WNBA vs. USA Basketball: The Game at Radio City
WNBA President Val Ackerman|
I just wanted to make a brief announcement first: I regret to advise that there’s no truth to the rumor that Mel Greenburg is going to be joining to Rockettes for the chorus line at halftime. Maybe next year.
But I will say, the Rockettes will be on at halftime and that, among other things, makes this just about -- I think -- the most unique setting you can have for a basketball game and a game involving our Olympic team; and we’re very excited to be here in New York and to be at Radio City Music Hall for a somewhat historic occasion. We think it will be a great game. All of you know ESPN is going to be taking it nationally. We’re also going to have the game distributed to 188 countries by 49 telecasters. So, fans from around the world will have an opportunity to see our great players.
I would just say by way of some comments at the top that with the season now a little past the midway point going into the break, we’re happy to be where we are this year. From a competition standpoint, the season has turned into everything that we and most observers predicted as far as the level of play and the parity. Certainly, the East couldn’t be any closer than it is and it’s been exciting to see some great individual performances by our players. Lisa Leslie scoring 4,000 points, the first player in WNBA history to do that; Katie Smith hitting the 3,000-point mark. The rookies, the much heralded class of 2004, hasn’t let anybody down -- to see Diana Taurasi doing what she’s doing in Phoenix; Lindsay Whalen making the game today as the fan’s choice. To see good performances from Nicole Ohlde and Vanessa Hayden more recently, and certainly to see Alana Beard coming along in the last few weeks in particular reinforces everything that most basketball observers felt about this particular group of players, so it’s been fun to see them develop in the WNBA.
I think we have a cliffhanger in terms of where things stand. I think this will make for a very exciting stretch run when play resumes in September. We’ve have some very good crowds in the last month, not inconsistent with the pattern we have in terms of how our crowds progress as the season goes on. We are practically even with this time last year in terms of our attendance. We expect good crowds in September. Our teams have good reports about how our group sales are moving. We expect to have a good bit of interest in the last bit of the season when play resumes. In terms of ratings and web traffic, they’re both up. On ABC we’re up 14 percent, with good growth in the adult women category, which is meaningful to us, because what we’ve said all along that the league really resonates with women. We continue to have a strong percentage of our base made up of females of all ages really. It’s very interesting to see the evolution of females, in terms of viewership for sports programming. It’s something you didn’t see much of 10 or 20 years ago, and you’re starting to see it now. And also on ESPN2, we’re up about 16 percent, and have see key growth there among teens, which is another important growth area as we increasingly try to reach young people, and in particular, teen girls.
On the web, we’ve had double-digit growth this year both in terms of our page view and our weekly visitors, and we think that’s an encouraging sign as well. Finally, I would just say that on the subject of the Olympics, we have some very exciting weeks ahead. I’ve had a chance over the last couples of days to spend some time with the national team. I would say that they are excited. They are very much ready to go. This has been a long time in the making, in terms of when this team was picked, at least the core group, the training that they did over the winter. This group of players is very excited and very focused on bringing back what would be a third consecutive Olympic gold medal to the United States. Some of the international rosters aren’t finalized yet, but we do expect a pretty high representation from out international players in the WNBA and it continues to be my estimation that we will have upwards of 20 current or former international players that will be represented countries like Russia, led by Elena Baranova, and Australia, led by Penny Taylor and Lauren Jackson, and then Brazil, led by Janeth Arcain.
We feel like we’re going to be pretty well represented and that the Olympics will in many ways validate what has been in my judgment a very good year for women’s basketball, between an incredible college tournament, our season, which isn’t over yet and should end with a bang, and then to have the Olympics all in one year is a pretty big thing. And I think the Olympics will once again validate just how far women’s sports have come and how far they’re moving.
Q: They talk about the “bounce” after the Republican and Democratic Conventions. How do you think the league is going to take advantage of the “bounce” after the Olympics?
Ackerman: The way that we’re going to deal with it is twofold. One, the fact that we have so many players who are going to be on the world’s biggest sports stage is a huge positive for the league. I think there’ll be plenty of attention about that. There will certainly be some television coverage as NBC continues to evolve its plans about which games will be covered. There will be coverage from a national television standpoint, certainly for the U.S. team, and I think there will be some very good story lines that come out of it that will have the effect of keeping the WNBA alive from a basketball standpoint. So that’s one.
Secondly, we think we have some opportunities in August with the players who are not going over to Athens to really engage in our communities. Our teams, in fact, have a whole host of activities that they’re planning over the next couple of weeks, ranging from camps to clinics to sponsor events, golf tournaments, to sponsored outings to different places, to community appearances, to reading events and so on, which provide a somewhat unique opportunity to engage fans in a less interrupted way than typically happens during the season simply because the season is sometimes a blur of games, and practices and travel. It’s sometimes difficult because you sometimes don’t have the time to do the things that our teams are planning to do with the luxury of more time in the month of August. So we think that the combination of having that grassroots activity in the team markets, coupled with national and international exposure in the Olympics, that will have the effect of keeping the WNBA very much top of mind.
I know that our teams are very focused on what we’re calling “welcome back games” -- every team’s first home game back after the break. They are planning to make a big deal, particularly for those teams that have an Olympian, who may well be coming back with a medal of some kind. Our teams are working very hard to welcome them back in the same way in terms of certain promotions they’re doing, certain groups that they’re targeting. Again, the reports from our teams are pretty optimistic in terms of what we can expect when we come back. And my sense as well, in that we are going later this year than we ever have gone – a full month – that we aren’t as concerned as we might have been in the early years, simply because we’ve learned that our fan base is very different. We’re not attracting the same fans the NFL brings in. We’re not even attracting the same fans the NBA is bringing in; it’s the same sport. So, we think that there is going to be more than enough room for us in the fall months, both in terms of what we’re going to command in-arena, as well as what the ratings for our games will hopefully allow for.
Q: Is this a test-run for an extended season?
Ackerman: That’s one way to look at it. The idea isn’t lost on us that we will learn something from how we do going later. That is important because as we look ahead to our schedule, it’s our view that the growth – if there is any – is going to be at the backend. I don’t believe – none of us do – that the league can start much earlier than we start in May, given when the college season ends and what we have to do to get ready when they’re done, and when the international league ends. We’re intent on continuing to allow our players to have those opportunities overseas. As they arrive in April and early May, it makes it very difficult to start much earlier. But I do think we have some room in the backend, and this will be a good way to test that.
Q: The NFL seems to be starting later and later – maybe even the last week in September in the next couple of years. Does that give you more impetus to extend play?
Ackerman: I wouldn’t call it a major factor, but it would certainly be one of the factors that we’d look at as we try to figure out what makes sense for us – what network availability there might be, how the reaction of fans will be where there may be a slight crossover – it wouldn’t be heavy but there might be some crossover. So, yes, those are the types of things that we could certainly look at.
Q: How do you think the coverage of the Olympic Team will be? Are we going to get pushed on the back burner?
Ackerman: Boy, I sure hope not. I think the coverage should be pretty good. I think there are incredibly compelling stories. You have three-time Olympians in Sheryl [Swoopes], Lisa [Leslie] and Dawn [Staley]. You have a great story in Van Chancellor. As he puts it, he’s just a boy from the cotton fields from Mississippi and he gets to be the Olympic coach. It’s a pretty amazing story; only in America. We have some very talented first-time Olympians. What I like about this team is that it’s a very good blend of the veteran players who’ve been there, who have international experience, who learned from the players before them, and then this next wave of players for whom this is the first Olympics but not the last, the players who are going to go on to Beijing in 2008 and then wherever in 2012 – maybe here. Our sense it that there is an interest in that. There certainly are a lot of sports to cover in the Olympics, but our players – I think anybody would agree – are about as well known as any women athletes who are going to Athens. They’re in the public spotlight more than just about anybody -- except some of the track players and some of the tennis players at this point – and they get a window every year, not every four years. I think given their profiles, it just strikes me that there’s going to be an interest in seeing how they do in this particular stage.
Q: Taj McWilliams-Franklin referred to this team as the Dream Team for the women. Can you talk about how good they really are?
Ackerman: I think I’ve heard that before, that particular phrase. I don’t disagree. I was actually talking to some folks today and reflecting back on the 1996 team that won the gold medal in Atlanta and really was a very important team for our sport because that really set foundation for the WNBA and what I call the modern age of women’s basketball. I look at the 2000 team and I look at this team, and in my judgment the team this year is player-for-player better than any women’s Olympic basketball team ever fielded. If you look at the second five, that is a startable Olympic team for any country except ours. You look at the bench, which is probably going to be Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash, Ruth Riley, Sue Bird. Okay, that’s a pretty good bench. So, I think it’s a great team. And again, we like that it’s a mix of young and old, and you have players like Lisa [Leslie] who just shine in international competition, who understand that it’s a different game. I think we’re seeing very much on the men’s side that it is a different game. International basketball is not the same think as playing in a professional league in the United States. There are somewhat different rules; it’s a different style of play that you’re up again from the other countries. It’s similar in the women’s game as well, and our players know they have their job cut our for them. They’re going to see a very tough team in Russia. They’re going to see a very tough team in Australia. I’m being told that the Czech team, which is very young, is nonetheless a great team and a real up-and-coming team. And watch out, if not in 2004, in 2008 for that team. It should be very interesting, but I think our players are up to it. Van’s a great coach, he’s got a great staff in Anne [Donovan], Gail [Goestenkors] and Vivian [Stringer]. As I said at the top, they understand the mission in hand, and they’re ready to go.
Q: Assuming the U.S. wins the gold medal, are there any plans to enhance advertising?
Ackerman: The plan, very much, is to take advantage of what we think will be a great performance, a lot of emotion, and so on. There may be some limitations in terms of certain rights we have in terms of the Olympics. But we are intending to do some sort of … call it a victory tour for lack of a better word, as it relates to when the players come back. By the way, not just American players, but if Lauren Jackson is coming back with a medal, that’s a good story for us, too; or Elena Baranova here in New York. So, we very much intend to capitalize on it, and I think, again, because it is such a big story, it will give us what we need to -- getting back to the earlier question -- get through what is, in fact, a long break from games.