By Tom Rietmann
Much like the fans of her league, WNBA president Donna Orender is looking forward to the 2010 playoffs and its revamped format.
During a visit to Indianapolis for Tuesday night's Liberty-Fever game, Orender talked about the upcoming postseason and changes made to enhance its excitement and fairness. Orender, WNBA president since 2005, also touched on other league topics and issues as she met with reporters prior to the Fever's 82-72 loss to New York.
Here's a recap:
The first two rounds, each involving best-of-three series, will open at the home court of the better seed, move to the lesser seed's court for Game 2 and return to the better seed's arena for Game 3, if necessary. In the past, the series opened on the lesser seed's court and then moved to the better seed's arena for the second and third games.
Opening at home is clearly more desirable for a team that is successful enough during the regular season to gain a home-court edge in the playoffs.
“I'm really excited about it,” Orender said. “For years, people, especially fans, have been vocal about their desire to change the format so it's more competitively equitable.”
The earlier format was likely based on economic considerations and travel costs.
The WNBA Finals will remain the same. It's a best-of-five series, set up for two games at the top seed's arena, two games on the lesser seed's court and then the fifth game at home for the top seed.
FEVER'S FUTURE IN INDIANAPOLIS
In these tough economic times, questions arise often about the status of teams in the WNBA. Orender was asked about the state of the Indiana franchise.
“All I can do is quote one of the greatest owners in professional sports, (the Pacers' and Fever's) Herb Simon, who talked about how important the Indiana Fever are, not only to this organization ... but how important they are to the community,” Orender said.
“Everything is going the right direction.”
Simon has reiterated recently that every economic indicator is up for the Fever. The team is averaging nearly 8,000 in attendance at Conseco Fieldhouse, the fourth consecutive year with an increase.
OVERALL HEALTH OF THE WNBA
Orender said the WNBA, in its 14th season, is trending in the right direction. Local sponsorships, attendance and television ratings are up.
“I will tell you the amount of progress we've made on a business level just in the last two years, especially in a challenging environment, has been very strong,” she said.
Patience has been a virtue for the league, Orender said.
“We've been swimming upstream since the inception of this league as more and more girls play sports, as more and more women become sports fans, as more and more guys accept women in sports. As that has been happening, the product has gotten extraordinarily great,” she said.
PLAN FOR FUTURE SCHEDULES
The WNBA was forced to begin its regular season in mid-May this year so its players could finish in time for the World Championships tournament in late September. Last year, however, the season didn't start until early June. The WNBA Finals ended with the Fever's fifth-game loss to Phoenix on Oct. 9.
The later start is preferable, Orender said. And the league expects to return to that next season.
“The advantages become very clear,” she explained. “One, it gave a little respite between the European seasons and ours. Our players came back feeling refreshed. Our training camps were more meaningful. It gave our teams a better shot at selling tickets. It's really remarkable how well we're doing this year, knowing a May 15 start is not optimal.”
The few weeks of rest is important for players as many of them essentially compete on a year-around basis overseas and in the WNBA.
Diana Taurasi of Phoenix talked recently about possibly sitting out a WNBA season in order to take a break from the physical demands of playing two schedules. Orender, a former standout player herself, understands the wear and tear involved but also suggests players consider the big picture.
“I think this is important to know,” Orender said. “The WNBA helped create the European market. Any player who is making any kind of money there makes that money because they have the endorsement of the WNBA. It is in every player's interest to make sure the WNBA stays strong.
“Without a WNBA ... they're not going to make the money they make.”
EXPANDING THE NUMBER OF TEAMS OR GAMES
The WNBA is currently at 12 teams, with each playing a 34-game schedule.
“I don't see (more) games in a season, although there is a small group that wants to talk about adding games,” Orender said.
“In terms of teams, I do see potential expansion. There are interested groups around the country we are talking to.”
A-PLUS FOR DIVERSITY
A recent study by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport gave the WNBA the No. 1 ranking for race and gender diversity among leagues. The WNBA's report card from the Institute showed an “A-plus” as an employer for women and people of color in sport.
“What's great about the league is we truly walk the walk, we talk the talk,” Orender said. “We are who we say we are. We're a diverse entity that believes that diversity provides value and richness. I think it's a great model the WNBA offers.”
MALE FAN BASE IMPROVING
Orender said the WNBA's following among men is “growing exponentially, especially young males.”
“I spent (last) weekend at games with the Liberty,” she said. “You look around and there are boys 14 to 18 dancing in the aisles, going crazy, just loving it. There has always been a population of basketball-loving purists who come to the games who are men as well. We are broadening outward because a lot more men are coming to the games.”
ABSENCE OF LABOR PROBLEMS
The NFL and NBA could be facing major labor problems in 2011 unless owners and players are able to find accord at the bargaining table. The WNBA, however, is in only the third year of a six-year Collective Bargaining Agreement.
“We will be playing,” Orender assured. “We're fine.”