Rivalries would enhance WNBA’s popularity

MINNEAPOLIS — Cheryl Reeve has been the villain.

It’s hard to envision that here in Minneapolis, where Reeve has quietly altered the power structure of the WNBA, turning mediocrity into utter dominance. She’s still the underdog, in a sense, in her out-of-the-way city so far from the lights of New York and beaches of Los Angeles. Reeve and her Lynx are big time, but they still haven’t lost their small-town, overachiever feel.

But Reeve had a life before the Lynx, one that included a four-season stop with Bill Laimbeer and the Detroit Shock. And Laimbeer, he was the villain back then. Even Reeve admits it.

In Detroit, Reeve was part of a staff led by a former NBA player who won three championships with his women’s squad. They were dominant, led by the enemy. They were the villains. Back then, Detroit had a target on its back. They were the team to beat, the spark that ignited rivalries and competition.

After such close proximity to the villain — and Reeve means that in the nicest way — the Lynx coach knows all too well what it takes to build a rivalry.

“Anytime you have L.A., everyone knows ‘beat L.A,'” Reeve said. “And then any time you’re playing against (Phoenix’s Diana) Taurasi, the villain. You’ve got to have the villain. L.A. is the villain as a team, and maybe Parker, in some ways, because the league, you think about poster child, and Candace is definitely a poster child.”

It’s not quite as simple as that, but for Reeve right now, it will do. The WNBA continues to be on the upswing in terms of fan following and TV ratings, but it still has a long way to go before it transitions from a niche sport to mainstream. One step in that transition, which can’t be forced or even rushed, is to create long-standing rivalries.

It’s a tough task for a league that’s in just its 16th season, especially when rivalries are so rooted in history. Just look at baseball’s Yankees and the Red Sox, whose mutual hatred dates back to the Babe Ruth trade of 1919. There’s the (now-defunct) Kansas-Missouri college rivalry whose roots lie in pre-Civil War guerrilla warfare. And then there’s the NFL’s Packers-Vikings, which thrives off proximity, state pride and even now a claim to Brett Favre. The WNBA isn’t going to have that kind of hatred — not now, and not in the near future. But that shouldn’t doom its hope.

For as much as the past matters, so much else can go into a rivalry. Winning, first and foremost, can dictate shifting competition. Just look at the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry in baseball; with the Cubs’ recent ineptitude, St. Louis has been more at odds with Cincinnati and Milwaukee, and the brawls and insults have made much more interesting fodder than merely a century-old dislike. In stories like that, the WNBA should take heart, and a league that’s no stranger to dynasties should have little trouble in propelling winning into the healthiest kind of contentious relationships.

With that in mind, Reeve is careful to differentiate between rivals and teams that are simply fun, challenging opponents. Phoenix (when they were winning) and Los Angeles can be rivals. Teams like San Antonio, who are perennially talented and challenging opponents, are not. San Antonio is a team of good people, Reeve said, and fostering a rivalry with that kind of opponent is far more difficult.

“That’s a little bit harder to promote,” Reeve said. “It’s actually harder for me, because I like to create the ‘us against them, screw that.’ The league loves that. And I don’t have that with San Antonio. . . . If you don’t have the villain, then it’s just . . . competition and the close games.”

In many ways, this might be more difficult than it seems. These aren’t the egos of the NBA or other male professional leagues. There aren’t millions of dollars in ill will between teams, and the work ethics and sensibility that we laud these women for in all other realms can at times hinder the kind of ridiculous thinking that breeds contentious relationships. College rivalries are more memories than sparks at this stage. They’re the fodder for conversation, Seimone Augustus said, or maybe a bit of ribbing, but these women aren’t clamoring to continue them in the pros. They’re consummate professionals, so much so that Maya Moore can genuinely say that she doesn’t need a rivalry to inspire her to play harder for a big game.

“I try to give the same effort every game,” Moore said. “I think some are easier to get up for than others, but anytime you’re playing another team that thinks they’re better than you, that’s a rivalry game to me . . . You want to play people who thinks that they can beat you.”

Common sense like that does not a rivalry breed.

But despite the pragmatism and the level-headedness, right now, the Lynx are left with the Sparks, the team they beat, 88-77, on Tuesday and against whom they have a 2-1 record this season. It’s fitting, in a way, this fledgling dynasty sparring with the only remaining team that’s ever had the kind of long-term success for which the Lynx are hoping. The seeds are there, and a playoff matchup might solidify rivalry status. But for now, sit back and watch it grow.

To Minnesota, Los Angeles is the big city, the market that the league hopes will have success. It’s the land of TV ratings and exposure, and despite their championship last year, the Lynx still have a bit of that inferiority complex. The Sparks, on the other hand, see none of that. Losing to the Lynx makes them forget all about their supposed geographical dominance and more storied history. The Lynx are breaking their records, and the Sparks are now chasing them. The Lynx can forget about calling themselves underdogs as far as Los Angeles is concerned.

“Minnesota is the defending champ, so everybody’s going to be scratching at them,” Sparks head coach Carol Ross said. “But they’ve earned that, so they get everybody’s attention. Every team that comes in here, I’m sure, is trying measure up.”

And then there’s Candace Parker, who’s won before and wants to win again, who sees little beyond the black and white of win vs. loss but knows that Minnesota is her target.

“They won the championship last year,” she said. “We’re trying to fight for what they have. I think in our mind, it is (a rivalry). I don’t know if — it doesn’t really matter, regardless of what it is.”

So let Minnesota feel like the underdog. Let Los Angeles chase and claw and envy. That breeds a rivalry. It’s all in the perceptions, and it might not even approach rational. Really, rational has no place here. A rivalry is born through a shove or an errant word, an iota of jealousy and a glimmer of overconfidence.

That’s what the WNBA needs to foster, and when the conditions are right and the history is built, that extra layer of competition should suddenly appear.

“I think they kind of create themselves,” Moore said. “It’s kind of hard to force one. You kind of look up and it’s like, ‘This is a rivalry.’ “


Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.