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WNBA still looking for an identity

Perhaps the beauty of the WNBA is that we, the common sports fan, have taken its existence for granted by now. It has been 18 years since the league began in the summer of 1997 with that catchy “We Got Next” slogan with Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes as the marquee faces of the league. The WNBA has trudged along, its step becoming more flowing and confident as the seasons progressed.

The journey has been bumpy, with just three of the original eight teams still in operation. All of the others have folded. But the WNBA has been able to rely on a dependable fan base, a group of talented players, and continued support from the NBA, although that could be fleeting.

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The Phoenix Mercury could secure their third WNBA title on Friday night against the Chicago Sky, though 6-foot-8-inch center Brittney Griner, the central figure of the league’s showcase, is doubtful for the game after having a retinal procedure. It took a season, but Griner, expected to make a Dwight Howard-like impact on the WNBA, has become the league’s dominant defensive force. It is all the more impressive considering how many players focus their energies under the basket.

What has contributed to the health of the WNBA is the continued development of Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky and the improvement of Tulsa Shock guard Skylar Diggins, tabbed a superstar when she entered the league but who had an uneven rookie season.

In order to stay afloat, at least, and thrive, at best, the WNBA has to sell its superstars. The league has to hope players such as Griner, Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx, and Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi reach their potential. The league has to hope these players become household names if it wants to increase its fan base.

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Although the WNBA is embracing its core fans, a strong percentage of those from the LGBT community, expanding the support has been a challenge. League officials decided to make the controversial move of allowing franchises to sell ads on uniforms, and practically overnight the team or city names across the front of the jerseys were replaced by sponsor names, extinguishing the identity of the league.

It wasn’t the Seattle Storm but Seattle Bing. It wasn’t the Los Angeles Sparks but the Los Angeles Farmers. The Minnesota Lynx were replaced by the Minnesota Mayo Clinics. Although it proved a financial boon, it robbed fans of their ability to identify teams. So to take a step forward financially, the WNBA took one step back in terms of distinctiveness and image, which are crucial as it attempts to gain more attention.

WNBA president Laurel Richie said she realizes the challenges of keeping a women’s professional sports league relevant. Women’s professional soccer couldn’t truly capitalize on Brandi Chastain’s shirt shedding during the 1999 World Cup and a professional basketball league in a summer that includes baseball pennant races and NFL training camps is difficult to navigate.

“The women who enter the WNBA are stronger, faster, well coached,” Richie said. “They’re coming into the league very, very well prepared to play at the professional level. [Also], we believe we have one of the most diverse fan bases in all of professional sports. In our arenas, we have a strong youth following, a following of women, from men, we have families, we have a strong following in the LGBT market, especially the lesbian segment of that audience. [Our fans] sort of come together with very progressive views on gender roles in society.”

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Although those diehard WNBA fans and those who play and are employed by the league in other capacities want to focus primarily on the on-court product, the league has always struggled to carve out an image. Is the WNBA a more popular league when the more physically attractive players such as Delle Donne, Diggins, and Candace Parker thrive or is it popular for casual fans when Griner, who has embraced her role as a gay athlete, is blocking shots and streaking for breakaway dunks?

Recently, Griner proposed to fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson of the Tulsa Shock, and potentially could become the first same-sex married couple in professional sports. The league seems unsure how to approach such a topic, but Richie said it embraces its LGBT fan base.

Richie said the WNBA seeks to unify all of its fans and the emphasis is marketing — such as afternoon games for families or promotions aimed at school kids — and a more polished product on the floor. The WNBA is intelligently attempting to avoid catering to one particular group of fans, hoping that the quality of play attracts a wider variety of people.

According to Richie, six of the league’s 12 teams are turning a profit, which is a relief to the NBA and a testament to the arduous marketing and promotion. But teams such as the Sparks playing in the vast Staples Center with widespread empty seats in the lower bowl is a ghastly look.

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There has to be a better way to forge an identity. The league needs to figure out a way to take those unattractive ads off the front of the jerseys without losing sponsorship money, add a team in markets such as the Bay Area and the Knoxville area, which has always supported women’s basketball, and find a way to attract those who haven’t yet embraced the league.

That will be the biggest challenge of all, but it also could help the league survive another two decades.

Although the WNBA has escaped the novelty phase and has become more of a staple of summer sports, those in power have to continue to feverishly work to improve and enhance its image, knowing their league is still shrouded in skepticism.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.