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WNBA has the game, not fans
Women's league has energized play, but crowds are slow to respond.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published July 12, 2006
At 7:30 on a Friday night, you wouldn't expect to find the head of a major professional sports league hanging around her downtown Manhattan office taking phone calls from the media. But that is precisely what WNBA president Donna Orender was doing last week, working the clock in overdrive to help her 10-year-old league score more points.
Of course, her efforts parallel those of the WNBA itself at the halfway point of the 2006 season, as it prepares for tonight's All-Star Game at 7:30 in Madison Square Garden on ESPN. The league is riding a wave of heightened attention in the wake of several rules changes this year, chief among them a shortened shot clock that has significantly quickened the pace of the games and sent scoring to an all-time high.
Gone is the 30-second clock, replaced by the more prevalent 24-second clock, which has forced players to speed up their game and play offense with more abandon. In addition, the WNBA ditched the collegiate style of two halves in favor of the NBA's four quarters, enhancing the pro feel of the women's brand of basketball.
Orender was in attendance in late May when the Minnesota Lynx set a league record for most points in a game, beating the Los Angeles Sparks 114-71 - also tying the league mark for most 3-pointers in a game with 15. "It was awesome," she said. "The timing for these changes has been great: our 10th anniversary, with a chance to recognize the talent of these players and let them showcase what they've got, which they've been doing."
The numbers support that. Teams have been averaging seven points more than the league mark of 70 in 1998 and nearly 10 points more than last season.
Furthermore, six teams are ahead of Houston's record of 77.3 points per game established in 2000.
"We've had more 70-point games, more 80, more 90," said Orender, in her second year on the job. "We have more shot attempts. I mean the whole thing has been elevated. And actually, as the game has gotten faster, the quality's even gotten better."
One offshoot of the speedier brand of ball is that coaches have had to rethink how they use their players, often working in 10 instead of eight per contest to give starters a chance to catch their breath.
And more rookies are seeing increased action, with a chance to establish connections with fans as Phoenix's Cappie Poindexter has done. Poindexter set the league's rookie scoring record last week with 35 in a 91-76 victory over Detroit.
Still, getting fans into the stands remains a challenge for Orender, appointed to the job in 2005 by NBA commissioner David Stern after four years as the senior vice president of the PGA Tour. Despite the increase in the excitement quotient, attendance this season has been around 7,100, lagging behind last year's average of 8,173.
"We want more people in the arenas, without a doubt," Orender said. "The reaction is that once people see it, they're very much taken by it and want to come back and experience more as they become connected to it. And so our job is to continue to create easy access ways for people to sample the great experience that it is."
For Orender, overseeing a potential new period of growth is especially gratifying in light of her WNBA past. An All-American from Queens College in New York, she played in the Women's Basketball League for the New York Stars, New Jersey Gems and Charlotte Hustle, earning All-Star status along the way. Her work with the PGA spanned 17 years, overseeing television, advertising and brand management.
"I love it," she said. "It's a real coming home for me. It brings me back to certainly my core athletic passion and roots. And that's really been an incredible journey and continues to be as I reconnect with people I haven't seen since my childhood. It's been really thrilling."
Another telephone interview awaits Orender. So, like a player working with a shortened shot clock, she signs off, but not before sharing a sentiment most pro league honchos rarely feel the need to:
"Thank you so much for your interest."
The real question is whether the league's revitalized offense will create lots more.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.