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Should Philly get a WNBA team? | Pro/Con

A former women’s basketball player debates an Inquirer editor.

The Washington Mystics' Natasha Cloud, a Delco native, drives to the basket during a WNBA Finals game in October 2019.
The Washington Mystics' Natasha Cloud, a Delco native, drives to the basket during a WNBA Finals game in October 2019.Read moreJessica Hill / AP

The WNBA playoffs start Thursday, raising the hopes of the eight teams competing for the title. One city that had zero shot this year was Philadelphia.

Philly currently has no WNBA team, having dissolved former women’s basketball squads that, at the time, didn’t attract large fan bases or much financial support. But as women’s basketball grows more popular, enthusiasts like Delco native Natasha Cloud, who plays for the Washington Mystics, have been trying for months to get us a team.

Supporters think it’s long past time for Philly, a loyal basketball town, to join the WNBA. But others worry a new effort will fall prey to the issues that tanked past teams. To tap this debate, The Inquirer asked a Philly-based former professional women’s basketball player and an Inquirer editor who used to cover sports: Does Philly need a WNBA team?

Yes: Philly’s women and fans deserve the opportunities the league opens.

By Denice Frohman

With the WNBA celebrating its 25th season and playoffs on the horizon, I’m reminded why Philly needs our own team in the most progressive league in major sports.

Watching WNBA legends Cynthia Cooper battle Teresa Weatherspoon on my television screen at 12 years old transformed how I saw myself as a young girl playing sports — often the only one in my neighborhood. I remember practicing Allen Iverson’s crossover religiously, wearing his signature Reebok shoe, The Answer. But when the WNBA kicked off their inaugural season in 1997, it was another legendary undersized point guard from Philly — Dawn Staley — who had the most impact on what I thought women and girls could achieve on and off the court.

At the time, I struggled to fit into a version of girlhood I inherited and ultimately didn’t keep. But sitting in the nosebleeds of WNBA games growing up, I saw a future I could touch. I emulated Staley as a floor general, studied Ticha Penicheiro’s no-look passes, and somewhere in that space, found my voice.

» READ MORE: Around the WNBA: Performance updates and season outlooks for local players as the playoffs approach

According to a report from Gatorade/Refinery29, over half of girls quit sports by the time they’re 17, and one of the biggest reasons is because they don’t see enough female athletic role models.

Watching the WNBA helped prevent me from that fate. Before I was a writer, I grew up playing basketball on the courts of West Fourth Street and Harlem. I was decent enough to earn a full athletic scholarship to college and played professionally in Puerto Rico.

Though my playing career ended well over a decade ago, it was basketball that taught me how to be a writer more than anything else. The court was where I learned the language of my own body, on my own terms. After all, basketball — like poetry — is a performance art.

Philadelphia not only has the opportunity to create these kinds of experiences for young women but a responsibility as a premier basketball city that boasted the largest attendance in the NBA in the last full season, 2018-19. In fact, as the sixth-largest U.S. city, we are the only one to have never had a WNBA team compared with the top five most populated cities. Not to mention, Philadelphia has the fourth-largest media market.

Beyond the metrics, when I think of what it would mean for Philly to have a WNBA team, I think about how players have championed social justice in a league comprised of nearly 70% Black female athletes, and how that would resonate in a city undeniably shaped by Black women’s leadership.

“Having a WNBA team can say something powerful about who we are and who we believe in.”

Denice Frohman

I think about the night Philly voters helped turn Pennsylvania blue in the last presidential election, coinciding with Atlanta Dream players’ successful campaign to elect Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock — the first Black senator in Georgia’s history — ousting former Dream owner and incumbent Kelly Loeffler. I think about WNBA player Angel McCoughtry spearheading the idea for players to wear social justice messages on their uniforms last year (an idea the NBA borrowed).

Philly needs no introduction to the national stage, but having a WNBA team can say something powerful about who we are and who we believe in. It can speak to the women and girls from Norris Square to Southwest about what is possible when you dream out loud.

So, yes, I want to talk trash and stuff my face with crab fries in Wells Fargo. But most of all, I want to see a WNBA team repping Philly with all the grit and swagger of this city.

Denice Frohman is a Philly-based award-winning poet, performer, and educator who has featured on national stages from the White House to the Apollo.

No: We’ll be setting up our female athletes to fail.

By Kerith Gabriel

I already knew writing as a cisgender man to say that a WNBA franchise won’t work may subject me to cancellation, or at least dismissal that I’m just some guy who doesn’t like women’s sports.

That’s OK, Philly. Sometimes the truth comes at you like Ben Simmons passing on an open dunk under the basket. While it seems obvious for many, in reality for the one having to take it — it’s a tough shot.

This isn’t about how I view women’s basketball. This is about how Philly officials, organizers, and casual fans could potentially treat the addition of a WNBA franchise in our hometown. Without a viable plan to promote the game here, support the team, and entice people to care enough — which we haven’t yet seen — it’s tough to see the point.

“This is about how Philly officials, organizers, and casual fans will treat the addition of a WNBA franchise in our hometown.”

Kerith Gabriel

Let’s start with the numbers. According to an online survey conducted by national statistics firm Statista, interest in the WNBA is around 28% for men and just 18% for women. Further segmented, only 9% of men surveyed and just 4% of women considered themselves avid fans.

The WNBA has always focused on appealing to a younger generation, attempting to capture the horde of young hoopers who could look at legendary basketball players like Sue Bird and Tamika Catchings as idols. It’s a smart strategy considering that the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) pipeline, in which young kids are trained for serious basketball (and other sports), is big business. Even in the Philadelphia area, there are well over 100-plus AAU teams, many of them girls-only leagues.

But again, according to 2021 numbers from Statista, the WNBA is the ninth most popular sport among Gen Zers. In terms of live games? The WNBA ranked 13th in a survey of American favorite sports Americans enjoy watching live before the pandemic. That means more young adults would rather watch cars go around an endless circle for two hours (NASCAR, 26%) than watch a women’s professional basketball game.

Which is my next point: Where are they going to play? Anywhere but the Wells Fargo Center right from the jump is an insult. To prove legitimacy, Philadelphia’s WNBA team would have to play in the same big house as the men. Even if marketing minds deployed the “Dawn Staley played here” tactic to make Temple’s Liacouras Center the home of Philly’s WNBA team, that would cheapen the product. Placing it inside the Palestra just isn’t right. Not sure where else you’d do it.

» READ MORE: How Philly native Kahleah Copper became a WNBA All-Star

This year due to the pandemic, the WNBA season ends in September, but a typical season runs July-October, including the playoffs. There’s a window July-August in which the Wells Fargo Center lies dormant, but come September, its slate is packed with concerts, events, and the Flyers preparing to play almost nightly (the NBA regular season for the Sixers typically runs December-April, including the playoffs).

The Wells Fargo Center is a venue, but it’s also a business. For it to remain viable, it’s always going to prioritize dates for the moneymakers. The Wells Fargo Center at full capacity fills over 20,000 seats, and big concert tours like Harry Styles or Blake Shelton — both coming to Wells Fargo this fall — have triple-digit ticket prices and are likely to sell out. The WNBA can’t compare: Its average attendance is barely 7,000 — with ticket prices at about $17.

Come on. The Wells Fargo Center gets more than that in the building for Disney on Ice.

“We haven’t cracked the code on how to make money in women’s basketball,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told the Associated Press in October 2018.

Until they do, Philly won’t be ready for it, no matter how much we like the game.

Kerith Gabriel is a former Daily News sportswriter and currently a digital editor at The Inquirer.

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