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Original Issue

Naked Truth

You are televising the WNBA, and this is your problem: Despite
having an All-Star forward who has dropped 46 points in a game
(the Minnesota Lynx's Katie Smith), an undersized, underdog
rookie guard who's lighting up the box scores (the Portland
Fire's 5'8" Jackie Stiles, page 46) and a 7'2" flyswatter who
recently had a triple double (the Utah Starzz's Margo Dydek), the
only media buzz your league has garnered all summer came last
week when Phoenix forward Lisa Harrison made, then modified, the
statement that she'd consider posing naked if she won's Sexiest Babes of the WNBA contest. The worst part
is, with ratings dropping every year since the league's inception
in 1997 (NBC's Nielsen average has sunk from a 2.0 in the first
season to a 1.3 for the first four games of 2001), you have to
consider whether any publicity might be good publicity, even if
it smacks of a Dennis Rodman-meets-WWF stunt.

The two networks that televise the league pay no rights fee to do
so. NBC (which also broadcasts the NBA) and ESPN (whose radio
division airs NBA games) can provide at least three reasons the
WNBA has trouble on TV: Summer is the toughest time of the year
to televise sports, the league is still building a brand, and
viewers are still learning where to look. (Last year the Lifetime
network also carried games.) ESPN's spinmeisters will also tell
you that every one of the network's female demographics is up
during WNBA games this year, including a 48% jump in females 12
to 17. However, the truth is that the league has yet to appeal to
a mass audience (ESPN is averaging a paltry 0.4 rating this year,
unchanged from the 2000 cable rating), and if it weren't for the
support of its parent organization, it might have already fallen
off the radar. "Without the NBA, the WNBA's coverage would be
next to nothing," says Paul Schulman of Advanswers PHD. Schulman,
who buys TV time for advertisers, likens the WNBA to the
NFL-affiliated World League, which is televised by Fox. "The NBA
business card is what got it on the air, and it's what keeps it
on the air," he says.

So as long as NBA commissioner David Stern backs it, the WNBA
will have a home on the dial. ESPN hopes increased coverage (39
games including playoffs, up from 18 games last season) and new
"basketball is beautiful" promo spots will attract viewers.
Others have suggested gimmicks such as risque uniforms and lower
rims but, as Schulman says, "I don't think Vince McMahon tactics
are going to help." In other words, might provide
publicity for a week, but only the play of ladies like Smith,
Stiles and Dydek can build you a fan base--and, maybe, better


"Without the NBA," says one industry analyst, "the WNBA's
coverage would be next to nothing."