Today in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks meet in Game 1 of the WNBA finals.
The league got what it wanted.
A new post-season format threw out the old and brought in the new. Up until this year, the WNBA like the NBA, created a playoff bracket by taking the same number of teams from the Western and Eastern Conferences. Those teams would play the other teams in their conference and ultimately a conference champion would emerge. The finals would pit the West champion against the East.
Problem was, sometimes the two best teams would be in the same conference, and they wouldn’t be able to meet in the finals.
The new format hoped to change that.
It took the top eight teams at the end of the regular season, regardless of conference affiliation, and seeded them 1-8 based on regular season won-loss records.
Minnesota (28-6) and L.A. (26-8) were the top two seeds. They also were both in the Western Conference. And here they are in the finals.
“This is what our fans have been waiting for. No. 1 vs No. 2,” says Renee Brown. She’s been the WNBA’s chief of basketball operations and player relations since the league started 20 years ago. “I think these finals are going to be exceptional,” she added. “High scoring with some of the greatest players playing.”
Those players include veteran forward/center Candace Parker and forward Nneka Ogwumike of the Sparks. Ogwumike was this year’s WNBA Most Valuable Player. Those two alone give L.A. a chance in any series.
But they are going up against the closest thing to a WNBA dynasty. With history in its sights.
Minnesota is in its fifth finals in the last six years. If the Lynx beat L.A. in the best-three-out-of-five game series, it’ll be their fourth championship and tie the Houston Comets for most WNBA titles.
The core four
So what makes Minnesota so good?
A roster that includes “the Core Four,” a core group of players that’s been with the Lynx since their first WNBA title in 2011. Forward Maya Moore was a star at college powerhouse UConn and she didn’t skip a beat when she was drafted first by Minnesota in 2011. She was named Rookie of the Year that season. She was league MVP in 2014; point guard Lindsay Whalen, born in Minnesota, a star at University of Minnesota and now, according to longtime women’s basketball reporter Mechelle Voepel, “the emotional core” of her hometown professional team; forward Rebekkah Brunson, a gritty inside player; and guard Seimone Augustus, who’s been with Minnesota since 2006.
Add to this core center Sylvia Fowles, reserve forward Nastasha Howard and reserve guard Renee Montgomery, both of whom easily could start for other teams, and you’ve got a collection of players that’s been hard to beat.
But perhaps the most important member of the Lynx doesn’t wear high tops come game time.
The coach is the thing
Interestingly, when asked to explain Minnesota’s success, the first thing ESPN.com’s Voepel says is “[the Lynx] have a very, very, very good coach.”
Cheryl Reeve came up through the ranks of the WNBA as an assistant coach. She started in Charlotte in 2001, did stints in Cleveland and Detroit, and ultimately became the Minnesota head coach in 2010. “She really learned the in’s and out’s of being a professional coach,” says Voepel, “which is different than being a college coach.”
Over the years, Reeve not only learned how to motivate professional athletes, but she became a top strategist as well. That, says Voepel, represents a major change in WNBA coaching over the league’s 20 years.
“When the league started [in 1997], you had players who were professionals overseas,” Voepel says. “But you didn’t have coaches who were used to coaching professionally. A lot of the coaches they got came out of the college ranks or the NBA. NBA players, not coaches. Honestly, you had a hodge podge of coaches [in the WNBA] and some of them weren’t very good. They weren’t as good at coaching as their players were at playing.”
That changed. Coaches like Reeve benefited from the WNBA’s link to the NBA. Even though not all WNBA teams are affiliated with NBA teams, the coaches talk to each other.
“It’s opened up the world of women’s basketball to some of the great coaching minds on the men’s side,” Voepel says, “which doesn’t really happen in college [with the men’s and women’s basketball teams], even though they’re on the same campus.”
In Detroit, Reeve got to work with WNBA head coach Bill Laimbeer. He was a key member of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons championship teams in 1989 and 1990, and one of the former NBA players who successfully made the transition to coaching. Between 2003 and 2008, Laimbeer led the Detroit Shock to three WNBA titles.
Voepel calls Cheryl Reeve “Exhibit A” of the evolved WNBA head coach. Great at working with talented professional players and getting them to play together, and an outstanding strategist who understands nuances of the game such as defending the pick and roll, or deciding when her team should gamble defensively. Reeve has become, says Voepel, the premiere coach in the league. Reeve was honored accordingly this year – she’s the 2016 WNBA Coach of the Year. Also during this postseason, she passed her Detroit mentor Bill Laimbeer for most playoff victories in WNBA history.
With the evolution of coaches and players, the WNBA at 20 is a much-improved product. Fans are responding. This season the league had its highest overall attendance in five years. The WNBA’s Chief Operating Officer, Jay Parry, happily trots out the positive numbers.
“Attendance this year was up 4.6% over last year,” Parry says. “There’s so much attention about the league in its 20th season. We’re proud of that stat.”
Parry notes TV viewership is up 11 % as well. There are positive digital and social media metrics too. “The league surpassed 12 million likes and followers,” Parry says, with Facebook, Twitter, snap chat and Instagram. “That’s up 3 million fans over last season,” she says.
This year’s increased average game attendance, 7,655, is the sixth lowest in the league’s 20 years. It’s more than 3,200 per game less than the league’s top average attendance in history, in 1998.
And the New York Times reported earlier this year that half of the WNBA’s 12 teams lose money.
When asked if the WNBA, even though it’s supported by the wildly wealthy NBA, ever worried about survival during its 20 years, longtime executive Renee Brown bristles a bit.
“I’m going to say this as nice as I can put it,” Brown says, “when the NBA puts their name on anything they do … on anything they do … there was no way when we started 20 years ago that that word ever came up.”
While the idea of survival might not’ve come up, the WNBA still has to work hard to try to get noticed in a very crowded, and male dominated, sports landscape.
League C.O.O. Jay Parry likes the May thru October schedule. “We believe the timing of the season really works for us,” she says. ESPN.com writer Mechelle Voepel says however, some sports fans still haven’t gotten used to the WNBA being a summer basketball league. It’s not regular basketball season, plus the league’s playoffs are happening the same time as the Major League Baseball postseason, as well as pro and college football.
Today, in fact, there’s direct competition in the Lynx’ hometown. The NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, undefeated and one of the surprise stories of the young season, kick off in Minneapolis two hours before the Lynx and Sparks begin Game 1.
“They start on an NFL Sunday and that always worries me,” Voepel says. “But I hope people give the finals a chance. I hope if people get a chance to watch this matchup, that they appreciate how far this sport has come in 20 years. Just the level of athlete and the level of people we’re talking about.”