Welcome to the fourth annual All -Star Game.
We are all eager for the game to begin. It really will represent a culmination of a very busy last couple of days here in Washington for the league, and I guess I want to start off by thanking Abe and Irene Pollin and Susan O'Malley and all of the staff at Washington Sports and Entertainment for everything they have done to make this event a great success, and the City of Washington, as well, for the extraordinary hospitality that we have had over the course of the last several days.
Since it is the 30th anniversary of this piece of legislation called Title IX, and we are in Washington, in many ways, the birth place of Title IX, I wanted to start by making a couple of comments about the growth of women's sports, and really the broader context in which a league like the WNBA operates.
I can tell you very bluntly that without Title IX there would be no WNBA. It is really that simple. It has been a great law. Its authors and its sponsors were very courageous, and in many ways, very forward-looking. Certainly, on behalf of the WNBA, we commend them for not only making, but probably accelerating history, but putting a law like this one into effect.
For many people in women's sports, it is hard to understand what a lot of the recent controversy is really all about. The intent of the law was unassailable in its way, and the results have truly been extraordinary. There has been a sea change in the last 30 years in the level of participation for girls and women in sports, many in this country.
Some very staggering statistics. The number of girls participating at the high school level is up 847 percent since 1972. The number of young women participating in sports at the collegiate level is up 403 percent since 1972.
If anything, the law still probably has not gone far enough in practice. Women still seem to lag behind in terms of the absolute number of dollars spent and the absolute participatory figures at both the collegiate and high school level. So it is our hope that more progress is ahead and our hope, as well, is that the commission that was recently assembled by the Secretary of Education, but which Cynthia Cooper is one of the co-chairs, will see to it that the process we have seen over the course of the last 30 years will continue.
Fortunately, much of the news is good. I believe the legacy of Title IX as it begins to unfold, not just in sports, but in terms of its implications for the culture at large.
Many, many people in our league, and I am one, can speak to the changes in women's sports over the course of the last 30 years, people like Anne Donovan and Teresa Weatherspoon and even some of our recent players like Stacey Dales-Schuman and Chamique Holdsclaw and others, we all have stories talking about growing up and playing sports and that being the exemption rather than the rule.
I happened to use the word tomboy in front of my nine-year-old daughter recently and she tugged on my arm after I used it and she asked me what the word meant -- a nine-year-old in 2002 cannot know what the word "tomboy" meant. I explained to her that it used to be a girl that played sports. It struck me that when she asked me the question that the word "tomboy" seems to have dropped out of vernacular. So many girls are playing sports that that has become the rule rather than the exception, and that, at least to us, represents a major cultural shift that I think is going to affect many, many institutions, including the place of women in business.
I had reason to learn recently that in a survey done of top executive women at Fortune 500 companies, 80 percent reported that they had a background in sports. So, the ramifications of Title IX are very real, and I believe the WNBA, in many ways, represents the ultimate expression of Title IX, a platform, really, for those who have the opportunity to participate at a young age and now have the showcase to show their talents, really to the world. So we are very proud of that and we are also very proud what the league has accomplished in a relatively short period of time.
Overall, I can tell you that we are very happy with where the WNBA is this season and where the league is in general. Women's basketball has truly found its place, I believe, in the national sports landscape. A lot of that has to do with what's happened on television. Television has within a major contributor to the growth of women's basketball. This past year, 800 women's basketball games will have been televised on television in the United States domestically. Roughly 650 of those are collegiate games and another 150 national and local represent the games that are being televised of the professional game. Tonight's game, for the fourth straight year, is nationally-televised on ESPN and our game is going to 170 countries around the world.
The game of women's basketball at the professional level is really beginning to speak for itself. It has become extremely competitive. The games, I believe, are very, very hard fought. Whatever dilutive effects expansion may have occurred thus far, merely a memory. The draft has really done its job and all of us believe there has been exceptional parity across the league, which is important not only for the players and coaches, but also to the fans.
Teresa Weatherspoon told me the other night, talking about how tough it is to win games in the WNBA, and she told me that you really need to be pumping on all cylinders to win. It is that hard to win. There is no such thing as an off night if you want to win a game in the WNBA.
Among the players, it strikes us, we have six years in, in old guard and new guard, in the WNBA. In a lot of ways, it is still a veterans league and that is born out to a large degree by the rosters tonight. We have six four-time All-Stars playing in the game tonight. But the newcomers are increasingly showing that they want to and can have an immediate impact, and I think it is also very telling that we have three rookies and three second-year players that are playing in the game tonight.
The good news, at least for our sport, is that there is a lot more to come. There is a lot on the horizon, and our teams are already getting excited about Diana Taurasi and Alana Beard and so many other great players who are going to join the league in the near future and I believe pretty strongly that they are going to continue to transform the look of the women's pro game.
Finally, we have had some very encouraging results on the business side. Overall, our attendance around the league is up from where it was this time last year. We continue to expect that we'll bring in strong crowds. Our better months tend to be July and August, after people settle into their summer vacations and schools are out, and from all reports from our teams, the crowds in the latter part of the season looked like they are going to be very good. And that means that we think we are going to be on pace to break the 9,000 mark, again this year, for the sixth consecutive year, and our hope, over time, is that we are going to be able to grow that level of attendance bit by bit.
Our new national television contracts, which we announced in the last month or so, for us, really represent a major achievement for the league. They guarantee us six more years of prime time national television exposure for our games so that means we will have 12 years of national television exposure for the league coming out of the box, which is very important. We greatly look forward to continuing our relationship with ESPN, which has the privilege of carrying not only the WNBA, but women's college basketball and we look forward to our new relationship with ABC, as well.
I can tell that you we are also very proud of the recent relationship that we struck with the Oxygen Network, which is now in 40 million homes and continuing to grow, with primarily female viewership. We think it's going to be the perfect way to expand the reach that we think we have with our female fans.
We also are very happy at the commitment to the WNBA that's been made by Blue Chip corporations, and we are very hopeful that that commitment is going to continue; companies like American Express, Anheuser-Busch, Reebok, Coke, Nike, Gatorade, Lady Foot Locker and others are all expected to be a part of our future and that's good news for the league.
Finally, I just want to close by saying, really, just this: It was a journey that brought the WNBA to where we are today, 2002, year six in Washington, for our fourth All-Star Game and there's a journey that lies ahead. Just like there is a journey that preceded the passage of Title IX and a journey ever since.
I can tell you that I am optimistic about what we have accomplished to date and that optimism, in many ways, is exceeded by the optimism in all of us associated with the league. We believe more is going to be accomplished going forward. I believe the game tonight, with a sell-out crowd, with some of the best fans in sports cheering our players on, with all of you here, with a national television audience, global television audience, is really a glimpse into what women's professional basketball is capable of being.
With that, I'll close and be happy to take any questions anybody has.
Q: Why do you think Washington has not had one of the best records in the league for years, but has continued to have one of the best fan bases? Why do you think Washington has such good fans?
Ackerman: I don't think either I or Susan O'Malley or Mr. and Mrs. Pollin could give you an answer on that one.
I think its probably a combination of things. It's clearly a city that's been very supportive of women. We have an arena that's located downtown and it seems like that's part of the attraction. It has been a great place for the team to play.
The fans here have just been incredibly supportive of women's sports. Whether that's connected in some way with the fact that women in government are coming after work, which is at least one of the theories that we have, and coming out and taking in a game with their friends; that may be part of the reason.
But for whatever reason, the fact remains that the fan support here has really been terrific. The team, I would add, has worked extremely hard to reach out. We have a very well-managed operation here with Susan and her staff. They have worked very hard to reach out to community groups. They have excellent relationships with a variety of community-based organizations here in the city. I believe Thursday of this week is Camp Day, where there is going to be virtually bus loads of young kids that are going to be coming in and spending lunch hour here at MCI Center, taking in a WNBA game.
There really has been a lot of work that's gone into it, but the city, in general, has been pro-women and pro-women's sports, and we are very happy about it.
Q: Earlier, at the Smithsonian, you had an entirely pro-WNBA crowd and you spoke on further expansion of teams, whether or not they will be with NBA brothers. Are the numbers correct, that 11 teams in the WNBA are barely averaging 8,000 and three times, Detroit, Charlotte and Seattle are barely averaging 6,000? With numbers like that, is it wise to think about expanding and opening up in different cities? You take baseball and they think they expanded too quick. Are those numbers correct?
Ackerman: I can speak maybe more in general terms.
When we started the league in 1997, we thought we would be averaging about 4,000 fans a game. We did pretty well in the first few weeks of the season, so we changed our projection to 6,000 fans a game.
Really, now, in most cases, nearly all cases, our teams are exceeding that. We have had some real success stories in places like Washington and New York and Houston and we have made great strides, we think, in cities like Los Angeles and Sacramento, and to be honest, we are very hopeful that the fan support will continue to grow in the other cities.
I think it's hard sometimes to communicate a sense of perspective. The reality is, building a fan base just takes time. It's just that simple. We have worked hard at reaching out to a variety of demographic groups in our cities. One of the most promising things about our fan base is that we have so many women who are supporting the league. Our fan base is very different than what you would see at an NBA game, for example, and the fact that so many women are such positive, young kids, young girls in particular, are identifying by our players, is a real positive.
So we are really taking the long view. We think our foundation is very good. We have a very avid fan base in every city, all across the league. We have fans who are very enthusiastic about the league, and we remain very hopeful that, really, in all the markets that we are operating, we are going to be able to continue to expand that base.
Q: Do you feel that you need to market the WNBA players as attractive women, as well as athletes?
Ackerman: I think in this day and age, we need to market our players as complete packages. I think what makes athletes interesting now is not just what they do on the court, that's the most important thing, and frankly, the thing that we emphasize the most. If our players are not the best women's basketball players in the world, they are probably not going to be very interesting to any of you, and the people who really matter.
That's the most important thing and we work pretty hard to capitalize on what our players do on the court.
What you think makes our players interesting is what they represent as people, what their personalities are. In fact, back to my early point about our female fans, we just have come to learn that our fans really do care about that. They want to know what our players are like, what they like to do in their down time, where they like to shop, what they like to read, what Sheryl Swoopes does with her son when she is not practicing. That is a very real interest that our fans have and we try to respond to that demand by some of our advertising efforts.
I guess even more than anything else, what we want to make sure is that our players and the fans have the right kind of a connection and that's important as well, how they interact with the fans, and we have worked hard to create opportunities for that connection to be effective.
So, we are working on all of those fronts, and hopefully, the end result will be a greater recognition of our players and all of our players moving more and more into the mainstream, not only in sports, but really, of our culture at large.
Q: My question is: If you continue to expand the number of teams, you'll eventually have to expand the schedule, and there's a problem with foreign players and U.S. players that play in foreign leagues. Do you think you are going to be able to accommodate those leagues? How do you do that?
Ackerman: A question related to how or if we can expand our schedule in particular.
We are now in the process of looking at ways to stretch the schedule. To your point, there are some challenges on the front end of the schedule, not only because of the international play and when the players finish their seasons overseas, but also because of when the college season ends. We really use April as a processing month, and I think, for a lot of reasons, it would probably be tough, near-term, to start much earlier than we do. But we think there may be some room to help things out a bit and we are beginning to look into whether we have capacity at the back end and maybe take our season a bit into September, where we can just add some days to the schedule, potentially add some more weekends to the schedule, which is helpful for a variety of reasons, and just sort of grow it from that way, from that end.
Any changes that we are going to make on this whole subject, I think are going to be pretty gradual. They have been pretty gradual to date and I don't envision things happening quickly, but we are beginning to look at the prospects, and maybe within the next year or two, we are going to see some changes.
Q: What is being done to expand the male base? We keep hearing about the female base, but we all know we need a larger male base in the game. Also, will we see, in the future, national figures promoting the league, doing some type of TV commercials, like Britney Spears saying, "I like the WNBA"?
Ackerman: We actually have the ideal vehicle to reach male sports fans because we are associated with the "MNBA." We have access to NBA season ticket holders and an amazing collection of assets before us, in terms of the television, for example. Our sports run all through the NBA playoff games. We have WNBA promotional spots that are running virtually from the time of the NBA All-Star Game in February to the beginning of our season. So we have very effective vehicles to reach male sports fans and that is one reason why we have worked so hard to make sure WNBA is covered in the sports fans because that is where most male sports fans pick up their information.
When we look at our demographics, I have found that our most passionate fans who happen to be men, who are obviously very important, are fathers with young girls that play sports. They have been very supportive of the league and I think when they come to games with their daughters, there is kind of a common bond that they have. It's kind of a very special connection and we are beginning to see a lot more of that in the WNBA.
In answer to your second question, we really have worked hard to create links between our players and the celebrity community. Brian McKnight is doing the National Anthem tonight and Ashanti is performing at halftime and that is part of an overall effort to link the WNBA to entertainment. There may be some more ways going forward.
In fact, one of the things we are beginning to look at is the future of the uniform. It occurs to us maybe there is something interesting that could be done with the uniform and as we speak, we are beginning to look at ways where we can solicit some prominent people in the fashion area to give us suggestions about what might look good and be very functional, as well for the players. It is an important area for us and I think as the WNBA becomes more and more entrenched, it is going to be easier and easier to make those kinds of connections.
Q: How confident are you that a Collective Bargaining Agreement can be reached by Sept. 15?
Ackerman: By Sept. 15?
Ackerman: That would be great. I'm not sure that we are going to be able to do it by September 15, but I am very hopeful that we will end up with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement for our players.
The existing agreement expires on Sept. 15, which means that we will conclude our current agreement, which was entered into in 1999 and covered four years.
We have a great relationship with our players and it's a very important process, the renewal of the agreement, and I'm very hopeful that we are going to make a fair deal.
Q: You sort of dove-tailed the question of expansion, you committed to a team in San Antonio in 2003, have you determined how that might come about, expansion or relocation? And as far as the playoff format, do you see any changes in expanding the Finals to five games?
Ackerman: By way of an update, we are in the midst of a season ticket drive. They are two thirds of the way there; there being 6,000 deposits by Nov. 15, which is the deadline and we feel very good about the result there, namely meeting the ticket deposit requirement and some other requirements.
I think it looks very good to have a team in San Antonio. It is our intent for that to be an expansion team. That's not to say that a relocation is not a possibility. It is a possibility, frankly, for any team in terms of the way we are structured. Our intention at this point is it would be an expansion team. In terms of the details of how that would happen, it's really just too early to say. We are going to really be looking at that at the end of the season in terms of how to roll that out and do the necessary steps there to bring them into being next summer.
In terms of the playoff format, at this point, there's no near-term plans to expand it beyond the current best two-out-of-three in three rounds, but long term, I think it would be great for the league to have the playoffs expand, as we have seen in other sports, and potentially in the championship round, Finals, to have it go to five games. It certainly is something we would be looking at.
But at this point, I don't really see any near-term changes.
Q: You said it's important to the league that the fans and players make the right kind of connection. To what extent are you concerned that the rumblings of a work stoppage will possibly damage that connection?
Ackerman: Well, I'm as concerned as any sports league would be about that. It would not be an issue that would be unique to the WNBA, but as I mentioned before, I'm very hopeful that we are going to have the right result, which is an agreement that addresses needs of the league, and also one that addresses the needs of our players.
When the bargaining process starts, I know everybody involved is going to have the same end in mind, and that is to come together and come up with the right kind of relationship and that is going to take the WNBA, a six-year league, to the next level.
Our fans really have been great. Their support has been incredible and certainly everything we have done in terms of reaching out to fans and trying to make sure we have the right kinds of connections are top of mind for us, as well as our players.
Q: You've said that you do not intend to change the rule that does not permit early eligibility for American collegiate players, but foreign players are allowed to enter the league before they have reached 21; can you speak to that discrepancy?
Ackerman: Well, the specific rule is the international players have to have played two years of professional basketball elsewhere in order to be eligible to play in the WNBA. So there is kind of a standard that we have set in terms of their experience level.
But you're right, they don't have the comparable college experience that we have on the U.S. side, so we just felt it was appropriate to address it in a different kind of a way.
I think, in general, it's really worked to the benefits of the league. We like that we have players who have come in that have had the benefit of a college education. They come in very polished. The players coming in with each passing year come in with a swagger to them. They have had a great experience playing in college and really have had the best training for the WNBA. For our sport, it is beneficial to see the women's college game staying strong, and being a very strong one-two punch in terms of the college/pro progression. It is something that we are really happy and I think it has really worked to the benefit of the WNBA.