- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

The ever-struggling WNBA seemingly comes down with a counterproductive outbreak of lesbianism each season.

The latest footnote is especially ugly.

Latasha Byears became an ex-player of the WNBA and the Sparks in June following allegations that she and three men raped a former teammate at a party.

News of the investigation has not intruded on the Kobe Bryant-fixated sports marketplace, although it follows a pattern.

Try as it might to appeal to the masses, the WNBA cannot shake the perception that it is largely a lesbian-driven enterprise. The perception, accurate or not, is steeped in the gossipy ethos of the supermarket tabloids.

If you could put a face to the perception, it would be the face of Rosie O’Donnell, the league’s No.1 celebrity fan who comes with a fair amount of social-activist baggage.

The family-entertainment pitch of the WNBA is waged in the vicinity of the Lesbian Avengers in Tony Cheng’s neighborhood and the “Lesbians for Liberty” at Madison Square Garden.

It is an increasingly untraditional family, if you consider the reports of the ex-coach in the WNBA who was romantically linked with one of her players.

The tricky marketing truth of the WNBA is simple enough. The 7-year-old enterprise appreciates its loyal lesbian fan base but cannot survive on that niche alone. It also can’t afford to offend it.

The two target groups — Dad and Mom in one row of seats, Mom and Mom in another row — are not necessarily mutually exclusive, just improbable allies in the ongoing attempt of the WNBA to be relevant. Each tends to eye the other warily.

The alternative lifestyle politics of it all is irrelevant. This is about the survival of a league that is in the midst of a correction, bleeding money, teams and fans. This is about a league that no longer would exist if not for the patience and benevolence of NBA commissioner David Stern.

A $12 million bailout from the NBA has allowed the WNBA to function this summer following the contraction of two teams, the relocation of two other teams and a threatened player strike.

The results of the upheaval are mixed. The franchise relocation in San Antonio has been favorable, the one in the women’s basketball bastion of Connecticut a disappointment. League attendance overall was down by 3.6 percent through the end of July.

As a previously can’t-miss undertaking, the WNBA has descended into uncertainty.

This was hardly the thinking following the good feelings of the Atlanta Games in 1996, when America’s female athletes grabbed a compelling share of the notice in the team sports competitions.

The WNBA was conceived in this favorable climate, the American Basketball League be darned. The WNBA, with the NBA largesse behind it, was seemingly poised to succeed as no women’s team sports league ever had.

The initial signs of promise, however, led to over-expansion, bad basketball and a political point of view that keeps the league afloat but also marginalizes it. If not for political correctness, the NBA and corporate sponsors would be more inclined to pull the plug on this money-losing endeavor.

If the WNBA exists to be mostly a social commentary instead of an entertainment vehicle, it already has relinquished its capacity to find a robust place on the American sports landscape.

The WNBA has attempted to market its girl-next-door sex appeal this summer, employing the made-over faces of Lisa Leslie, Sue Bird and Jennifer Azzi, among others, in slick commercials intended to intrigue that precious demographic group in sports: the young adult male.

The ploy, however worthy, is up against a culture of polarizing forces.

Bird discovered the reality of that after accepting the challenge of a bet with a radio disc jockey in Seattle. The bet involved Bird’s assist-turnover ratio and a spanking from the disc jockey if the ratio was found to be wanting. This led to the usual admonishment from feminists, a sober rethinking on Bird’s part, and a call to end the fun.

Like it or not, this is the indelicate frivolity of the male sports culture.

The culture traffics in adolescence, as a matter of pride, and is usually content to focus on the next big game of the century.

On their best days, the games provide an escape from all the real-world agendas swirling in the marketplace.

A basketball game that aspires to be both socially and athletically pertinent is bound to alienate an element of the sports-going population.

Believe it or not, a well-played basketball game, regardless of the level and gender, is sometimes sufficient enough.

As a political statement, the WNBA has succeeded.

The challenge for the WNBA is to be more than that.

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