The IX: Basketball Wednesday, April 24, 2019

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New stakeholders matter

Let’s get into the new WNBA deal with CBS Sports Network to televise 40 games this year, and at the very least, next year (the multi-year deal without specifying isn’t just for reporters, key figures in the league weren’t told, either).

There’s the unmitigated success of putting the WNBA before additional, fresh eyes. That would be true of any deal, even an expansion of the ESPN partnership (given the number of ESPN channels and upside to building the habit of watching, something the league and network ought to pursue).

But CBS Sports, simply put, hasn’t been a women’s professional basketball outpost. There’s been excellent UConn, and Atlantic 10 college basketball action on the channel. But the overall lack of a primary focus for the CBS family of networks on women’s basketball has a lot to do with how it is covered, or not, by the journalism entity that is CBS Sports.

Include an in-house motivation for coverage, and the case those inside the network who are allies can make for additional resources gets significantly easier. There’s a multiplier effect to this as well: more coverage of women’s basketball means that other outlets feel additional pressure to keep up with their competitors, instead of losing out on a growing audience and get rightly tagged with a dinosaur label in the process.

And that’s why things like seeing SLAM make a hire in the WNBA coverage world — Camille Buxeda, follow her here — and some additional hires I’m not allowed to talk about publicly yet all matter. No one who does this thinks there’s some limited amount of stories to tell on women’s basketball. At times, I feel despair at the reverse — I can only get to so many, there aren’t enough of us who can do it all the time, so much is lost in the process.

And even those people who aren’t invested in women’s sports recognize a critical mass. I get invited by editors who don’t typically cover the sport to write things not when there’s been a lack of stories on a subject, but when there have been, and they feel the need to join in. I remember the surprise registering, for instance, when an editor who had made his disdainful feelings about women’s basketball clear asked me to write on UConn’s 100th straight win a few years back, once everyone else had covered it, and I had elsewhere.

It doesn’t always feel this way, but the last week, the expansion in many quarters into new territory: well, my friends, this last week sure felt like progress.

And it just got harder for those who haven’t made the proper investment in women’s sports to hold out. We’ll keep the pressure on those folks, too.

This week in women’s basketball

Walter Villa has more on UConn’s Nika Muhl recruiting.

Caissa Casarez takes you inside Lindsay Whalen’s number retirement presser.

I wrote about what the Breanna Stewart injury means for the league’s CBA negotiations, and more important, so did Lindsay Gibbs.

Lindsay also spoke to Cheryl Reeve on Burn It All Down. (Listening is the treat I’m giving myself for finishing this newsletter!)

Speaking of podcasts, Erica Ayala has the definitive Around The Rim origin story.

Get well soon, Azzi Fudd!

Good stuff from David Yapkowitz on the Jordan Brand Classic stars we’ll all be watching in college next year.

Before Paige Bueckers, before Lindsay Whalen, there was Sarah Northway.

I sent Alex Simon to try out for the Phoenix Mercury practice squad and he didn’t die.

Albert Lee looks at other players who have come back from an Achilles injury in the WNBA.

And Keith Geswein breaks down exactly what we’re seeing on CBS Sports Network this summer.

Tweet of the Week

Five at The IX: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

I spoke to A’ja for a recent story, and as usual, her insight far exceeded what got into the story itself, so you all get to enjoy the rest of it!

HOWARD MEGDAL: When you heard what’s happened with Breanna Stewart, I can’t imagine that it escaped your thinking about the effect that you guys playing year round has on your bodies. And I’m just hoping you take me through what that was like for you.

A’JA WILSON: Yeah, definitely last year was one of the hardest years. I came straight out of college playing in April, the draft is about two weeks later. So then you’re drafted and then you have about a week to really gather yourself and then head out to your teams. And that was tough for me because now you’re not heading out just to enjoy the city, you’re headed out into training camp. And so that’s when you join training camp then you’re going right to the season. Especially during seasons that we did last year. I mean, we had a couple back to back that you had on the road. Games that were tough and you have to travel a lot. I mean, it’s wear and tear on your body.

Then after that I had the opportunity to play with [USA Basketball], and that was about maybe September-ish. And then you had probably a couple games back and then you had to report overseas. And so I had to go to China. And I mean of course my injury was nowhere near the injury of Breanna Stewart, but the injuries caused me to come back home as well. So it’s definitely not an easy route at all. I think that’s what makes us just that elite as professional athletes because our bodies take on so much, but yet we still perform in and out every single game. I mean, when Stewie got hurt she was in the championship game, she was playing at the highest level that she could overseas. And I mean it just goes to show how elite we really are. It’s a tough situation, it broke my heart.

But I think deep down shines light on the fact that we play year round basketball. And I mean, this isn’t like a new thing, we play high level elite basketball year round. And that is tough, that is tough. It’s wear and tear on the body constantly. And it’s a bad situation to be in, but of course you’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure that you’re good, stable financially, and there’s also the heart part of it all as well.

HOWARD MEGDAL: With ballplayers, your window to make a living is not like a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant where it’s 40, 45 years or whatever. You got X number of years, and it’s more like 5, 10, 15 depending on the player and if you’re extraordinarily lucky. So to be able to get to a point where you’re able to do this full time with rest has to be at the top or near the top of your goals, your priorities for the active CBA talks, right?

A’JA WILSON: Yes, yes. When it comes to the things like that, like with the CBA talks I really don’t have really too much to say though because I’m still trying to learn, to figure things out in that way. But yeah, this iswhat I mean when I said it shines a light on it — I hate that it has to be the injury of just not any other player but the MVP of our league to really show that this is tough, this is not how it’s supposed to be. And but it’s definitely something that we could use going to back to and then say, “This isn’t right. We deserve a clear off season to focus on not just our bodies but other things as well.”

HOWARD MEGDAL: My favorite story of a WNBA player having to push limits is when Kayla McBride came back and played for San Antonio 24 hours after she got home from Turkey. 24 hours. I mean, it just blew my mind at the time, and never ceases to. What’s the craziest one of those stories that you’ve heard? What is the one that sticks out in your mind like, “This is not right?”

A’JA WILSON: That was definitely probably it. That was the one that really stuck out to me is just last year seeing my teammate … I mean, of course I was just getting drafted, it was a quick turnaround for me. But seeing McBride, [Kelsey] Plum really come in and play. Just all they had time to do was get their physicals in check, and then just go out there and play at training camp. That was an eye opener to me ’cause I was like, “Wow, these girls really do need to have a break.”… So that’s definitely been a story of mine where I’ve witnessed it firsthand, where my teammates would just come back overseas, get their physicals together, get where they’re living, and then head to training camp.

HOWARD MEGDAL: So when you think about your future … and I guess, look, maybe part of it is that I’m thinking about it in parallels right? I’m thinking about, “Alright, so Stewie’s the top overall pick, you’re a top overall pick. You’re occupying similar roles at the top of the league.” Are there things you have employed to find rest where you can? How do you even navigate that? Just from an intellectual perspective and let alone a physical perspective.

A’JA WILSON: Yeah, I can go both ways. Probably last year I really just had the go with the flow mindset. I’m going to have to just really capitalize on the days where it might be an off day, but yet still making sure that I get treatment, still making sure that I just keep my body in check. Because this is my livelihood, this is who I am, this is what I do for a living. So I have to make sure that my body’s in check. But now my biggest thing is you really become best friends with your trainer being an athlete, ’cause they’re gonna be the people that help you out in different ways and it doesn’t necessarily have to be just getting up and down the court all the time.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Did the SEC network [broadcasting] and then the opportunity to essentially navigate the offseason world in a different way make a difference, do you think, physically and intellectually?

A’JA WILSON: Oh yes, I think for me it made a huge difference. This is probably the first time my body has ever had an off season quote unquote.

I’m still traveling from city to city to be at the games. But when I’m actually just in training mode it definitely woke me up, ’cause I remember talking to my trainer I’m like, “I’m not eating as much.” And she’s just like, “Well you don’t have to burn as many calories ’cause you’re not playing.” So I thought I was sick, I thought I was getting sick. I’m like, “I’m not eating as much, what’s going on?” But that’s when it woke me up ’cause I’m like, “Okay good, I’m not burning a lot of calories in this way so I can eat normally and eat good.”

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Lindsay Gibbs, @Linzsports ThinkProgress
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by The IX Team