Olympic gold could bring fans to WNBA

MINNEAPOLIS — For 16 years, since even before its inception, the WNBA has been inextricably linked with the Olympics.

The 1996 Games helped to give birth to the women’s professional basketball league, which began play not even a year after a team that featured Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie won a gold medal in Atlanta. Now, four Olympics later, the WNBA can still capitalize off the Olympics, perhaps more than it has since the league’s beginning.

The 1996 Olympics were nicknamed the Women’s Games, as the number of females competing had increased by 40 percent since four years earlier. This year’s Games continue that theme; there are more women than men competing for the United States for the first time ever. And though that’s undoubtedly a good thing for the WNBA and women’s athletics as a whole, the league is less concerned now about gender than about exposure.

WNBA games are rarely televised nationally, and many games fail to make the television airwaves in any capacity. The talent is there, as are the story lines, but sometimes the games are nearly impossible to watch unless one purchases a ticket. Not so with the Olympics. Now, with NBC’s live streaming of every event and the fortunate timing of basketball games, it’s easy to see the stars of the women’s game compete. They’re in the national spotlight in the middle of the summer, a rarity for WNBA players, and they’re dominating, winning their games by double-digit margins.

The dominance is nothing new. The U.S. women have won gold every year since 1996, and WNBA president Laurel Richie is quick to tout her league for its chance to go for a fifth consecutive gold this year. What’s changed, though, is the ability to view them so easily and to see instant updates on Twitter and other social media platforms. That, coupled with the already growing popularity of the league can only mean big things for the WNBA this summer.

“I think it can’t help but help when you’ve got yourself in front of a national audience,” Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “I think that’s kind of what we’ve been saying: When the national media pays attention to us … there’s going to be awareness. You certainly would think that we’d get a bounce from that, certainly here in Minnesota. We have the interest locally, and if it gets a few more, that’s great.”

For basketball junkies, these Olympics provide an even greater opportunity: the chance to see international players compete in an accessible and clearly broadcast form. The Lynx currently own the draft rights to Rachel Jarry of Australia, Nika Baric of Slovenia and Damiris Dantas of Brazil, and these games are the best chance for fans to get a taste of what might be to come in the Lynx’s future.

Right now, the U.S. women seem poised to win a gold, but days of games remain. Their performance will likely impact the resulting perceptions and boost in popularity the league might face, but with the way they’re playing, it’s impossible to knock their talent. That said, it’s hard to predict just how much these Games will help the league’s reputation.

In 2004, the WNBA’s popularity was waning, and attendance was on a downturn when the women won their gold medal in Athens. Even then, attendance jumped; on June 21, 2004, average league attendance was 8,060, but by the end of the season it had increased to 8,613. That growth, though, was largely overshadowed by the fact that attendance was still down, regardless of the Olympic boost, and the Games aren’t remembered as a catalyst for the league’s popularity.

However, 2008 was a different story. The league finished the year with a record-setting 46 sellouts, more than three times as many as it had in 2007. Television ratings increased by 19 percent, and the WNBA posted impressive sales numbers for merchandise and jerseys. The Olympics had to have contributed, but it’s impossible to know how much of those increases were due to the quality of play in the league.

This year resembles 2008 in many ways. The league is coming off one of its most popular years ever, and its players are becoming household names more and more. But with the kind of unprecedented access fans are getting, it’s easy to imagine the 2012 Olympics outpacing the 2008 Games in terms of what they’ll do for the league. Now, fans can follow players on Twitter. They can watch the games or record them if they take place during the middle of the night. They can learn results while at their computers at work, and suddenly, it’s so much easier to care.

The Olympics are telling the world things that those within the WNBA already know. It must get a little old being an underdog all the time, being subject to the whims of national television networks and events that happen once every four years in order to gain a strong following. But the league has survived so much already, and it’s still growing. Although it doesn’t rely on the Olympics, the WNBA is grateful for the chance to give the world a sample of what its Olympians and the league itself have to offer.

“We do absolutely hope that not only do they represent the country well but that they represent the WNBA well,” Richie said. “If they do what we all hope they’ll do and the game of women’s basketball gets a little more exposure, I think that’s great.”

Reeve’s international scouting trip: Reeve will be flying to London on Saturday to watch the end of the women’s basketball preliminary round and the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds. There, she’ll get a chance to visit with the Lynx’s three Olympians and to scout the international players to whom the Lynx hold draft rights.

She’ll arrive in time to catch at least part of the US women’s game against China on Sunday, and after that she’ll make the rounds to different countries’ games, depending on which teams qualify.

The coach will strike a balance between watching Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen and scouting Dantas, Baric and Jarry. She said she’d be kidding herself if she said she weren’t most looking forward to seeing her own players, but she welcomes the chance to make inroads with the women who haven’t yet played for her.

Despite getting the chance to watch the international players on television and on her computer, Reeve said it will be a bonus to be on the ground in London, especially to get looks at players like Jarry who aren’t getting too many minutes. She wants to touch base with the international players, talk to them and see if she can set up a chance for them to talk with the current Lynx players in London.

“Anytime you’re there, you’re getting information,” Reeve said. “There’s nothing like being in person.”

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.