How the WNBA became a hot newsroom beat

When Mike Terry was assigned to the WNBA beat in 2001,  the stars seemed aligned. He’d be covering the ascendant Los Angeles Sparks, a team on the precipice of back-to-back championships. And he’d be doing it for a Los Angeles Times sports section helmed by editor Bill Dwyre, whose generous budget allowed Terry to travel to season openers on the road, All-Star Games, and playoff series as distant as New York or Charlotte.

Five years later, his outlook had changed. The Sparks had their hearts broken by the Sacramento Monarchs in the playoffs. The LA Times was hobbled by budget and staffing cuts. Terry was reassigned amid newsroom upheaval and the WNBA beat became something of an afterthought.

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Versions of that played out at sports desks across the country. Editors once hoping to get in on the ground floor of women’s basketball retreated in the face of diminishing resources. When Lena Williams retired from The New York Times after covering the Liberty from 1999 until 2005, the Times opted not to replace her.

Though local newsrooms and sports departments still contend with budget cuts, coverage of the WNBA has grown in recent years and so has the audience for it. The league reported a spike in ratings last season, and in April it struck a new deal with CBS Sports to broadcast 40 regular season games, in addition to existing WNBA programming on ESPN. The 2019 season, which begins May 24, also promises off-the-court intrigue: a long-simmering debate over athlete pay will culminate in a renegotiated collective bargaining agreement.

At the Southern California News Group, which counts the LA Daily News and Orange County Register among its 11 newsrooms, sports editor Tom Moore noticed positive response to an intern’s Sparks coverage last year and asked NBA reporter Mirjam Swanson if she’d be interested in taking over the beat, which she’ll do this summer.  Moore hopes the move helps create value for digital subscribers; a beat like the WNBA is ideal, he says, because it has less competition than men’s basketball but significant demand.

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“It’s challenging in an era where sports staffs are getting smaller and smaller,” he says. “But we’ve got to figure it out.”

In March, the Chicago Sun-Times assigned reporter Madeline Kenney to the Chicago Sky beat for the 2019 season. The coverage will be sponsored by the University of Chicago Medical Center, an arrangement Sun-Times editor-in-chief Chris Fusco sees as a potential model for under-resourced newsrooms to sustain their pro sports coverage.

Fusco likens the partnership to the sponsored segments commonplace in televised sports coverage—say, the American Express Halftime Report on TNT’s NBA broadcasts. “We were clear when we entered into the deal that we control all editorial content, the good and the bad, and all sides agreed to that.”

The funding has enabled Kenney to write several features during the off-season, including a profile of Sky rookie Katie Lou Samuelson that was the paper’s most read story the weekend it ran. “There is a fanbase out there that’s just hungry for content,” Kenney says. “It’s worth investing in it.” In addition to attending every home game, Kenney plans to travel with the team for select road games. Should the Sky earn a playoff berth or send a player to the All-Star Game, she expects to make those trips as well.

Travel, low-hanging fruit for sports editors looking to cut costs, is rare for WNBA beat reporters nowadays, though not unprecedented; the Seattle Times’ former Storm beat reporter Jayda Evans travelled regularly with the team as late as 2010. When the Washington Post’s Mystics reporter Ava Wallace pitched her editors a story about the New York Liberty last year, they found the travel budget to send her to New York. This season, with the Mystics in serious contention for the 2019 title, the Post is looking into greater coverage of the team’s away games, with hopes to send Wallace on the road more often.

Online publications such as WNBAinsidr, SB Nation’s Swish Appeal, and FanSided’s High Post Hoops—to which many fans have turned for consistent, technical women’s basketball beat reporting—are making similar investments, sending beat reporters to cover individual WNBA teams with the hope they will build  sizeable social media followings.

Larger sports sites are also ramping up. The Athletic came under fire a year ago from Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve for what she considered a lack of women’s sports coverage. But this week it launched a WNBA vertical, with beat reporters for all 12 teams. The announcement arrived on the heels of similar hires at Slam and Bleacher Report.

Expanded digital coverage is ushering in more sophisticated discussion of the league, but it also presents a new challenge for newspaper reporters put on the WNBA beat today and looking to compete: When covering a sport that hasn’t quite reached mainstream status among a general newspaper audience, what’s the correct balance to strike between the deeper analysis that could alienate newcomers and the surface-level coverage that risks boring existing fans?

The basic familiarity with a team that NFL beat writers might expect of their readers can’t necessarily be taken for granted when it comes to the WNBA. Ask the average Chicagoan to name a player on the Sky, Kenney says, and they’ll likely say Elena Delle Donne, who was traded to the Mystics three years ago.

“I’m often having to repeat certain things because I just don’t know if everybody is on the same page,” Percy Allen, who took over the Storm beat from Evans at the Seattle Times in 2016, says. Allen wonders whether his stories need to include elementary details like the number of games in a WNBA season, or teams in the league. “Yes, I’m writing for fans, but this is also a daily newspaper and so I can’t just assume.”

It’s a big challenge to find stories that appeal both to a broader audience and to longtime women’s basketball fans, Wallace says. Ahead of the NCAA Women’s Final Four in April, she wrote a preview feature on two of the teams’ coaches and received a flurry of emails from readers disappointed that the story hadn’t focused on the upcoming game. “It’s the age-old thing in women’s sports,” Wallace says. “‘We want to know about the basketball. It doesn’t matter that they’re women, they don’t have to be flowery features. Write about the actual sport.’”

Though he’d like to do more analytics-driven coverage, Allen says it’s usually the simpler profiles and “state of the league” overviews that attract the most readers, making it difficult to elevate conversation beyond the perennial stories.

As an editor, Moore tends to think a beat writer’s priority should be to connect with those who care most about the sport. “But there’s an art to writing that in a way that also connects with a broader audience,” he says. “It takes commitment and time and effort and expertise. It takes just the right person.”

That consistency can ultimately go a long way in building relationships with female athletes accustomed to erratic coverage, Janis Carr, who covered the Sparks for the Orange County Register from 1997 to 2002, says. “The players develop a trust with you—especially in women’s sports—they see that you’re serious about it and they’re going to take you seriously.”

“Players are excited to talk to you,” Kenney says. “They’re a lot more genuine. They don’t try to mask what they’re feeling or talk in sports cliches. They want to set aside the time.”

In 2016, Terry returned to the Staples Center press box, covering what would be the Sparks’ third championship on a freelance assignment for a wire service. He was pleasantly surprised that Minnesota Lynx star center Sylvia Fowles still remembered him from his days on the women’s college basketball beat ten years earlier.

Maybe the nature of beat writing has changed since he first covered the Sparks, Terry says, moving away from the conventional game stories he used to file. “But the relationships are still important. The continuity is still important.”

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Maitreyi Anantharaman is a writer and student living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

TOP IMAGE: Seattle Storm's Alysha Clark (32) races past Washington Mystics' Tierra Ruffin-Pratt during Game 2 of the 2018 WNBA basketball finals. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson