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Ailene Voisin: WNBA is a product well worth watching

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Take notes, boys, and take (or buy) a seat. This is not about you. This is about women. Women's work, women's history, women's rights.

But if you are brave enough to risk a glance - or better yet, spend a few bucks - you might get a clue about the WNBA and gain an insight into championship basketball.

OAS_AD('Button20'); Mike? Peja? Rick Adelman?

You need to see this.

The WNBA Finals between the Monarchs and Connecticut Sun can be characterized by exhilarating moments and dramatic sequences that, as recently as a decade ago, women only dreamed about. The reality is exactly what it is. The footage exposes everything. The Monarchs have introduced Sacramento to competitive women's basketball at its highest, most intense level, and done so with a beguiling blend of old-school fundamentals and new-age athleticism.

This game is too good; it won't be a niche sport forever. It's all there to be celebrated: The suffocating pressure defense. The exhausting efforts. The textbook fast breaks. The scintillating passes. The drop steps, bank shots, three-point shots. One dramatic shot after another.

Yet nine years into its existence, the league confronts problems both real and imagined, some pertaining to perception, others relating to ticket sales and television ratings. The fan base remains both the great divide and the great unknown. What are the most viable markets? Are the demographics aiding or misleading? Where are the brilliant marketing schemes of the NBA? Why aren't more games televised on ESPN?

Where are all the men? The Kings?

With the exception of Jerry Reynolds, assistants Elston Turner, T.R. Dunn and families, they are noticeable only by their continued absence at Arco Arena. There are no big brothers supporting little sisters, or for that matter, lending credibility to a WNBA crowd that flattened out with an average regular-season attendance of 8,184.

Nonetheless, the Monarchs by early Saturday had sold 13,425 tickets for today's Game 3 of this best-of-five Finals. Additionally, while television exposure remains woefully inadequate, ratings and viewership on ESPN2 increased during the regular season, and perhaps more importantly, jumped 33 percent for the first two games of the Finals.

"The main reason there isn't even more interest is because men control the media," insists Billie Jean King, still the conscience of women's sports, while in town for the World TeamTennis final. "We need (newspaper) space. Horses and dog shows get almost as much as we do. One of the advantages of TeamTennis is that it involves men and women, and men are only interested if it's in their arena. But we need men to be our allies, and we need women to buy season tickets. We can't do this alone."

No argument there - but good luck. For reasons sufficiently complex to warrant clinical evaluation in a more academic forum, an undercurrent of resentment is pervasive within the male-dominated sports industry. The cheap shots and low blows are unabating. The attitude toward the WNBA - toward women's sports in general - is often dismissive, often demeaning, sometimes downright mean.

And the sniping isn't restricted to the blustery sports talk shows that appeal to an overwhelmingly male audience, but rather, extends to newspapers that routinely ignore women's events (see USA Today) or criticize a sport (WNBA) without doing their research or providing historical context.

"I don't understand it," said ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman, frowning. "They don't have to like us, but we're only nine years old. Why do we have to be compared with the NBA all the time?"

The WNBA's woes, in fact, are not altogether dissimilar from those that plagued the NBA in the early 1980s. You want comparisons? Perspective? Check out Cleveland, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles (Clippers), New Jersey and Chicago, among other places, where it was common to see 3,000 or 4,000 fans dispersed within 18,000-seat arenas.

"I still get comments from people who say, 'You love the Monarchs, but they only draw 9,000 a game,' " said Reynolds, the former Monarchs general manager, "and I say, 'Yeah, well, 9,000 is more than the Kings used to draw in Kansas City, which is why they are now Sacramento's Kings.' "

Leave it alone for a while.

Let the league breathe.

Better yet, lend an ear.

"Back in the 1960s," King recalled, "when the ATP was in its beginning, I asked Arthur Ashe and Cliff Drysdale if they were going to include women. They said 'No, nobody will pay to see girls play.' I think we proved them wrong. But we could have done this 30, 40 years ago."

You women with an ATM card?

You men with daughters?

You Kings who remember the Lakers?

If you want to see athletes take the big shot, coaches demand defense, guts under pressure and even graciousness in defeat, watch the Monarchs and the Sun these next two games. Then talk to me.

About the writer: The Bee's Aliene Voisin can be reached at (916) 321-1208 or Back columns: - Get the whole story every day - SUBSCRIBE NOW! 

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