The sassy camel of GEICO commercial fame approaches his beleaguered co-worker in the cubicle, who finally gives in to his annoying query: "Guess what today is?" She sighs in resignation: "It's hump day."
Quick question: What office is the dromedary standing in? Answer: The WNBA, where it's always hump day.
Since 1997, the league has struggled to break free of the eternal Wednesday, to grab hold of a momentum swing that will not be met with a setback, to find a clear path to the basket of stability. Wasn't that what 2013 was all about? Attendance grew a smidge (one percent) and ESPN2 ratings popped by 28 percent and the "3-To-See" of Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins had a captivating run. "Yes, 2013 was an incredible year for the league," said WNBA President Laurel Richie in a phone interview this week, adding, "We saw both independent and affiliated teams report very strong results for 2013."
Success apparently was booby-trapped. On New Year's Eve, a memo from the owners of the L.A. Sparks went out to their employees. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the email was a stunner: "We regret to inform you that effective December 31, 2013 you no longer will be employed by the Los Angeles Sparks." With that indelicate stick of dynamite, another founding team of the WNBA cratered. Sparks owner Paula Madison lost $12 million after taking over the team from late-Lakers owner Jerry Buss in 2007 and could lose no more. And then there were two: Of the original eight, only New York and Phoenix remain in their charter cities.
The Sparks weren't the Cleveland Rockers or Miami Sol, disappearing out of indifference. They led the league in attendance, made the playoffs, witnessed star Candace Parker reclaim dominance as the league MVP, and feted Carol Ross with a contract extension after she had been named Coach of the Year.
This is why the WNBA is so maddening. For 17 years, it has been a peel-and-stick league where teams come and go, fold and move. As Madison noted in a post-mortem last week, "This is a team and this is a league that I think is absolutely on the verge."
Verge, as in close but not there, as in hump day. What is the tipping point for the WNBA? Cultural credibility and visibility, a daily double that often is mired in endless discussions about branding, logos, uniforms and corporate initiatives. The inertia is deadly. So let's brainstorm about at least three solutions for a breakaway:
Deliver an HBO "Hard Knocks" moment
For better or worse, for bawdy or profane, the long-running reality show series has fanned the fandom of the NFL by putting audiences behind the scenes and allowing them to witness the pain, pranks and personalities of training camp. The show is gold in promoting the kind of water-cooler talk the WNBA needs. ESPN intends to do more behind-the-scenes snapshots in its broadcast deal with the league, but its work is bound to be Disney-fied. Too often the WNBA stars are marketed as feel-good greeting cards -- and the women are truly decent, uplifting folks -- but they are also complex, funny and struggling to make it. Some have children on the road with husbands; other players have girlfriends and wives; many deal with injuries, coaching clashes and family dynamics. It's a reality Americans could embrace. Why do you think the NFL requires one team a year to participate in "Hard Knocks?" Because the league knows what America wants -- a way to connect to its players -- and so the NFL will push a show that doesn't always reveal Hallmark moments.
Grow Some New Lady Balls
No symbol of the WNBA has done more to discredit the league than the ill-conceived oatmeal and orange basketball. It's nice branding if you're a Quaker or baker, but as the official colors of the WNBA's Spalding ball, the combo screams clown show. It's fine to play with a slightly smaller ball than the NBA uses, but the spinning colors undermine the street cred of players who grew up with a full-grain leather ball in their hands that was not genderized to differentiate them or their game.
Be Forward With The Media
Over the past decade, while the great recession was unfolding and layoffs became the norm in sports departments, media leaders still doubled-down on the NFL and college football, pouring what resources they had into coverage of America's sports behemoth. New websites emerged (see SI.com), more bloggers were hired (see ESPN) and newspapers sent extra bodies to games. True, men lead most sports departments and often see the ladies of team ball as a D-list cast, but there are more than a few women in the business who see an assignment to cover female leagues as a career killer. Big-boy beats mean higher status and a greater salary. So women's team sports are the first to be tossed to the side, because the only thing that turns the head of coverage is the pretty face of an individual superstar. That's why Rolling Stone writes about Serena Williams and Danica Patrick trends high on Google. That's why the Olympics are always a spotlight for courageous pixies (Kerri Strug) and distraught victims (Nancy Kerrigan) and glamorous losers (Lolo Jones). This is where Richie -- who is razor sharp with marketing chops steeped in consumer behavior -- needs to stop playing nice and get in the grill of sports department leaders. She has to wake them up and enumerate the great dramas -- and more importantly, the potential web traffic -- they are missing by ignoring the WNBA.
Would any of these suggestions have saved the Sparks? Who knows? Richie was as surprised as anyone when layoff notices went out. Until the holidays, she had received no distress call from Madison. No warning of trouble. On her Twitter feed, Sparks minority owner Lisa Leslie, the superstar who lifted her team and the whole league at its birth, said in two tweets: "As a member of the LA sparks family for over 15 years, it saddens me that the organization is (in) this situation. ... My role as a minority owner has never involved the day-to-day operations of the team. The recent events came as a surprise to me."
The jolt happened because Madison was hoping for a magic bullet that never came. In the end, the cost of the Staples Center rent and separate office staffs were likely too high for an independent owner to overcome.
Is that it? Do all those memories of the "Got Next" years, of the circus-like celebration in the old Forum parking lot for the sellout debut, of the two championship titles, of Leslie's first league dunk in 2002 end up in a hope chest?
There is a petition online from the faithful, an admirable plea for an ownership group to keep the Sparks in Los Angeles, although the best bet might be the reported interest of the Warriors group, which would mean relocation to the Bay Area. Richie didn't offer a deadline for a solution, but the draft is in April, so there's some urgency to find home for the Sparks. As Richie said, the WNBA is "actively and aggressively engaged in a very dedicated manner to evaluating opportunities and next steps for the Sparks."
It's always a struggle for the WNBA. In truth, the league is lucky to be alive. Without Commissioner David Stern willing the WNBA into existence and through each obstacle, the league would have never seen its fifth birthday. But the league's most powerful feminist is retiring on Feb. 1, leaving insiders to wonder if the NBA's resolve to support the WNBA will remain when Stern goes. The surest lifeline to the league is ESPN -- perhaps E for estrogen -- which has signed on with the WNBA through 2020 and has done well in covering the transition of college stars into pro neophytes.
But at some point, the love for the WNBA has to grow beyond niche programming. In a media culture that mourns the loss of Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn to injuries, sports lords do not give a rat's rump about the WNBA. This week, when a longtime caller asked WFAN's radio bore Mike Francesa about the New York Liberty's playoff chances, the host with the perpetually dark mood ring said, "You waited a half hour for that? Why don't you go out and at least shovel somebody's walk? Show that you can at least make a contribution to society."
In the world of Twitter, where Serena Williams has four million followers, the media cannot track the comings and goings of a WNBA icon. In the green room of a recent TV talk show this fall, the subject of Tina Thompson's retirement came up in conversation. A sports pundit said, "How are the Comets doing?" The Comets were disbanded in 2008.
The WNBA and its players deserve better. They've earned their survival over the past 17 years. But success for the WNBA can't be measured in getting past the latest crisis. It has to get past hump day.