Let’s start with a very prominent disclaimer: I am not a professional sports critic or analyst in any sense. I’m just a guy who loves sports and giving my impressions every now and then. The same can be said for a millions of others who have a passion for sports. So why bother reading this when you can get the same content from better established and renowned places? Well, that question is similar to the one the WNBA has been trying to figure out for the past 20 years.
I’ve been a passive supporter of the WNBA (and other women’s sports). I’ve tried to defend their ‘legitimacy’ and call-out any of the ignorant criticisms (poorly, mind you). I even attend games occasionally. Some would say, that alone, would align me somewhat as a “supporter” or “fan”. But that’s not really moving the needle in terms of growing the league. And that presents a contradiction that doesn’t sit right with me. In an effort to get on a deeper level with the WNBA, I signed up for WNBA league pass and secured tickets to a few more games this season. And I’m blogging and podcasting about this endeavor. And on that note, let’s dive into the opening weekend of games.
Before signing up, I was skeptical of League Pass would work given how inexpensive cost ($16 for the entire season). But that skepticism quickly turned to frustration when NONE of the opening day games were available on League Pass, only ESPN3. You’d think that with opening day, 20th anniversary fanfare, new league president, new rule changes, and so; the league would want to make these games as widely available as possible. Nope, many other league pass subscribers found themselves in the same predicament: no live game footage due to blackout restrictions. And yet, there was absolutely zero response from the WNBA support regarding the matter. But that wasn’t the most egregious part of the affair, the Twitter-verse detective discovered the games were available, but only on the Watch ESPN app which is FREE! Now, I’ve worked in social media before; you can’t respond to everyone obviously. But if you’re in a space where you’re struggling to generate interest and keep people engaged; you have to come back with some response to something that was clearly more than an isolated incident. Instead of being profusely apologetic or a generic canned response (an explanation to clear up the confusion or redirect people to the Watch ESPN app), there was nothing but silence. Message to WNBA: This is NOT the way to engage people when you’re coming from behind. Setting that issue aside, I was able to catch up on the other games thanks to the feature allowing subscribers to watch any past game that season.
Lots of rust, but also a few Sparks
The season will kick off a change in the regular season / playoff format. Time will tell how that plays out. My main focus going into the weekend was to enjoy these games at face value. But for the most part, these games weren’t any different than many other season openers: disjointed and uncoordinated, some flailing limbs, and just plain sloppy. Players are coming off half-hearted, pre-season scrimmages. It’s just the start down the road to figuring out their key lineups and rotations. But there were definitely a few stand-out moments worth mentioning:
- Minnesota Lynx vs. Phoenix Mercury
The marque game of the day. The 2015 defending champs didn’t seem to lose a step during the off-season. This was the most sound performance of the weekend. Maya Moore ended the night with a solid double-double. The other stars of this game, Brittney Griner & Diana Taurasi, didn’t fair as well. Taurasi sat out last year to rest up and play overseas (which resulted in leading her team to its third championship), so I was taken back a bit that she was less than 0.500 shooting on some open shots. But the Mercury as a whole fell in with the rest of the league median for the weekend.
- Candace Parker #WATCHMEWORK
One of the most questionable moves leading into this season was Candace Parker being cut from the US team for the Olympic games in Rio. 2 time WNBA champion, 2 time Olympic gold medalist, 3 time WNBA all star , and the list goes on. The decision still makes no sense to this day. But that slight is clearly sitting with her. Watching her play was the highlight of the weekend (dropping the most points of the weekend, 34). The way she stretched the floor and even got physical with Bird and Stewart (both Olympic selectees) was incredible. This was definitely an “F** You” game leaving many wondering how or why she was ever cut. I’m calling it now, Parker will be out for blood this season. And I’m going to witness and savor ever second of it.
- The Stewart Storm
As a transplant who’s been living in Seattle, I’ve come to following their sports teams as well. Again, I’m not the most well-versed with this Storm team but looking over this roster and what I gathered from Wikipedia and other sources. This Storm team appears to be a roster of fresh faces, many of whom haven’t been on the team for more than two years. From the looks of it, this is a rebuild will take some time to get going, or if it’ll even work in the first. And after the waxing Parker and Sparks out on them, they’ll need it fast. Enter fout time UConn champion, 2016 WNBA number one draft pick, Breanna Stewart.The amount of pressure and expectations the Storm and the WNBA as a whole have riding on this young rookie is beyond extraordinary. But Stewart is no stranger to rising to the challenging occasions and the spoils of winning. It’s practically all she’s known since her freshman year of high school. And ins many ways, she’s nothing the NBA or WNBA have ever seen before. So far, she’s handled the whirlwind of fame and media scrutiny with a surprising amount of humility and focus. But for all of Stewart’s success, she’s had a strong cast of players working with her. Her Sunday debut, while impressive, was met with a sizable lose. Losing is not something Stewart is familiar with. And from the looks of it, the Storm could likely eat more “L’s” during this rebuilding period. So it’ll be interesting to see how this will affect her development in the league and with the Storm. Fellow UConn alum Sue Bird should prove to be a solid mentor in dealing with these kind of hardships. I can’t imagine how jarring it is to transition from a long, established culture of winning to an organization that’s in flux in a city that doesn’t turn out to support their team. All the endorsements and cash in the world usually can’t repair that kind of psychic trauma for atheletes wired like Stewart. Regardless, watching it all unfold will be great
As stated the earlier, these games were mostly just warm-ups. But the things will get in gear soon given the short season. Also worth considering is how things will pan out with key players taking off for the the Rio games, not to mention the playoff format adjustments, etc. For now, I’ll close with some minor predictions, questions, and quick takes:
- If the Storm keep shouldering her the majority of work, Breanna Stewart will be the unanimous Rookie of the Year without question. But will it actually help elevate the Storm to being a formidable threat again is the question.
- The LA Sparks will be a force to be reckoned with under Brian Agler. The fury of Candace Parker will at least take them to another conference final if not the finals.
- Shoni Schimmel: The general consensus is that Schimmel was traded after coming to training camp out of shape for the second year in a row. This isn’t uncommon for most athletes for any sports real. These type of players generally play themselves into shape over the course of the season. And that’s exactly what she did, becoming one of the league’s All-Stars for two seasons. Cutting bait with a key role player like her seems very suspect. Speaking of which…
- With so many key players leaving for Rio, how will teams make adjustments to competitive?
- And lastly, how will my hometown Chicago Sky fair? Looking at the past few seasons, the Sky have been a top tier team during the Pokey Chatman era and thanks to Elena Delle Donne (who was inactive this weekend due to ‘illness’). Hopefully they’ll overcome their demons escaping the playoff berth puling into either of the finals again.
The NBA is in full swing with now with some great match-ups with this historic Golden State team against the reinvigorated OKC Thunder with Cleveland just waiting in the wings for the final showdown. But do yourself a favor and squeeze in some time for these WNBA games. You may be surprised at how entertained and involved it is. If you don’t believe me; listen to the man himself, Draymond Green.