The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, May 13, 2020
How Michael Jordan Can Help The Women's Game, in Charlotte — Brittney Sykes talks Sparks — Must-click women's basketball links
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How Michael Jordan Can Help The Women’s Game
I’ll be honest: “The Last Dance”, for me, is largely a reminder of how much more “The Last Dance” has been promoted than, say, the entirety of the WNBA games ESPN has broadcast over the past few decades. (Seriously, I’d bet money there’s been more promotion of this five-week event than the entire history of the WNBA on ESPN.)
Even so, we got ourselves a brief women’s basketball moment last week in the documentary, and no one knew quite how to feel about it!
The good news is, we’ll get to wonder forever, I’m sure, because the film quickly pivots away from women’s basketball back to men talking about how men were men and man, men really manned up back in the 1990s, The Man Decade (I remember the WNBA coming into existence the exact year this doc primarily takes place but hey, never mind, let’s just make sure Jerry Seinfeld and Justin Timberlake are represented here.)
The thing about Jordan is that currently, he’s the owner of the Charlotte Hornets. And so, it really doesn’t matter what he meant in that brief clip. But he is in position to fix a longtime historical wrong, something that brings into sharp relief the way we look at the business of women’s sports compared to men’s sports.
Let’s briefly remember the Charlotte Hornets and the Charlotte Sting.
The Hornets, an NBA expansion team in 1988, are thought of as an NBA team, one of the successful widespread acceptance of men’s basketball. The Sting? Well, they folded, reinforcing tropes about women’s basketball. How the two enterprises were treated, though, tells the real story.
After a solid decade in Charlotte, the Hornets fell on hard times. Owner George Shinn struggled through a high-profile assault trial, with attendance dropping precipitously despite on-court playoff success.
The Sting, though down a bit from its first two seasons, remained pretty consistently at near-peak levels through 2003 — this, despite Shinn providing next to no resources for the Sting, then abandoning them when he moved the Hornets, the Sting falling under WNBA control. Still, when SI covered them in 1999, they were the “poster child for the WNBA’s 10% slip in attendance”, somehow.
Imagine having this happen to your franchise in 2001 and failing to capitalize on it, or marketing them in any way.
Shinn left town. M.L. Carr was asked to come run the Sting by the NBA. He diagnosed the problem right away.
“The Sting was a throw-in,” Carr said, in an article that also pointed out the Sting sales staff was, in fact, the Hornets’ sales staff, just given the Sting as an add-on responsibility. “We’re not a throw-in. This is a legitimate business. We want to partner with companies to have an impact on their business.”
In the same piece, it was pointed out that Carr took on the role to curry favor for his group’s effort to get an NBA expansion team in Charlotte. So the Sting were, it seems, a throw-in for him, too.
The NBA was eager enough to keep the Charlotte market that an expansion team immediately moved into the city in 2004, the Bobcats. The new Bobcats’ owner, Bob Johnson (Carr got a small stake), was also given the Sting, but at every turn, the franchise was little more than a parking spot for misfit toys of the NBA franchise in town, most notably, Muggsy Bogues put in charge of the team as head coach, a far cry from the Anne Donovan years.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone this close to getting it, but not quite, within the confines of a single quote. But when the Bobcats shut down the Sting in 2007, here’s what Greg Economou, then CMO of the Bobcats, had to say. (Emphasis to come is mine.)
“It was driven by economics, certainly not philosophy. We believe in the women’s game. If it could work here we’d be all for it. The situation we’re in is trying to build the Bobcats’ brand. It was difficult to absorb losing as much money as we were on the Sting side to continue.”
Here’s a fun fact: the Sting averaged 7,062 fans per game in 2003. You know who else averaged almost exactly that in 2003? The Minnesota Lynx. Even in the Sting’s final season, Charlotte drew more than the Chicago Sky, just behind the Lynx. The idea that a market is inhospitable to women’s basketball never holds up to close scrutiny. Markets are, however, inhospitable to sports teams of any kind without a sustained, dedicated marketing budget and plan. And vice versa.
But in Charlotte, all the efforts went into the Bobcats. One of many examples: the Sting were given Bobcats colors, but no other rebrand, again, to serve as nothing more than an echo of the real goal, pushing the Bobcats.
It’s been well over a decade, and there’s been no effort to bring professional basketball back to Charlotte, within a state that loves women’s basketball, in a city that has received chance after chance to embrace men’s pro basketball.
By 2009, Economou was out. Jordan bought them the next year. In 2014, their name change went through, returning to the Hornets moniker. Again, for those of you keeping score at home, not only had the NBA bought into the Charlotte market multiple times, even the original branding was considered worth resurrecting.
The Hornets finished 29th in NBA attendance in 2019-20. The next time I hear Charlotte described as a market inhospitable to men’s sports, or the Hornets reflective of the NBA’s troubles, will be the first time.
The Sting? Just another data point in the larger, tiresome argument that women’s basketball, for all its success, for the league with roughly half its teams profitable (just like the NBA), was the problem in Charlotte. We even see WNBA teams folding in conversations about other women’s sports. (We’ll save the ownership issues in Sacramento, Cleveland and elsewhere for another day.)
The WNBA needs to expand, purely as an examination of the talent base. There are well over 144 players who are at that elite level. But the league is, wisely, going to expand only when ownership materializes in a market with deep pockets and a long-term plan.
If Charlotte is that promising a market for the NBA that it gets chance after chance after chance, surely we are prematurely writing it off as a WNBA market after getting, essentially, half a chance.
If Michael Jordan wants to be that owner, already pre-cleared by the NBA, just 57 years old, with a clear eye on his legacy if “The Last Dance” is any indication, resurrecting the Sting right there in Charlotte would be a pretty good way to do it.
This Week in women’s basketball
Megan Duffy is one to keep an eye on, you guys. Super impressive.
Jaylyn Agnew has a future in this league, Ben Dull writes.
Such fun talking to Lisa Byington about the Big Ten, and the re-airing of the Rutgers-Texas championship game from 1982.
Mike Jensen is must-read on Muffet McGraw.
It’s been a particularly consequential offseason in the SEC.
Jackie Powell goes long on what we can learn from Sabrina Ionescu’s post-draft words.
Bella Alarie talked to Reggie Adetula at 105.3 The Fan.
Jenn Hatfield profiles the WNBA coaches who broadcast during the offseason.
Odyssey Sims goes public with her pregnancy, how new motherhood is treating her, via Kent Youngblood.
Strong Charlotte Carroll breakdown of the Connecticut Sun’s roster.
Ken Pomeroy breaks down the changes to the NCAA Tournament evaluation tools.
Ty Harris and Satou Sabally joined the HerHoopStats podcast.
Every word of this Ben Mock piece on NBA2K.
Dan Olson looks at the best historical rosters in high school history.
Matt Ellentuck breaks down Diamond DeShields’ game.
Britni de la Cretaz breaks down how The Athletic created, and now has dismantled, much of its WNBA vertical.
Tweet of the week
Five at The IX: Brittney Sykes, Los Angeles Sparks
(Brittney and Marie Gülich joined the media for a Zoom call on Wednesday. We’ll have some of Marie’s answers next week.)
Sue Favor, Women’s Hoops World: Hi Britt, you had every scenario in Atlanta from going through losing streaks to the high of winning streaks to almost making the WNBA finals. Can you maybe sum up some of the major things you’ve learned in your time at Atlanta that you’re going to bring to the Sparks? What have you learned from that experience and grown as a player and human? How are you going to bring that to the Sparks when you come?
Brittney Sykes: I think the first thing that pops in my head is just the ability to adapt to any situation. Right, so we go through different seasons you go from, well for me I go from losing ten in a row as a rookie to making the playoffs in a long time you know. And then now the last season, it went how it went. So, you know going up and down like that, to be able to bounce back and adapt to those games. You know we’re playing about 30 to 50 games go into the finals. Your mental has to be very tough, very strong in my opinion to go through things like that to come out with a winning mentality. Because you can very much become a pessimistic person and have a negative outlook on things and on games. But I’m grateful that in those years I have been around leaders, I have been around vets who still come to work every day who do the same thing. Even though we don’t get those results you know we wanted, I still was able to adapt to those scenarios that we went through during those seasons.
Sabreena Merchant, SB Nation: I’m curious what the experience of virtual training camp has been like so far?
Brittney Sykes: But, to just piggyback off ReRe, I think it’s pretty cool like she said in the sense of forcing ourselves outside our comfort zone to really get to know each other and you know we pay against each other or with each other overseas or on different national teams, and things of that nature but now it’s pretty to get to know the different personalities you know through a screen. You know you see the connections that the team has, so it’s just really dope to see that dynamic and ultimately try to figure out where you fit as a puzzle piece inside this whole ordeal. It’s kind of cool. I’m happy I have ReRe, you know at least I have a little piece of Atlanta with me. It makes things a little bit better, even though you’ve seen these girls for years throughout your career it’s still different. I mean you’re coming to their house and now you’re trying to fit into their system and ultimately create one as a whole.
Howard Megdal, High Post Hoops: I have kind of a two-part question… The first part is I’m just wondering your current ability to workout on basketball specifically. What those day-to-days are like for you, I’m curious what each of you are doing right now. And then the other part of it is, obviously we don’t know when, how, and if the season comes back? But how are you thinking about it and how are you adjusting your mental schedule to this in a way no one has ever had to before?
Brittney Sykes: For me, it’s just been as simple as getting up and making sure I’m active. Not just physically but you know mentally and emotionally, just making sure I’m doing the things I need to do daily to be okay with what’s going on. In the beginning, I was almost torn between the two because when I came home from overseas I didn’t do anything for a good couple weeks. Just nothing, just wanting to literally do nothing, just relax and remove myself from sports. The coming back and getting back into it you look at and you asked us in the second part what was going to happen? How do we feel about it? It’s kind of weird to say out loud, but this whole ordeal has been a blessing in disguise, speaking for me because I have been allowed to be home and celebrate certain holidays that I haven’t celebrated in years. I don’t know the last time I celebrated my mom’s birthday physically with her so it’s things like that that make me look at this whole ordeal in a different manner. Yes, of course, I would love for basketball to pick up and go off. But it is our safety at the end of the day as a whole that matters. If my safety is staying home for my mom’s birthday versus playing on a court then I am going to stay. I would stay home with my mom if that means we all get to be safe for another 24 hours and I get to see my mom so that is my outlook on it.
Arielle Chambers, Bleacher Report: Can you take me through your mental when you found out that you were going to get traded? Take me through that whole night and also who have you talked to and who has reached out to you that has been that guiding light for you.
Brittney Sykes: I was at my grandmother’s house and the way my grandmother’s house is set up, my mom’s mom lives on the first floor and my grandfather’s brother, my uncle Al, he lives on the second floor so my aunt and his wife live on the second floor as well. So I was on the second floor eating and talking to them upstairs and I went to leave to go back home and I get a call from Marcus Crenshaw who is my agent. And he goes, hey I got to talk to you. You know that call really doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, so I am like alright tell me what happened. He is like you are getting traded. Mind you, back story, I kind of had a feeling that I was getting traded. I just didn’t know where or when so when it happened, I wasn’t really shocked that it happened. It was more where I am going. So when he said LA Sparks I almost threw my phone down the steps because I was like oh okay, this is great! I am moving from Atlanta to LA and in the beginning, you are thinking Atlanta great weather, but LA GREAT weather. And it was like one great organization to the next and I just looked at it as being so lucky because you don’t really hear about so much excitement when it comes to trade, especially not to another power- house team. And to go from one extreme of the map to the next, I am okay with it. I liked it. I am going to miss Atlanta both on-and-off the court, but at the end of the day it’s business and they made their decision and I have agreed to the terms so now I am a Spark.