LADIES OF THE COURT
AUGUST 29, 1997
The Houston Comets, led by league MVP Cynthia Cooper, beat the New York Liberty, 65-51, to capture the first WNBA championship. Does the play-off mania that surrounded the final games mean that women's basketball is here to stay? After a background report by Paul Solman, Elizabeth Farnsworth will lead a discussion with a sports journalist and a WNBA player.
PAUL SOLMAN: The crowds are going wild. The shots are going in. And tomorrow's championship is attracting all sorts of attention. This is professional basketball played by women. The hope is that it will become as much a part of the American sports scene as women's tennis or golf. The personalities don't yet rival Michael Jordan, but when the New York Liberty play the Houston Comets for the title tomorrow, New York's Rebecca Lobo and Houston's Cheryl Swoopes will become even more famous than they already are because the first full year of women's pro basketball since the 70's has been a runaway success.
A RealAudio version of of this segment is available.
June 17, 1997
On par on the court:a look at Title IX.
March 28, 1997
Elizabeth Farnsworth explores college basketball's March Madness.
February 7, 1997
The WNBA tips off.
May 2, 1996
Sacrificing school for play in the NBA.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of sports.
The official site for the WNBA.
The women's game got a big boost from the high profile U.S. Olympic team which grabbed gold in Atlanta and visibility for its stars. In fact, two women's leagues debuted in the wake of the Olympics: The American Basketball League, or ABL, which ran from October to March, competing with the men's basketball and football seasons; and the women's NBA, wrapping up tomorrow with only baseball as competition. The ABL has more games, and arguably better players, but the women's NBA has been pushed by the men's NBA and its TV network, NBC. As with the men's product, the packaging has dazzled.
WOMAN BASKETBALL PLAYER: I play for New York Liberty. I make a living playing basketball.
PAUL SOLMAN: As a result of all the promotion and perhaps because of not playing when the men do, the WNBA has thrived, even though four previous attempts at women's pro-basketball failed.
WOMAN: I think before it failed because people weren't really taking women as athletes seriously, and now they are.
Playing a more patient, team-oriented game.
PAUL SOLMAN: If the previous women's leagues didn't get off the ground, well, women players don't get that far off the ground either, at least compared to their male counterparts. The only WNBAer who can dunk rarely does so. But some think this gives the women an advantage over their gargantuan male counterparts.
JAN LOWERY, Lasers' Coach: I think that we play below the rim and we play a very team-oriented game; we set screens; we're patient; we try to get good shots; and I think that's maybe a little bit different from the men's professional.
TARA VANDEVEER: I honestly think that women at this point are less egotistical; they're more into the team experience. They're more into playing together, and their team being successful, than into me and my stats and my individual numbers, and things like that.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, though the regular season was only 28 games, versus 82 for the men, the duration of games eight minutes shorter, the ball an inch smaller, the three-point line closer in, tomorrow a pro-championship will be decided by stars making seven-figure incomes in a packed arena, with a national TV audience watching, watching women playing basketball.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joining us now, Sara Corbett covers women's basketball for the Conde Nast Sports for Women Magazine, which debuts next week. Her recent book, Venus to the Hoop, chronicles the 1996 U.S. Women's Olympic basketball team and the birth of the new women's professional leagues. Lynette Woodard plays guard for the WNBA's Cleveland Rockers and is also a stockbroker at Magna Securities in New York City. She was a U.S. Olympian in 1980 and 1984, and the first female member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Thanks to both of you for being with us. Lynette Woodard, how successful has women's basketball gotten, from your point of view?
Tremendous growth from Title IX to the WNBA.
LYNETTE WOODARD, Cleveland Rockers: Oh, my God, it has grown tremendously over the years. I watched it from, I guess, 1977 on, because that's when I was participating at the collegiate level, but to see the growth with Title IX and with scholarships, more scholarships for women athletes, and just all the collegiate programs growing, and then to have the Olympic games and have that blossom into a professional league has just been great.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We should remind people that Title IX is the federal program that mandated more money for women's sports, right?
LYNETTE WOODARD: Yes, that's correct. And you know, with the programs it's just encouraged women to be very good at what they wanted to do, go after their dreams, play the game that they love to play, whether it was basketball or some other sport, and it allowed for an education as well. But to have the pro-leagues here in the United States now is just--is great for the athletes. Before now you would have to go overseas to play, but it's no place like home, and I just think that what you've seen this summer, with the inaugural season of the WNBA is just a tribute to the women players and also what Title IX has done for women's sports.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Woodard, you're--the Cleveland Rockers started out in the cellar, but you came back. Tell us about your best moment this season.
The best moment of the season?
LYNETTE WOODARD: Well, that's correct. We had a tough start in Cleveland. We had a lot of things that we had to work through, but we had a team that wanted to win, and we felt that we could win. But I think the key thing for us was that we had great fans, and they came out every time we had a home game, whether we were winning or losing, and at the times we were having our hard times, they were still cheering as if we had won the game. And as players it made us feel bad because we wanted to give them a victory. And we started to win a little bit, and they were there with us, but probably the greatest moment came because we had struggled against New York; they had beat us twice; and we wanted to really beat this team. And it was our last home game. We had made a request to the fans that if you would just come out and support us, then we would try to guarantee you the victory.
We had over 14,000 people at that game. And I tell you, it was just so exciting; the game went down to the final seconds it took us--probably 39 minutes and 59 seconds to win that game, but it ended on a last-second shot, and it was something that was great for our team but great for the fans because they had stuck beside us all year long, and there were questions at the beginning with the WNBA if the fans were going to come out to the games, but they have come out in record numbers, all over the league, and I'm sure the Cleveland fans will never forget that last game of ours when we won the last second against New York.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sara Corbett, how do you explain the success of women's basketball this year?
SARA CORBETT Sportswriter: Well, I think it's amazing because women's basketball, as Lynette well knows, being a bit of an old-timer in the league, she's watched it develop for decades now. But what we've seen really in the last several years on the collegiate level is women's basketball reaching unprecedented popularity. And a year ago the big unknown was: Is America ready for a professional women's basketball unit to take the next step? And what we saw with the inauguration of the ABL, which played last winter, and then this summer, really with tremendous success, as Lynette pointed out, with the fans, the WNBA; that America is ready to accept women playing professionally and really the support there is tremendous.
With a high rate of turnovers and low shooting percentages, what's the quality of play?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Woodard, talk to us about the quality of the play. As you know, there were criticisms that there was a very high rate of turnovers and also low shooting percentages. Tell us about that. Why?
LYNETTE WOODARD: I think the play has been great. I know a lot of these players. They've come from the leagues that were overseas and that are still there, but I think probably you saw a little nervousness because this is the first time that it's ever been this kind of coverage for women's basketball, for a complete season on several networks, and just, you know, to have those television appearances it makes you a little nervous, but I think that the players got--have gotten used to it. I've seen great play. We've had great games in Cleveland. I think that the fans that will tune in tomorrow for the Houston-New York game will see a brand of basketball that is at very high level.
But also I think it started with the Olympic team in 1996, the display that was there in the final game with the U.S. against Brazil. There are over 32,000 fans there, and that was probably one of the greatest basketball games to help really promote the women's game and you know, women can play the game. It's a beautiful game. And I think those that will give it a chance and watch it, they will be excited.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sara Corbett, do you think this is here to stay? I know, isn't it four leagues that have failed, women's pro leagues?
SARA CORBETT: Right.
Is women's basketball here to stay?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: These two or this popularity of basketball is here to stay, women's basketball?
SARA CORBETT: I think it is, yes. The history with all the failed leagues really would tell us that it's a risky business. And it is and both the ABL and the WNBA are a long way from being profitable yet. But to see those fans turning out, to see crowds of fifteen thousand in Phoenix and Charlotte this year, to see, I believe, the weekly television audience for the WNBA is about 2.5 million people; I think those fans are there, and importantly, I think the marketing support is there. I think that corporate sponsors, not just sporting goods sponsors like NIKE and Reebok and Spalding, all of whom have supported both leagues, but mainstream sponsors are getting involved. The WNBA, for example, has support from Sears and Buick and Lee Jeans, Bud Light, so I think people are starting to see--the marketing folks out there are starting to understand that women respond to women athletes. You know, as Lynette Woodard tells me that I should buy Chicken McNuggets, I'm going to go out and I'm going to listen to her--you know, I think there's a new currency with women athletes now, and the fact that the marketing world is paying attention in lending their support to these leagues really I think guarantees at least one league in the long-term will succeed.
MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Woodward, I have to ask you the question that I think many people out there may be wondering--how do you manage to work full-time as a stockbroker, and play excellent pro-basketball?
LYNETTE WOODARD: You have to really keep your focus but--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Other women do this too, right? There are women that have jobs--
LYNETTE WOODARD: Yes. It can be done.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --and that are having babies and--this is different than the men, right? This is different about the women's leagues.
LYNETTE WOODARD: That's correct. You really have to have a lot of support. I have a lot of support with my company, and with that, it allows me to travel and, you know, be a part of the league, but they're very excited for me. They know that I love basketball, and it's a joy for me to play, and they allow me to live my dream. And I think it's great to have two jobs, if you can do that, and it's just--I don't know how you would say it. I'm living a dream, and I love both my jobs, and I think it's the best of both worlds.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: People have said that this is one of the things that's different about women's pro-basketball from men's. Is that true? I mean, is it true that--you see one woman had a baby this year, right, and she came back and played?
LYNETTE WOODARD: Well, yes. All things are possible, but the season is only 10 weeks, and that gives you the rest of the year to try to decide what you would like to do if you don't want to go overseas and participate in those leagues. But, for me, you know, I like to be in the business world, and I also like the sports world, and it just offers me the opportunity to do both.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And very briefly, Ms. Woodard, and then I want to ask Ms. Corbett who's going to win this weekend, do you think, tomorrow? Can you predict, Ms. Woodard?
LYNETTE WOODARD: It's going to be a tough game. I think it's going to be--will go all the way to the finish. Houston has a great team with the NBP, Cynthia Cooper, New York has been in the running all the way, and I don't think they're going to let up, but Houston has home court advantage. The fans will have to tune in and see.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sara Corbett, what do you think?
SARA CORBETT: Well, I live on the East Coast, so it's hard not to root for New York, but I have watched Houston have a great late season. Cynthia Cooper is just dynamic. She will put on a great show, and based on what Rebecca Lobo did in the semi-finals yesterday, I think she'll put on a good show too. My money is probably on Houston, but it breaks my heart a little.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much.