's been a plus. At the same time we do allow our players to play overseas in the winter and many do. It's a great way for them to keep their games going and for players on the bubble, it's a great way for them to improve their game so they can make the roster the next year. There's still some very good opportunities for players who go overseas.
I don't envision putting an end to that. It would be a players' choice. We would like to think there are situations where they could be sort of talked into staying here, and it is our hope, this year in, for example, with things coming online the way they did relatively late in the process, they did not have an opportunity to have a Nykesha in market or Pee Wee or somebody who would be able to do the kinds of outreach work that we have seen in other places, but I am confident that they will be able to line up some players. We would like to see it happen for sure. I know the team is interested in that and while I don't know who it might be, I think we will be able to accomplish that.
Like I said, I don't think we will be able to stop outright the players that are going to go overseas.
Q: Any affiliation between the two leagues?
Ackerman: We've been following what they do. I think it's important for our players to have a domestic opportunities to play here in the winter. A number of players have taken advantage of the WBL etc., And where the cities are located, and it's clearly a plus. Do I see any sort of formal affiliation with them? No.
Q: Going back to what you were talking about as far as Pittsburgh and different areas, is there any plans in the foreseeable future to have a preseason game in some markets that currently don't have teams?
Ackerman: It's a great idea. There are no specific plans today that I could tell you about. Next year we're going to have a game in Pittsburgh or any place else.
But I think something that would be great. It would be a way for us to bring the WNBA to place where they don't have teams.
I will tell you that in the past we have done some tours in non-NBA cities. A few years ago we did a post-season tour where we took two teams, sort of us versus us, to Des Moines, St. Louis, Little Rock and I think New Orleans to play four games and got some good crowds there. Had an opportunity to bring our players to parts of the country where young kids, especially who have been following them would have a chance to get a little closer to them.
So I think there clearly is room to do that. Are there any specific plans for next year? No. But I can very much see it potentially happening.
Q: A lot of talk today about expansion and exploring of opportunities. A lot of the players and coaches in the league feel that out of the contraction that you guys had to endure in the off-season that the league is actually stronger today with 14 teams, as opposed to 16 or 18. Can you talk about that and in terms of where you see the league is today after the tumultuous off-season?
Ackerman: On the subjects of elevation of caliber of play, I agree. I think this is the most competitive league we have ever had. There's no question that putting a Debbie Black in Connecticut or a Ruth Riley in Detroit or a Sheri Sam in Minnesota has helped all of those teams and helped the league in general.
I think this year, the league is about as even as I've ever seen it. Clearly, L.A. is very dominant, a great core of players who have played together for some years, a great young player in Nikki Teasley. Michael Cooper has done a fantastic job. They are going to be a team to be reckoned with. But every other team has got something to show for the off-season, for its player development efforts over the last couple of years. The coaching in the league has gotten much more sophisticated, in my judgment.
And the incoming players every year matter. Look at this year. You see the contributions right away of a Cheryl Ford, for example, or a Correta Brown in Indiana, who is having a very, very strong year there starting. Gwen Jackson is making her presence felt in San Antonio despite some injuries.
So the incoming players come in; the veteran players I think get better and I think next year, you know, with the incoming class coming there, as well, we have a chance to go yet another step along with Taurasi, Mazzante and Beard and so on. I think the future in that regard looks bright. And your point, it matters. How quickly we expand or add teams going forward should to some degree depend on what we might do in terms of the quality of the competition, and simply one of the factor that we would look at in terms of deciding how quickly we want to move forward.
But the good news as for us, there does seem to be interest in other players and I think for the future of the league it will be good to have a mix of where there is an NBA team where we get the benefit of being in a market like New York or L.A., where there is support and being in other places where the women's basketball interest in particular, like Connecticut, maybe some day in Tennessee or someplace like that, where there is already some established support could in turn help us with the business of women's professional basketball. It may not evolve very quickly but I think that's the road map in terms of where we are at it.
Q: New York this year has been frustrated by the lack of Season Pass being offered by our local cable company, will that change next year?
Ackerman: I hope so. The bad news is we were not able to continue Season Pass, but the good news is that NBA TV has picked up a significant package of WNBA games, so they are available. The hope there is that the carriage will expand in the near future and that fans going forward for next year's WNBA season would have more of an opportunity, if there are parts of the country now where they are not able to receive that.
The good news for us I guess in total is that we are in the first year of the ABC/ESPN2 relationship. We have the carriage there. Oxygen has got the league for the second year with a package of games. Telemundo is carrying games this year for the first time, which is good. Also, it's important for us to get our playoff games on television, and that's going to happen this year; all of them will be covered and that's important for the league.
International carriage is there. In fact, this game I think is going to over 180 countries. Our teams are televising locally. We are out there and our hope is that if fans can't catch a Liberty game on television, they will think about coming in person. We would obviously love to have them take advantage of the benefits of that first-hand experience and fortunately here in New York, many of them do.