Commentary

Can WNBA build on fever pitch?

Richie hopes to carry 'halo effect' from women's World Cup soccer success

Originally Published: July 20, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Laurel J. RichieJuan Ocampo/Getty ImagesWNBA president Laurel Richie recently visited all 12 teams, looking for ways to strengthen the game.

Several sports go through both the joy and frustration of what I call the "Brigadoon syndrome." They are big as life for a brief period, then seem to mostly disappear from the general public's consciousness until the magic comes around again.

Usually it does … although it can be sporadic. This happens quadrennially, for example, with Olympic sports in the United States such as swimming, track and field, gymnastics and figure skating.

For the week in 2008 during which Michael Phelps became eight times golden in Beijing, swimming was the rage from the Atlantic to Pacific coasts. But how many Americans were still engaged in the sport a month later?

Women's soccer in the United States has had its close-up moments in the past dozen years. It happened during the 1999 Women's World Cup, of course, and then again last week in the buildup to the WWC's final after the U.S. team's inspiring quarterfinal comeback against Brazil.

In both those circumstances, the attention that average Americans paid to women's soccer was greater than any one women's basketball game or tournament has ever gotten from the general U.S. citizenry. That said though, overall, women's basketball, at both the collegiate and WNBA levels, has received significantly more sustained, consistent fan attention than has soccer.

In other words, elite women's soccer as a spectator sport has been more like the one-megahit actor who is the darling of the awards season one year but then finds subsequent suitable roles hard to come by. Women's basketball has been more like the generic TV character actor who's never been famous but keeps getting work.

You wonder … is there a way both could help each other? Approaching things from the mindset that a rising tide lifts all boats, the optimistic view would be that all the acclaim that the U.S. team received in the Women's World Cup should be an aid to all of women's sports.

[+] EnlargeHope Solo
Alexandra Beier/FIFA/FIFA via Getty ImagesThe excitement for the success of Hope Solo and Co. carried over to WNBA players.

"When they do well, I believe it does have a halo effect," Laurel Richie, who took over as the WNBA's president in April, said of the soccer team. "For those who are not used to seeing women compete at this level, when they see them do it and they then get behind them, that's real engagement with the sport and the women who play it. It bodes well for women's sports overall."

There's no reason to pour cold water on that kind of optimism, and I won't do that. However, I will temper it with another stock phrase I tend to use a lot in regard to women's sports: Progress doesn't necessarily move in a linear fashion.

The enthusiasm after the 1999 Women's World Cup final at the Rose Bowl helped launch the Women's United Soccer Association. But WUSA had disbanded before the next WWC, in 2003. Then the 2007 WWC drew more attention in the United States for the Americans' goalkeeper controversy than the outcome of the matches themselves.

Women's Professional Soccer, a league that now has six East Coast-based teams, is hoping to hang on here in the United States. The WNBA has been through its ups and down with franchise relocation and disbandment since it launched in 1997, but the fact remains the league is celebrating its 15th season.

At the moment, Americans who would not even refer to themselves as sports fans -- let alone women's sports fans -- are likely more familiar with the names Abby Wambach and Hope Solo than they are with any player who'll be competing in Saturday afternoon's WNBA All-Star Game in San Antonio. But the WNBA is by far the stronger professional women's sports league.

So are there opportunities for synergy? For cross-promotion between the WNBA and women's soccer? How about at least having some soccer stars appear at WNBA games?

"I just completed the tour of all 12 of our teams," Richie said. "One of the takeaways from that is asking this: How do we really connect the WNBA with other professional women's sports leagues and with our women's college teams?

"It's important that we help each other. I was following Twitter during the [soccer] game on Sunday and seeing the Tweets from our players in the WNBA. They were really engaged in the game. There's a great level of respect there, and broadening that to include the fans is appealing."

One of the things I've found after many years of covering women's sports, though, is that it's difficult to make these types of connections actually profitable and concrete, rather than just nice sounding and ethereal.

It's important that we help each other. I was following Twitter during the [soccer] game on Sunday and seeing the Tweets from our players in the WNBA. They were really engaged in the game. There's a great level of respect there, and broadening that to include the fans is appealing.

-- WNBA president Laurel Richie

Successful collaboration can be hard enough to achieve just among various departments of the same corporation. Trying to do it between different businesses makes it even more challenging. These are tough times economically for most folks. Then add yet another layer to the difficulty because it's women's athletics, which as a whole continues to seek firmer footholds in the business landscape, both in the United States and globally.

It's a much smaller piece of the pie that women's sports can hope to obtain in regard to being consumers' entertainment choice. Yet those consumers can be cultivated -- with hard work, smart marketing, innovative thinking and optimism.

"I don't think we are anywhere near maxing out on any of the potential audiences," Richie said.

These are the kinds of opportunities that Richie eventually will be judged upon in regard to her WNBA presidency. Her background is in advertising and marketing, in establishing brand names and making strong connections between consumers and products. In some ways, that's a science, and in other ways, it's an art. It requires degrees of intuition and risk-taking that are not guaranteed to always produce results. There will be some trial and error.

And in regard to successful collaboration with other women's sports, I've long felt the bridges could be built over time, if the right people communicate with each other.

Richie has been on a whirlwind meet-and-greet tour with the WNBA the past three months. LPGA commissioner Michael Whan has been at every tournament his organization has played since he took over in October 2009. Whan's background before taking over the LPGA, incidentally, was in marketing golf and hockey equipment. He was hired to help establish and restore relationships with sponsors, the lifeblood of the LPGA. Part of his job has been trying to regain ground that women's golf lost because financial hard times caused many sponsorships to dry up.

Kristina Hentschel, Women's Professional Soccer's corporate development officer and chief financial officer, told ESPN.com's Jeff Carlisle this week that while there has been an increase in interest from potential owners and sponsors because of the Women's World Cup attention, continued patience for the league -- which reportedly is lowering its salary cap to survive -- was necessary.

Richie, Whan and Hentschel all would be able to relate to each other's challenges and hopes. Certainly, they've got their hands full dealing with the specifics of their own businesses, which all face varying hurdles.

But I don't think we should ever give up on the belief that they -- and other people working in the industry of women's athletics -- should always keep searching for potential alliances that work toward their mutual good.

It might sound corny -- oh, hell, it is corny -- but remember the ending of "Brigadoon." When Tommy goes back to Scotland with the near-hopeless wish that the town will reappear again -- desperately regretting that he ever left Fiona -- the magic happens.

Mr. Lundie tells the stunned Tommy, "You shouldna be too surprised, lad. I told ye when ye love someone deeply enough, anythin' is possible. Even miracles."

Women's professional athletics' continued growth actually doesn't need miracles. But it does need people who love these endeavors deeply enough.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.