WNBA: The "We Got Next" Generation

The Revolution Is Being Televised... and Sponsored by Nike

The point guard hurls a 3/4-court missile. Play becomes frantic as the clock erases the cruel, churning seconds. Whistles blow, sneakers scream, and arms flail, as the excited announcer reads the score with but minutes left in the half. The familiar bed of energetic network music fills, indicating a break for "a word from our sponsor, Monistat 3."

Monistat 3?!?!

When was the last time you watched a pro ballgame aired on one of the "Big 4" networks, featuring ads for feminine hygiene products? Neutrogena? Family sedans?

This is 1997. This is NBC's coverage of the WNBA, baby. We've come a long way -- or at least that's what's being sold.

The inaugural season of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) has been consecrated with coverage by a major TV network. This is why the WNBA is very close to being a household name in its infancy. And why so many of us have never heard of the other pro women's basketball league, the ABL (American Basketball League). NBC is covering one Saturday WNBA game a week in the league's first, albeit brief, 10-week season. ESPN and Lifetime cable networks are also chiming in with coverage of weekday games.

While other professional leagues have indeed existed (the ABL, for example, is conspicuously missing from NBC's women's basketball history vignettes), none have received the validation of coverage by one of the Big 4 networks -- until now. To some viewers, the network validation is dubious -- encouraging hype over substance in a developing league. To others, the wink and nod from NBC is what ensures the WNBA's survival.

With only eight teams -- Sacramento (Monarchs), L.A. (Sparks), Utah (Starzz), New York (Liberty), Charlotte (Sting), Phoenix (Mercury), Cleveland (Rockers), and Houston (Comets) each have franchises -- the WNBA is already in a sizzling courtship with the American public. Games are selling well. The WNBA's NBA and NBC affiliations guarantee advertising revenue. Sponsors are solid: Nike, Reebok, Sears, Budweiser, Buick/Oldsmobile, Spalding, Champion, Lady Foot Locker, Lee Jeans, are all high visibility during game broadcasts.

And oh, what visibility! Many of the WNBA's players have been professionals for quite some time: Americans who, for the first time, are playing professionally for American audiences. Many are familiar faces from the last 20 years of women's college, Olympic, and international basketball teams.

Between the marketing muscle of big brother NBA and the corporate cooperation of aforementioned advertisers, a concerted image blitz is in effect. And it seems to be guaranteeing nothing but net -- profit, that is. Back in June, during the NBA finals, the viewing public was awash with the NBA's brilliant "We Got Next!" campaign -- featuring marquee players Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, and Houston's Sheryl Swoopes -- for the fledgling sister league. Referring to the phrase hollered at playgrounds to reserve or call dibs on next play on the court (kind of like quarters on a pool or pinball table), the slogan has become mantra, and fits right in with the NBA's reality -- when the boys are off the court (and the NBA is not in season), the girls are on.

What is interesting, however, is that despite implied sexism (How valid is a women's league fashioned from the rib of the über-testosterone NBA?), and the grumblings of pundits about less-than-on-target play, the WNBA is responsible for the promotion of some of the most realistic and edifying images of women and women's athletics in the history of televised sport. (The ABL has better players, boast many WNBA nay-sayers. Even the ABL has answered the WNBA with their own "We Got Players!" slogan.) Not since Olympic coverage have Americans been treated with such regularity and intensity to such aggressive and inspiring female icons. Between regular coverage of the games and the image ad campaigns launched to hype the fledgling league, pictures are worth thousands.

The WNBA is responsible for the promotion of some of the most realistic and edifying images of women and women's athletics in the history of televised sport.

The advertising campaigns of both the WNBA and its sponsors are taking it upon themselves to craft a concerted new reflection of women's athletics. The images are both hard and soft, exploring the compelling dichotomy of femininity and competitive strength.

In pre-season promo ads, the WNBA featured a spunky, white-blonde spikey-haired Phoenix Mercury guard Michele Timms. The native Australian mugs for the camera, fronts and poses her stocky li'l butch self in brown leather and Gap-dyke wear. Her endearingly soft, boyish charm has won over many a fan, gay and straight alike. Her orientation is not an issue; her aggressive court presence is.

The best example of this hard/soft dichotomy, however, is a series of high-gloss public service announcements featuring WNBA stars for breast cancer awareness and the Cancer Information Service. One such PSA features the Sacramento Monarchs' Pamela McGee. The first shot shows a wild-eyed, almost leering McGee in basketball pick-up gear, swaggering across the court in treated slo-mo, burning a penetrating gaze directly at the viewer. She narrates her philosophies for winning championships and the need for a solid defense. The shot cuts to a demure McGee, in a straight-line, professional dress, standing with fingers gracefully laced in front of her. She is apparently on bleachers, the backboard of the goal and net framing her figure. Here she explains the need for early detection in the fight against breast cancer.

The other breast cancer awareness PSA features Cynthia "Super" Cooper of our own Houston Comets. Cooper is one tough babe, as this spot attests. She is pictured in all manner of workout: bench-pressing, push-ups, pressing dumbells. The sweat glistens, not romantically, not sweetly, but determinedly, as she explains that if you have a history of breast cancer in your family, as she does, that your chances of encountering it increase. The message of early detection is driven home with images of preparation and hard body awareness.

But let there be no mistake, these ads and all the others are about the WNBA and its image campaign. Nothing better illustrates the seeming collusion between the league and its sponsors to set a specific tone and sell a specific image than Sears' "There is Magic in a Ball" commercial. The league's most recognizable players are set in a foul-line tableau, caught in time -- washed in a flood of female choral music which recalls, ironically, the theme to Xena: Warrior Princess. The impact is impressive; consider the script:

There is magic in a ball. Its very shape invites us to touch it. And yet, it doesn't care who touches it. Dribbles it. Passes it. Or fights for it.

Never has. Never will.

Sears is thrilled to play a part of bringing you every second of the first WNBA season ever. And to all the players who stood their ground in a changing world and yelled, "Gimme the ball!", Sears proudly answers, "CATCH!"

The love affair with the newer, smaller two-toned WNBA ball is revisited in the Spalding ad featuring Rebecca Lobo's infamous "Welcome to the ball, Cinderella!" catch-phrase.

Also consider the script of this co-op ad between Champion sportswear and Lady Foot Locker:

50 million Americans play basketball
13 million are women
500,000 girls play basketball in high school
13,000 compete on a collegiate level
80 play in the WNBA on 8 teams
...wearing uniforms by the one exclusive apparel supplier to the WNBA: Champion. WNBA apparel available at the one place for everywoman: Lady Foot Locker.

The statistics and assertions of these ads honor both the history of women's athletics and its now-promising future. That the WNBA has positioned itself as the deliverer of this manifesto is perhaps a bit presumptive, but that is the message they are sticking by.

The most impressive campaign, amidst all of the Gen-X, riot-grrrl pumped imaging comes, not surprisingly, from the image-meisters at Nike. Their campaign featuring L.A.'s Lisa Leslie and Sacramento's Ruthie Bolton-Holifield approachs film art and conveys some curious messages in the dramatic flash editing and swelling theme music. The African-American call-and-response style combined with the throbbing drums create an ominous account. The script reads:

We are the stories we tell!
We are the games we play
We are the people we choose to be
(We are those who raised us)
We are the obstacles we overcome
We are the glorious mistakes
(We are the glorious things we do well)
We are the stories people tell about us
We are the stories we tell!

Leslie is painted as the glamour girl, represented in shots which support this: peeking out from behind a limo window, being watched on a larger-than-life screen by a little girl. Bolton-Holifield is pitched as the girl next door with shots of her and an older gentleman (grandpa?), flashes of childhood snapshots, and a scene where she is having a snapshot taken in front of the Ruthie Bolton street sign presumably in her hometown.

Despite its infancy, the WNBA is already in a sizzling courtship with the American public via advertising revenue.

They are the stories they tell.

Traditionally, women athletes specifically and lesbian athletes especially, have been denied history and physical evidence of their existence in cultures run predominantly by men. This is still shockingly true, even in modern, 20th-century sports coverage. Still today, fears of the "lesbian label" or paranoia of being perceived as too emotional have hardened the edges of women's athletics. The competition for funding, acceptance, and popularity is too great to risk portraying people and leagues as they really are. Censorship by way of ambivalence has seemed to be the response of choice -- with the antiseptic excuse of marketing data offered as explanation. While fans of women's athletic events may be supporting teams or seasons or games in droves, that has been hardly evident in the percentages of women's sport coverage in mass-media.

The internalized misogyny and homophobia shrouding women's athletics has been a miserable result. Women's athletics will never be on the par of men's athletics when funding resources for programs are so disparate. This is a given, but a sad variable completes the vicious cycle: Standards for excellence and achievement for women are viewed with cynicism and disdain by fans of professional men's sport. Fans accustomed to the ease of play, speed, and agility of untouchable demigods like Jordan, Shaq, and Malone tend to disparagingly view women's sport as second-class.

Despite all of this and against all odds, women's athletics have survived long enough to witness their day on the court. In WNBA coverage, it is not unusual to see women with arms around each other, sweating together, knocking each other over, helping each other up. Some people forget how recently images like this were considered too butch, too lesbian, too feminist, too shocking. Some genius market analysts finally figured out what Middle America has known for a quite a while: We can handle this.

The WNBA is unabashedly presenting aggressive, full-on, physical female athletes in their element with a rare and refreshing realism. This is revolutionary. Many media analysts have asserted that this is the right place and the right time for a league as ambitious as the WNBA. Between the NBA marketing machine and the invested sponsors, the prophecy is revealing itself to be self-fulfilling.

ESPN is running promo ads on NBC which feature the backing track of the Eighties pop hit "Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves." It's a punchy beat with an empowering message, but if we really were doing it for ourselves, there would have been a WNBA a long time ago and progress in women's culture would not be such groundbreaking news.

Next week: WNBA action continues in the Features section.

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