The WNBA is spending time and resources in foolish ways

The WNBA is applying its effort to stupid things, while its environment is poised for financial breakthrough.

Television viewership for the 2021 WNBA championship series averaged 548,000 viewers per game, a 23% increase over 2020 (447,000 per game), and 42% over 2019 (386,000 per game). Viewership for the 2022 WNBA college draft rose 20% over the year before.

A simple timeline for this sea change: Think back to the first year of WNBA play, 1997. Seimone Augustus, and other players born around 1984, were entering high school with a view toward pro league play following college ball. Augustus’ LSU teams reached the final four three times, and when she entered the 2006 WNBA draft, it coincided with the league’s expansion into Chicago (home of the 2021 WNBA champion Sky).

Also in 1997, Maya Moore and other players around her age were 8 or so, playing organized ball for the first time, while the WNBA was premiering on television. Her graduating class included Courtney Vandersloot and Liz Cambage. The girls watching them are graduating now.

If you want to look a generation ahead, Stephen Curry’s eldest daughter is 9. The girls around her age are watching “small” players like Curry and Aari McDonald dominate on the floor, while Caitlin Clark just signed a $1 million NIL deal.

The quality of play and players in the WNBA has never been better. The call for expansion — either by number of teams in the league, or number of players on the rosters — has never been louder (or more deserved). The 2022 preseason saw lottery picks and recent rookies of the year fail to make the final cut. Television ratings have never been higher. Social media awareness has never been greater — Paige Bueckers has an exceptional following, but I thought it was because she could play. The Cavinder twins at Florida have 4 million TikTok fans, despite winning at no higher league than the Mountain West.

In short, the potential for NCAA women and WNBA prosperity is roughly where the NBA was when Magic and Bird built record TV viewership in 1979.

The WNBA is poised to make a lot of money, for the first time, against the odds that go with existing as a women’s league. You could launch any shitty minor sports league of men — the USFL again, are you kidding me!? — and men with money will support and promote it, unfailingly and blindly. The difference in support between women’s and men’s basketball was made starkly and abundantly clear by the relative quality in training facilities during the 2021 NCAA tournament (that made me ashamed to be a man like Republicans make me ashamed to be an American).

The time has nearly come for American women’s professional basketball to emerge from its boutique status. There should be enough money in store to give more players jobs, and to make them more comfortable in the process — whichever rule was invoked that prevented the Liberty owner from flying his team on a charter (“for the sake of parity”, no doubt) could be abolished. Better yet, American players might be dissuaded from playing overseas, which in turn would keep them from being detained at checkpoints.

In the meantime, however, the WNBA seems determined to squander its resources with a deaf ear toward what people actually want.

It still requires a custom order to acquire replicas of most players’ jerseys. Instead, the WNBA has begun generating player-imaged NFTs for the NBA Top Shot marketplace. If you attend a WNBA game, the league would rather you have a picture of your player on your phone than wear her jersey.

If the league put a team in San Francisco, they could probably count on me to buy tickets (considering I used to drive 105 miles one way to watch the Sacramento Monarchs). Instead, it settles for my $25 subscription to WNBA League Pass, which I don’t use for its unacceptable user experience.

The MLB At Bat app enables users to toggle Show/Hide Scores. The WNBA app does not, and even places the Watch links beneath the scores. On opening night, I could not manage the feat of squinting so as to find the Watch link while my avoiding spoilage of the score. Couple that with my dislike of announcers, and I can do without watching games. (It’s much easier to not watch a sports league when your region doesn’t have a horse in the race.)

The online experience for WNBA followers is bad in ways you wouldn’t expect, like looking at the league standings. In 1925, the box looked like this, and it hasn’t changed much because it’s not broken:

In the WNBA office, someone thought to devote a UI engineer’s time to presenting team standings like this:

That level of overdoneness is a group effort, a waste of team energy. If the WNBA can’t handle these small details properly, why should investors favor expansion.

I hardly need to mention the league’s climbing aboard the cryptocurrency pyramid by partnering in December with Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange. Coinbase, trading in the 140s a month ago, has rebounded like a dead cat to 65 following the crypto market crash.

The NBA is a personality cult, created and cultivated by men who invest in men

When the question arises “Will the WNBA ever succeed like the NBA?”, my answer is: “No, professional women’s basketball will never be more than a curiosity in the U.S. Mostly because the NBA is a cult of personality, the kind of which the WNBA couldn’t develop.”

Dr. David Berri, who teaches gender economics at Southern Utah University, presented a talk about the WNBA at the Basketball Analytics Summit last Thursday. Berri gave this example:

The corporate sponsorship money for the NBA and WNBA are pies labeled A and B. The NBA players receive J percent of A, while the WNBA players receive K percent of B.

If K were increased to halfway toward J — still not as much as the NBA players get, but improved — Courtney Vandersloot would’ve earned a more equitable and acceptable $1.2 million in the example year.

Why can’t the WNBA players get a larger share (K) of the
pie, or a larger pie to share (B)?

“Because men invest in other men,” said Berri.

Boom! that’s the phrase I’ve always needed. The NBA is a personality cult, in which men invest in other men. Men who own shoe and beverage companies invest sponsorship money in growing the legends surrounding male athletes, who play boyhood games for the enjoyment of mostly other men.

The size of the pie or the weight of the slice for women’s sports could be increased to fair amounts with an insignificant hit to men’s bottom line. But men have been in a war against women longer then they’ve been making Nikes and Gatorade, and men don’t want women’s basketball (or women’s anything) to prosper.

The data-driven scientific approach to basketball is in practice about 40 fewer years than sabrmetrics to baseball. Basketball analytics will catch up to baseball in fewer than 40 years, though.

Technical baseball analysts spent years devising methods for reducing a player’s whole value to one number, and then years settling in agreement that it’s a dumb thing to do. Basketball analysts were never as likely to fall into that trap, given they understood at the start that a numerical expression pinned to one player is derived so heavily from what nine other players are doing.

I was relieved to see at the Basketball Analytics Summit that analysts are still focused on tools for using relevant big data. Big data results in big solutions for big problems that don’t always exist.

Movings on

Four Colorado Buffaloes entered the transfer portal, including two key seniors, Tuitele and Finau.

Utah’s fifth-year senior Dru Gylten tweeted Monday that she’s entering the portal. She plans to move closer to home, and her fiancé. (Nothing good ever comes of marriage proposals.)

Home is Rapid City, South Dakota, where WNBA Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon grew up. Assuming Hammon is the most accomplished and best-known basketball player to attend Stevens HS (there’s also Eric Piatkowski, who spent nine years with NBA Clippers while they were terrible), I’d think they would rename their gym after her. I think that’s the least Rapid City could do; given Hammon’s status as a member of the WNBA 25th anniversary and Russian Olympic teams, a six-time all-star whose number was retired in San Antonio, I’d push to rename Main St. as Becky Hammon Drive were I on the Rapid City council.

Like I said, Gylten’s departure leaves an immeasurable hole in Utah’s roster, and I think 2023 will be a lost year for Utah unless it’s adequately patched. Utah’s in a weird place where lateral movement would be considered a failure, because that’s how fair-weather supporters are.

Arizona State named Natasha Adair head coach. Adair was at Delaware for five years, most recently coaching the Blue Hens to an NCAA appearance.

Adair replaces Charli Turner Thorne, who retired after 25 years with the Sun Devils. She won 488 games, 2nd-most all-time in the Pac. The leader in that category is Coach VanDerveer at Stanford, for whom Turner Thorne played in the late ’80s.

If one of your players from 30-some years ago retires as a coach, maybe you’d think about retiring yourself, but Coach VanDerveer is still having fun. There’s a video circulating of Coach doing the electric slide with her team. I didn’t know what an “electric slide” was until watching that video, and there’s Coach dancing with a bunch of kids.

If retirement were on Coach VanDerveer’s mind, I thought last year would’ve been a storybook moment, with those championships in the early ’90s and the one in 2021 as bookends. Also, that would’ve left this year’s championship-caliber team in the hands of (presumably) Coach Paye, who would later have a few years of experience in the big chair when a rebuild became of order.

Stanford and UCLA advance to their respective semifinals

I slept through UCLA 74, Oregon St. 66 in a round-of-8 WNIT game, though it was the last chance to Back The Pac on both sides. I might’ve erred by enrolling in a data science class before April, but I’m preparing for the Basketball Analytics Summit.

The Bruins get South Dakota State Thursday in a semifinal game. That’ll be weird, because I’ve rooted for South Dakota State since they came into Maples for NCAA rounds 1 and 2 some years ago, with fans who were insanely in love with their team. It was charming, and they said ‘you think this is nuts, come to a home game in Brookings’.

Stanford 59 Texas 50

There’s a common trope that says if you want to establish a bad guy as a serious threat, start by having him kick your toughest guy’s ass. The uber example is Worf on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. A Klingon warrior assigned to tactics and security, Worf got curbstomped repeatedly, just to set the bad guy of the week as bad.

That’s how I saw Texas. They’d already beaten Stanford, and they pounded Utah in round 2 of the NCAA tournament. Not even Stanford smacked Utah as hard as Texas did.

Stanford could get North Carolina St. (#1 from Bridgeport region) then Louisville (#1 from Wichita) or South Carolina (#1 in every sense of #1), and those teams don’t scare me as much as Texas.

Stanford beat Texas 59-50 by winning quarters 2-through-4 by margins of 2, 4, and 3, for being tougher and more physical than the Longhorns. Stanford’s been dealing with a “cute kids who get good grades and look like the girl who delivers your newspapers” misconception since the ’90s. If I were Coach VanDerveer, I’d milk that for as long as I could. The cute kids who get good grades and look like the papergirl out-rebounded Texas 45-29, and blocked 11 shots (to Texas’ 1). I thought 11 might’ve had some historic significance, but it’s not even their highest total of the season: The Cardinal blocked 13 vs. South Carolina Nov. 21.

It was sort of a tag team effort for Stanford. Cameron Brink might’ve delivered all of her 10 points, 6 rebounds, 6 blocks during the 3rd quarter. In the 4th, it was all Haley Jones and Lexie Hull. A game as physical at that results in many free throws attempted, and Stanford shot 18-of-22 to Texas’ 11-of-20.

11Joanne Allen-Taylor7.6
03Rori Harmon7.1
01Lauren Ebo-3.3
05DeYona Gaston-2.3
10Shay Holle-0.4
31Audrey Warren7.3
21Aaliyah Moore5.3
02Aliyah Mathura-3.3
35Latasha Lattimore-1.7

Pythagorean win expectations

Everything is Bill James’ fault. Bill James is the nerd who began the trend toward baseball analytics (James coined the term “sabrmetrics”) as a household term.

Baseball analytics works, because baseball performance is usually an individual thing: one guy throws it, another guy hits it 500 feet or swings and misses. You can chart that with some basis in reality.

After the application of baseball analytics began saving and making major league baseball teams billions of dollars, basketball people naturally wanted to participate. But I don’t think basketball performance can soundly be quantified as an individual thing; even when Chamberlain scored 100, it was a cooperative effort of 10 players. Chamberlain’s teammates had to give him the ball, and their opponents had to give Chamberlain’s team the ball; the other team was committing turnovers on purpose at the end of that game.

Team-based analytics have a better shot at genuine usefulness. Take the Pythagorean Winning Percentage, which James concocted as a method for determining an expected winning percentage based on runs scored:

pwp = (runs_scored^2) / (runs_scored^2 + runs_allowed^2)

The 2021 San Francisco Giants won 107 regular season games (107-55, .660). The Giants scored 804 runs, and allowed 594, for a Pythagorean projection of .647, or 105 wins.

For reasons that escape me, Daryl Morey (NBA Philadelphia) and John Hollinger (NBA Memphis) use exponents of 13.91 and 16.5, respectively. Look at what this does to the 2022 Utah Utes women.

pwp = (points_scored^some_exponent) / (points_scored^some_exponent + points_allowed^some_exponent)

The Utes scored 2505 points, and allowed 2251, and went 21-12 (.636).

Using Morey’s exponent 13.91, Utah’s Pythagorean expectation was .816, or 27-6. Using Hollinger’s exponent 16.5, the Utes’ expectation was .854, or 28-5. I tried a range of exponents until landing on 5, which returned .631.

TeamScoredAllowedactual winsPythagorean expected
Oregon St.193218661716
Arizona St.164515571215
Washington St.180218001915
Southern Cal180118111214

No matter what happens to Stanford Sunday, the Pac-12 will survive in the WNIT

Defending champion Stanford could be ousted Sunday by Texas — Texas looked invincible against Texas, but were quite vulnerable vs. Ohio State — but the Pac-12 would still be alive in the WNIT, because UCLA and Oregon St. have to play each other in Corvallis.

UCLA 82 Wyoming 81 was weirdly anticlimactic for a triple overtime game. Maybe both sides were completely gassed, or at least disspirited for the disqualifications of each team’s leading scorers.

Oregon St. overcame a 30-point first quarter by New Mexico (the Lobos shot 8-of-12 3FG), and won each of the last three quarters to win 78-73. Senior Ellie Mack scored a season-high 22.

The Bruins and Beavers met once in the regular season, a 72-58 OSU win. UCLA, playing shorthanded all year, were without team leader Charisma Osborne.

What now, Utah?

Texas shot a season-high 63.6% (35-of-55) Sunday, and beat Utah 78-56 in the round of 32. The Longhorns’ previous high was on Nov. 9 vs. New Orleans (NET 342), when they shot 61% (47-of-77) in a 131-36 win.

35 of 55. I tweeted in exasperation “Does Texas always shoot this well?”. Couple that with full court pressure akin to Arizona’s or Colorado’s, and AP #6 Texas looks capable of beating South Carolina or Stanford.

Utah finished at 21-12, 16 wins better than last year, with their first NCAA appearance in the Roberts era, their first Pac-12 tournament final, and a bunch of post-season awards. Utah’s bandwagoneers share an opinion that the program has a bright future ahead, because that’s life on the bandwagon: Nothing but clear skies.

Maybe I’m the only one that thinks the Utes are in a precarious place.

What’s next year’s milestone? Let’s say it’s merely three or four more wins. One or two additional regular season wins earns a tournament bye. One more win in the tournament earns an automatic NCAA berth. One more win in the NCAA tournament means a trip to the regional finals site.

Doable? Not unless Utah is at least as well furnished at the one as they were this year. The easiest solution is for the coaching staff to persuade fifth-year senior Dru Gylten to return for a sixth, but this seems unlikely, considering Dru took part in senior night ceremony, and she also got engaged.

Without Dru, Utah is left with one one, freshman Ines Vieira, the fastest woman I’ve ever seen on a basketball floor. The only analogous NBA player is Leandro Barbosa, whom Phoenix Suns radio man Al McCoy calls “the Brazilian Blur”. Vieira is so fast that she can make steals by overtaking the ballhandler from behind, running around her, and swiping the ball without fouling. She scores and rebounds a bit more than Dru, but Dru defies quantification.

Dru Gylten is the heart and soul of the Utah Utes, the straw that stirs the drink, the spark that drives the engine, the catalyst that generates the chemistry, the coach on the floor, the elder statesman. She’s the first player Coach Roberts said I’d love, and was correct in the prediction.

Dru is irreplaceable, but her absence is inevitable. It’s not in the team’s scheme to let Vieira play 38 minutes, so what are their options for someone else to play 20?

1) Move a two to the one. Coach Roberts had unreal good fortune shuffling guards around at Pacific. In Pacific’s Big West Conference championship season, a natural two was playing at one while a natural one was playing at two, and it worked splendidly. I reckon if she tried this in Utah, she’d look at Kneepkens as a possible one, which would mean the team’s biggest offensive weapon would start with the ball in her hands, while returning senior Maxwell could resume starting at two.

2) Reel one in from the transfer portal. Pacific got a couple of outstanding transfers from Fresno State in 2014, but for an unfortunate stretch, Madison Parrish carried the team on her back. As went Madison Parrish, so went the Pacific Tigers. Utah most certainly doesn’t want that.

3) Recruit one. That would be swell for 2026, but the Utes are gunning for 2024.

NCAA round of 16: Stanford against the world

With the exception of Stanford, the #1 seed and alive in the Spokane region, the Pac-12 teams have been wiped out of the NCAA tournament. With the exception of Utah, they were all knocked out by lower-seeded opponents.

If you’re backing the Pac, you’re hoping for Stanford to hold off the rest of the world in the remaining field of 16, and for UCLA or Oregon State to win the WNIT. Otherwise, our stance that the Pac is the toughest league in the NCAA is on shaky ground.

The defending champion Cardinal look like a fair bet to survive the regional. The Hull twins found additional incentive in the possibility of playing the rounds of 16 and 8 in their hometown, and Lexie had a career game in round two vs. Kansas. Hull scored a career-best 36 points, and added 6 rebounds, 6 steals, and 3 assists in Stanford’s 91-65 win at Stanford. Her Hollinger GameScore of 35.2 is the highest I’ve crunched yet this season.

Stanford led merely by two at half, 33-31, and Coach Tara VanDerveer said the outcome was truly in doubt, until Hull poured in 25 points in the third and fourth quarters. “(The game) came down to ‘we had Lexie Hull, and they didn’t,” she said.

That was the night before Arizona was knocked out by North Carolina, and after Texas eliminated Utah 78-56 on the Longhorns’ home floor (it’s high time the first two rounds be conducted on neutral floors). “That was a tough loss for Utah,” said VanDerveer, “but how great for their freshmen and sophomores to play in this tournament for the first time. I’m very happy for what (Utah coach Lynne Roberts) has done with that team.”

Stanford takes on AP #13 Maryland, the #4 seed in the Spokane region, tonight. The rules against personal electronic devices at chess tournaments get more and more stringent. These days, you’re required to leave your phone powered off beside your board (these restrictions don’t have much effect on me; I work in the office downstairs from the chess club, so my work computer is always a few steps away, enabling me to cheat at chess or watch basketball at will).

NCAA day 2: Oregon and Washington St. lose upsets, only Arizona survives

A bad Saturday for the Pacific-12 at the NCAA tournament Sunday. Oregon and Washington State both lost in upsets, during which I couldn't keep awake for being out and about all Friday.

Only Arizona survived, 72-67 over UNLV. It was the first game in which I really thought they missed Aari McDonald. McDonald would've given them more space there, McDonald would've won the race to that ball, McDonald would've been their shooter, and so on. Sure, as long as you're picking the spots, you can do this for any team missing any great player, but this was the first time this season I found myself doing so for Arizona and Aari McDonald.

That game was within five points in both directions for three quarters (UNLV led by 7 for two possessions in the 2nd; Arizona led by 6 for one possession in the 3rd), but as ESPN talking head Coach Dan Hughes said, Arizona's ball pressure eventually wears opponents out. 

Tied at 56-56 with 5:34 rema ining, went on an 11-0 run. Senior guard Shaina Pellington made two steals during the run, and led all scorers with 30 points. Four steals and four assists opposite zero turnovers. A 25.6 Hollinger GameScore, the highest I've crunched this year.

Cate Reese played for the first time in three weeks, but that shoulder is obviously nagging her. Especially at the free throw line, when it's Cate Reese alone with her separated shoulder.

The trouble with Oregon getting knocked out of the Wichita region and Washington State from the Bridgeport region is that an all-Pac-12 round of four is ruled out, while Arizona is the only Pac-12 team left on that side of the bracket, while Stanford and Utah are on a collision course in the other.

That is, assuming Stanford beats two opponents, starting with #8 Kansas tonight, while Utah does the same (a more difficult task: #2 seed Texas, then probably #3 LSU).

Utah had no difficulty in eliminating Arkansas Friday. It was 10-0 at the start, and Arkansas never threatened. The Utes will deal with their first adversity today against Texas -- #6 in the Associated Press poll, and in their own building. Though it's possible the freshmen Johnson, Kneepkens, and Vieira won't feel a thing. (It's 44-30 at half.)

NCAA day one: Stanford and Utah advance, Colorado goes home

The first day of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament was a very long day. Any day in which I watch four games is taxing, but I went Friday with no sleep (I’ve been nervous and edgy since Selection Sunday; sleeping Thursday night, ha), and watched in three locations. 10:30 a.m. at home for Colorado-Creighton, drove to Stanford to watch Utah-Arkansas in the media workroom at 2:30, then hopped over to Maples for Kansas-Georgia Tech at 4:30 and Stanford-Montana State at 7 (I tried to sleep during the second half of the Stanford game, but my seat is in front of their obnoxious student section).

Got home and crashed, woke an hour ago. Still tired, so I’ll skip the formality of writing anything that resembles news.

#10 Creighton 84 #7 Colorado 74 (Greensboro)

I picked 15 of 16 in the women’s bracket; the only loser was picking Colorado over Creighton.

It sometimes seems to me that basketball coaches are blowing smoke at media when they say: “We’ll do what we do, and they’ll do what they do”, but that’s what happened.

Creighton shot the snot out of the ball to begin the second half (4-of-6 3FG), and made all their free throws at the end (12-of-12).

Colorado’s defense was not up to its usual standard. I’ve been itching to say for the last two months that “Kindyll Wetta never looked like a freshman this season”, but she did Friday. The play that killed the Buffaloes was with 1:36 left in the game, when Creighton led 72-68. Wetta made a steal in the backcourt, broke to the Colorado basket where she missed the contested layup, then committed an upgraded-to-intentional-foul-after-review to give Creighton two free throws plus possession. A six-point swing in the last 90 seconds of an elimination game.

The Blue Jays made 8-of-8 free throws in the final 1:28. There’s no one on that team to target with an intentional foul.

#7 Utah 92 #10 Arkansas 69 (Spokane)

If bookmakers were taking action on this game, I thought over-150 would’ve been an excellent wager, though I didn’t think it would happen by 90 points on one side, 60 on the other.

While winning their first NCAA tournament game since 2009, the Utes broke, tied, or approached all manner of school records during NCAA play. 92 points and 15 treys are new team records. I suggested that you to pay attention to senior Dru Gylten; her 11 assists is a new record. Sophomore forward Kelsey Rees made her first double of the season with 11 and 10, and zero fouls. The player of the game was sophomore forward Kennady McQueen: 20 points (6-of-9 3FG plus 2-of-2 FT), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal in 21 minutes.

In the aforementioned bracket, I’ve got Utah winning the national championship, beating #2 Texas, #3 LSU, #1 Stanford, #2 Connecticut, and #1 South Carolina. Seriously, why not. I said Utah is scratching the surface of what they can do; who can say they won’t beat five teams in the Associated Press top 10.


#1 Stanford 78 #16 Montana St. 37

At which I saw three things I’ve never seen before:

  • Montana St. didn’t score in the first quarter; it was the first such shutout Stanford has ever pitched.
  • Hannah Jump missed three consecutive 3-point attempts. She made two, missed three, hit two, and the universe was back in order. Jump finished 5-of-11, the game’s high scorer with 15 points.
  • Stanford’s forecourt tag team of sophomore Cameron Brink and junior Fran Belibi scored 23 points, got 22 rebounds, blocked 6 shots. The play that the nation will see on ESPN SportsCenter and social media outlets was Belibi’s steal-breakaway-dunk.

Maples Pavilion was half-full, yet I’ve never heard so much noise in that place, while the Stanford bench was jumping. Put me in the humbug camp that sees a dunk as no better than a layup, but the Belibi dunk is viral content, and women’s basketball needs all the viral content it can muster.

Stanford’s next opponent is #8 Kansas, who beat #9 Georgia Tech 77-58. The Jayhawks played aggressive defense, while the Yellowjackets did not.

04Van Gytenbeek,Jana-1.1