Don’t blame the media for the WNBA’s woes

Ted Leonsis owns the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals. The hockey team has done quite well under his leadership, though a deep playoff run has eluded it. The basketball team has often been mediocre or worse, though it now is among the better NBA squads.

Leonsis also owns the Washington Mystics of the WNBA. The team, like the league, has struggled.

Leonsis blames the WNBA’s woes on the media. He says it doesn’t give the league enough coverage:

If you listen to sports talk radio, they are not talking the right way about most women’s sports. Those people will retire, or frankly a lot of them are getting fired or laid off — and we’ll get younger people into key media positions who are more egalitarian, more open-minded, more respectful.

(Emphasis added)

Note the authoritarian undertone to this pronouncement. Leonsis wants sports show hosts to talk about women’s sports “the right way.” They are supposed to be “egalitarian” and “respectful.”

Leonsis continued:

I think media helps to set agendas. I mean, you either get neglect or snark [about the WNBA]. And I don’t get it.

I think it’s bad business, too. That to me is so remarkable: As a programmer, you want to reach the widest audience possible. … If you’re only talking about what’s in front of you, and you’re talking to your peer group, and your peer group is dying away, it makes no sense to me as a media professional.

Leonsis may be a “media professional,” but his judgment is clouded by some combination of his stake in, and affection for, the WNBA and his liberal politics.

Sports talk hosts don’t talk about the WNBA for the same reason they don’t talk about soccer: listeners aren’t very interested. I’ve often wished they would devote a ten minute segment to soccer, at least during a major tournament like the World Cup. After all, what’s ten minutes out of, say, a three hour show.

The reason they don’t — choosing instead to talk for segment after segment about Lebron James, Kirk Cousins (in my market), and the over-hyped Mayweather-McGregor boxing match — is that they can’t afford to have listeners change the dial. Like me, many listeners consume sports radio in small doses, e.g. when we are driving. If we tune in a show for, say, half an hour, we want the host to be discussing the sports we’re highly interested in. If they aren’t, we will flip to another station.

Thus, it is silly for Leonsis to talk about sports show hosts retiring. In my market, most of them are years from retirement age. But even if they all were to retire tomorrow, their replacements would still confront the same audience preferences that are causing the incumbents not to discuss the WNBA (or soccer). And when audience members retire, they will probably want to spend even more time hearing about the likes of Kirk Cousins and Lebron James.

As for hosts being fired (a cheap shot by Leonsis), the fastest way to lose that job is to try to ram a not terribly popular sport down the throat of the audience.

The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg sides with Leonsis. He says:

I think there is some value in pushing Mystics coverage on an uncertain audience, because there is value in having a viable women’s league. . .It doesn’t bother me that, say, the Tour de France isn’t part of the local sports conversation. But it irks me that even a competitive Mystics team with brand-name stars still seems so tangential.

Steinberg doesn’t explain why sports coverage should confirm to his view of what has value and what irks him. He may find the WNBA riveting, but most of us want to devote the time we allot to professional basketball to watching and hearing about players who perform at the very highest level possible, not the very highest level possible for women.

Steinberg’s column was inspired in part by an extraordinary WNBA game he happened to watch. The headline of his story is “If you refuse to pay attention to the WNBA, you missed something cool Wednesday.”

His use of the word “refuse” is telling, as it suggests something like a presumption that we should pay attention to the WNBA. It would be nice if more readers clicked on my soccer posts, but I would never say they are “refusing” to do so. Most just prefer not to.

But the WNBA has always presumed that people have some sort of obligation to pay attention to it, based on egalitarianism or respect, or something. When the league commenced, it’s slogan was “we got next.”

As things turned out, they didn’t. It was up to us to decide who “got next.”

I’m glad Steinberg thought the WNBA game that inspired his story was cool. I saw a cool minor league baseball game recently. I thought the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea was cool.

There is no shortage of cool sporting events from which to choose. Sports fans decide which ones they want to pay attention to and the media accommodates these preferences.

Egalitarianism and respect have got nothing to do with it, nor should they.

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