On the sadness of WNBA opportunities lost — Nancy Lieberman talks Dallas Wings — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Apr. 12, 2023

I am sad about the WNBA’s new media access policies. I am a little bit sad for myself. But I am mostly sad for the WNBA, for its players, and for the larger opportunity in the current moment for women’s sports that I fear is being, if not squandered, choked of much of its potential.

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These new rules, and the old rules, aren’t the only possible visions going forward. Conversations done under duress serve no one. It’s precisely the opposite of what anyone in my industry hopes to achieve.

But the new rules provide less access time for conversations in-person on gamedays, while leaving more possibilities for the people who aren’t operating in good faith throughout this ecosphere to make giving this league the coverage it deserves harder. (And to be clear: those of us who do this for real know who they are — the ones who, when they declare we must do something about the gap in women’s sports coverage, we virtually swallow our tongues.)

An easy, instant tell that someone declaring on Twitter an opinion based on nothing is the use of the term “safe space”. Those of us who have been in locker rooms understand: there is a cooling off period. There is the ability to go back behind the primary locker room. There is a delicate dance, to make sure an athlete speaks when ready. None of us barrel up to a player and demand she speak at whatever moment we choose.

There is a reason to be in the locker room for athlete and media member alike, and it is not place, it is time — the game has ended, we have stories to file, the players have a plane to catch or family to visit.

A media postgame that allows for the same quality of conversation — to get to know players, to see where their heads are at after a big win or a tough loss, and bring that to the reader — that’s theoretically possible in places other than a locker room, if there’s a similar gathering place. The new rules are expressly not replicating that in nature or in time.

That there are people who utilize locker room access to simply stand there without getting work done is not a failing of working media. A person who does that is not working. It is a failing of any team that didn’t tie credentialing of media to the media person providing consistent coverage, or failing that, a specific assignment. Fearing blowback over this means that everyone, including journalists, now get fewer opportunities as a result. Again: because people who are neither journalists nor players aren’t weeded out of media access, both the bottom line of players and the ability of journalists to do their jobs will suffer.

It is not a question of entitlement. We all have the opportunities in life to do as we please in a variety of ways. But there are consequences, of course. There are reasons why teams who struggle to provide the basics in coverage, from access to responsiveness, see their coverage suffer as a result. There’s reasons beyond just entrenched misogyny and the pattern of decisions in media that lead to the enormous chasm of coverage between men’s and women’s sports. Teams that fail to answer media requests for weeks and then wonder why their team isn’t covered much. Players who are tightly controlled by particular agents and then wonder why their brand suffers when their agents refuse any and all media requests. Not close to everyone, but many people across this entire sport who don’t operate under this core value, no matter where it takes you: is what I’m doing helping to grow the game or not?

Many of my colleagues have chosen to leave covering the WNBA over this. Colleagues whose jobs are to cover multiple sports cover the league less, or not at all, because of this — a lack of opportunities, a lack of certainty about when such work can be done. When you cover a Major League Baseball game — and I know, I did last night — you know that the clubhouses will be open, you know when they’ll be open, you know they’ll be open for more than enough time to get what you need and speak to others, sparking stories you didn’t even know you’d want to write. The manager speaks at a set time. A sports editor can send a reporter to an MLB game and know the reporter will come back with what’s necessary to get the story done.

I’m not going to engage in public feuds. And it is important not to generalize. But there are people, at different chokepoints within this media/team ecosystem, who make it harder, even impossible to do that. And it has driven folks away from covering. This new system makes such abuses likelier. The WNBA vows such abuses will be policed. There is skepticism from many about that.

All of that cannot obscure the plain fact that it just got harder for media to do our jobs. “If the players care that little about facilitating that coverage, I can take the hint.” That didn’t come from a casual observer. It is someone who has fought alongside me to tell these stories, to get editors to let us tell them more, for years. It was not a stray observation. It is an honest accounting of what making coverage harder will do.

It’s why some of our best young journalists are covering other leagues. I had an older colleague say to me: “It’s already harder to find a job covering women’s basketball, the jobs don’t pay as well. Now the access will be less than the NBA. Why would I ever tell a young person in journalism to cover this league?”

My NBA colleagues look at me like I have three heads when I describe these circumstances. “Why not just open the locker room, treat media like adults, and credential the folks who are doing the work?” I don’t know the answer, just as I know every time I see someone with the same WNBA credential I have ask for a picture or ask a question that leaves a trail of drool all over the interviewee, that my ability to do the work in this space as an independent journalist gets harder, and I don’t know why it happens or who it serves.

Doing this work is what drives me. I’m haunted by stories untold. I’m haunted by the ones we’ve already missed, by the three I didn’t write each night I write one and edit another. Throughout the history of men’s sports, we’ve had the opportunities to connect with the players, the teams, the narrative arc that keeps us tethered to them across generations.

The real WNBA story — not the sanitized, not the role models or nothing view, the kind of work anyone can see through, but giving people who love women’s basketball a real accounting of what happens — that is what people want. It can be counterintuitive to realize this — that there is more money to be made in making sure your fans are fully locked into what’s happening with stories, positive, negative and in-between, than by working to ensure whatever is created is sheer puffery. But we have over a century of data that tells us this is so. (I even know a place you can go get it, every day.)

We’ve already lost way too much of the history of women’s sports to various barriers to entry for journalists and fans alike. There is no entitlement because there’s nothing new to this loss. Everything’s a tradeoff. More privacy means fewer obligations in the locker room, but probably means longer postgame nights for everyone. More rules that aren’t adhered to means players are happier that night but teams aren’t as profitable, and jobs go away, the ability to ask for raises disappears. A preference to keep a motley crew of credentialed folks out instead of taking the time and care to identify who is doing the work means less having to pay attention to the effect of media policies, but also less of the media storytelling that leads to growth of the sport.

Simply hoping the WNBA will compete with sports that already feature more coverage in the first place and media policies that make it far easier to create even more of it is not a strategy.

And there is a finite amount of money in this world. Money invested in NWSL expansion teams is money not invested in WNBA expansion teams. TV money spent on the college women’s game when that contract is negotiated in 2023 is TV money not spent on the WNBA in 2025.

Attentions, too, are finite. Many journalists will fade away. There are those of us will remain, and continue fighting to do this work. (I joked to a sympathetic player today that it makes it likelier we’ll get exclusives at The IX and The Next.)

Exclusives have never been the point. I remember walking into the locker room at Madison Square Garden just ahead of the 2015 season opener for the New York Liberty, where Swin Cash, one of the most decorated basketball players of any era, sat there by herself. I had little company in the media that night as I got the chance to talk with her, to share a little of her story that night, to build a bridge between Swin Cash and a larger public who needed to know more about her. I was sad that night, though, for the story of Swin Cash, and that there weren’t more of us to tell it.

There’s a lot more folks now, colleagues who care about this work as much as I do. And the point of the PBWA’s WNBA chapter is to support those doing it all over the industry. I’ll even be there for the folks who think the whole point of this is to become friends with the players, and will find out, eventually, that’s not how any of this works, that the players respect the people who show up consistently and tell the truth. When that dawns on some folks, well, they know where to reach me.

They, too, won’t get as many chances to tell these stories. Because of this change, our collective megaphone will be quieter, the impact will be less pronounced, the moments captured will be fewer.

So am I sad about it? I sure am.

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Five at The IX: Nancy Lieberman

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By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.