(WOMENSENEWS)–As a 13-year-old basketball fan watching the Cleveland Rockers from the stands, Barbara Turner used to do the “Lake Shake,” imitating the torso shimmy that guard Merlakia Jones would make after scoring baskets.
That was the summer of 1997, when the Rockers and seven other teams in the fledgling Women’s National Basketball Association made their debut as a professional league for women. Today, Turner is a starting forward for a WNBA franchise that didn’t even exist back then: the Seattle Storm.
Now in its 10th year, the WNBA has 14 teams. The league has not yet made a profit, but NBA commissioner David Stern says he expects the league to do so next year and, of the individual teams that are losing money, they are stemming those losses to a relatively low figure of under $1 million a year.
Celebrating the milestone anniversary, Turner and other players express gratitude for the chance to play professionally. Moreover, she and others who have entered the league during the past few years say that being able to watch WNBA players in their formative years spurred their own development.
“Young girls now have something to shoot for,” says Seth Sulka, general manager of the Phoenix Mercury. “Today’s player coming in from college is just a much more talented, athletic player. It’s a very different game than we had 10 years ago.”
At the WNBA’s 10th annual All-Star game in New York on July 12, Michelle Snow of the Houston Comets showcased that talent. She ended the game with a slam-dunk shot. When the league began, few fans would have expected such a display of technical skill from a female player.
As the level of play continues to deepen, WNBA league and team executives believe there will be more fans, which could lead to the formation of more teams and more opportunities for graduates of women’s collegiate basketball teams.
Coaching Has Developed
According to Houston Comets head coach Van Chancellor, it is not only the level of play that has improved dramatically. “I think the coaching has also gotten much better,” he claims.
Of all the head coaches who were in the WNBA during its first season, only Chancellor remains 10 years later. When he started, he was the only male head coach in the league. Today, only 3 of 14 head coaches are women.
“When this league started, we gave several women opportunities, and it seemed that those opportunities were not successful, so the trend just flipped,” said Storm coach Anne Donovan, one of those three women.
A chief reason for the shift, Donovan says, has to do with the difference between coaching at the college and professional levels. Success in collegiate athletics does not necessarily parlay into success in professional leagues.
None of the seven female coaches in the WNBA’s first season had any experience coaching professional players. The current roster of male coaches includes the Chicago Sky’s Dave Cowens, the Phoenix Mercury’s Paul Westhead and the Washington Mystics’ Richie Adubato, all of whom enjoyed success as coaches–and, in Cowens’ case, also as a player–in the men’s National Basketball Association.
Striking a Balance
Jim Haney, president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches in Kansas City, Mo., said collegiate athletics sets different goals for its leaders. “We are expected to strike a balance between being coaches and teachers,” he said. On the other hand, professional coaches can concentrate on winning games and are thus more likely to be “strategists and motivators.”
The WNBA in its first year lacked an established “old boys’ network” where new coaches could turn for advice or role models, said Donovan.
The WNBA, though, has been able to draw high-salaried men from the NBA ranks partly because they may rely on other sources of income. For example, Cowens runs a popular basketball camp for youth. Others, like the Detroit Shock’s Bill Laimbeer, also hold positions–usually as executives or consultants–with men’s NBA teams.
The most lucrative coaching opportunities available to women are now in the major college programs. For example, Carolyn Peck, who coached the WNBA’s Orlando Miracle from 1999 through 2001, signed a six-year contract worth $2 million to coach the women’s basketball team at the University of Florida.
University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt recently signed a contract that will pay her $1 million a year and University of Texas coach Judy Conradt makes about $400,000 a year, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
While WNBA President Donna Orender wants to see the league’s next coaching vacancies filled by women, others believe there is no urgency to hiring female coaches.
Plying Their Trade
Wendy Palmer, a Seattle Storm forward who has played in the WNBA through all of its 10 seasons, says it’s a good thing that talented coaches are choosing to ply their trade in the college ranks.
“Coaching in college is so much different than when I came along,” says the 1996 University of Virginia graduate, adding that back then the best that any female college player could hope to do was play in the Final Four of the NCAA championship tournament and possibly the Olympics. A handful also went on to play professionally in Europe, Israel and Australia, where the pay and level of publicity were less than what the WNBA has offered since. (Some WNBA players still supplement their incomes by playing overseas during the winter.)
Now, Palmer says, college coaches are “preparing (players) to be in the WNBA, to play professionally.”
While the WNBA has given talented female basketball players the opportunity to showcase their skills and has made college coaching more lucrative, it has not generated the commercial endorsements that male basketball stars enjoy.
As an example, NBA legend Michael Jordan earns about $40 million annually in endorsement fees from Nike and other companies, according to Inside Sports magazine. On the other hand, Sheryl Swoopes of the Houston Comets, who is probably the most-recognized player in the WNBA, is believed to have earned $1 million in endorsements in 2004. She lost some endorsement opportunities since coming out as a lesbian last year, although Nike, her chief sponsor, retained her, and she became a spokesperson for Olivia, the lesbian travel company, according to Inside Sports.
The only other WNBA players who have admitted to sharing Swoopes’ orientation are Michelle Van Gorp of the Minnesota Lynx and the now-retired Sue Wicks of the New York Liberty. However, ESPN commentator Debbie Schlussel once referred to the league as the “LNBA,” hinting at how the public perceives the league.
However, Orender is optimistic that WNBA players will begin to attract greater endorsement deals. “There is an audience for this league, and it’s growing,” she says.
Justine Nicholas is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.
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Women’s National Basketball Association:
“WNBA, Players Reach Agreement”:
The Center for the Study of Sport in Society–
Gender and Racial Report Card:
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