With NBA Season In Jeopardy, WNBA Plays On

While basketball fans are despairing at the prospect of at least some of the NBA season being canceled due a labor dispute, there is professional basketball being played right now. Guy Raz talks to sportswriter Stefan Fatsis about the Women's NBA finals — and the state of labor talks in the NBA.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Next up, pro basketball, the kind that is actually being played. While the NBA season is in jeopardy because of a labor dispute, the WNBA is on the court and sportswriter, Stefan Fatsis, joins us now as he does most Fridays to talk about the women's season. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Guy.

RAZ: Give us an update on the WNBA finals.

FATSIS: Yeah. Game three of this best of five finals between the Minnesota Lynx and the Atlanta Dream is tonight in Atlanta. Minnesota won the first two games at home, both with big fourth quarter comebacks. That team's big name is Maya Moore. She had that outstanding college career at Connecticut. Its big scorer in this series has been Simone Augustus. She scored 36 points in game two on Wednesday, prompting LeBron James to tweet, Simone Augustus got too much game.

Atlanta, though, has its own big scorer, Angel McCoughtry. She set a WNBA finals record with 38 points in game two and that game ended not unlike an NBA game: a lot of complaints from the losing side about the refereeing.

RAZ: Stefan, the WNBA has been around for a while now. How is the league doing, overall?

FATSIS: Yeah. Fifteen years now. The metrics aren't bad. Same 12 teams in 2011 as the league had in 2010. Attendance was up a little bit to about 8,000 a game. TV viewership on ESPN also up a little bit, but we're talking really small numbers, about 270,000 for regular season games. They've got a new president, an African-American woman, and she was credited with getting a multimillion dollar sponsorship deal with Boost Mobile and you can see the logo of that company on the jerseys of the two teams that are in finals. That's unusual in most big pro sports.

One big disaster has been the team in Tulsa. They had a 3 and 31 record this season.

RAZ: Wow.

FATSIS: But the finals have been really impressive in some ways. More than 15,000 fans at each of the first two games at the Target Center in Minneapolis - deafening arena at times. More than 11,000 were expected for the game in Atlanta.

RAZ: That all sounds pretty good. I guess the question with women's sports, in general, has always been the long term viability and commercial aspect of it.

FATSIS: Yeah. And in this case, the NBA started and continues to run and support the WNBA, not all the franchises, but the league overall.

RAZ: They actually pay money for it?

FATSIS: Yeah. And without it, it's a question of whether the WNBA would exist, but look, the women's leagues don't have to rival men's leagues. You don't have to have super deep pockets. They can't rival the men's leagues, but they do have to make a deeper dent to stand on their own two feet in two main areas, corporate sponsorship, attention from local media.

I was talking this morning to Kelly Loeffler. She's one of the new owners of the Atlanta team in the WNBA. That team doesn't have a connection to its local NBA team for support the way others do. She said Atlanta's a great city for pro women's basketball. A lot of families, strong African-American community, lots of sports fans, but persuading the corporate base that it's worthwhile is challenging. Loeffler said they're making progress. They're hanging in there.

RAZ: Now, at least the WNBA is playing. You talked about the perilous state of men's basketball, the NBA, a couple weeks ago. What's the latest news now?

FATSIS: The latest news is not good, Guy. The league already has postponed the start of training camps, cancelled its preseason. Now it says it's going to cancel the first two weeks of the regular season, which was supposed to start November 1st if no deal is reached by Monday. The two sides seemed to hit a wall in their compromise on how to split about $4 billion a year in revenue.

The players were getting about 57 percent under the expired deal. They started very far apart in this new negotiation with the owners down in the 30s in terms of how much they wanted to give the players, with the players not wanting to change a thing. The last word was that the players union rejected a 50-50 split. We'll see what happens.

RAZ: Is there any sense that more talks could happen before this Monday deadline?

FATSIS: No. Not at least anything that's been made public. If the regular season games are cancelled, it's going to be the first work stoppage in the NBA since 1998 and I think then you're going to start to see players get on planes and go to Europe so that they can play some basketball and make some money.

One NBA star already got to work there this week, Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets. He made his debut from Besiktas Milangaz of Turkey. He scored just seven points. He was fouled hard. He was booed mercilessly in a road loss to a Belgian team in a tiny and hostile arena.

The NBA guys are going to find that it's not quite as welcoming in Europe as it might be on their home courts.

RAZ: Stefan Fatsis. He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate magazine's sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen. Stefan, thanks.

FATSIS: Thanks, Guy.

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