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Of course, if you’ve got George Mikan, you can win with anybody. If you don’t, you can lose with anybody. Either way, “anybody” might just as well be a player with a local following. Or so the league reasoned.
How much the territorial draft helped the NBA eventually to prosper is in the eye of the beholder.
Today the Women’s NBA (WNBA) is young and weak and fragile, insecure in its fan appeal and its prospects for the future. But the league has a different idea than the NBA had—its idea is that a strong league makes strong franchises, rather than that strong franchises make a strong league. At one time the league held all of the player contracts, and allocated individual players to the teams “for the good of the league.”
But there is no territorial draft. That, apparently would benefit the mere franchises rather than the league as a whole.
Minnesota’s WNBA franchise, the Minnesota Lynx, arrived on the scene in the league’s third season of 1999.
The franchise history reads as follows: The local WNBA team has survived for six years despite posting a winning record and making the playoffs just twice. Their best record is 18-16 in 2003 and 2004, and their overall winning percentage is .443. And since the novelty of the first year of 1999, the Lynx have never drawn more than about 7,000 fans and change per game, nor ranked above 11th in the league in attendance. If they can survive all of this, then perhaps their future is assured after all.
If, on the other hand, the Lynx ever slink out of town, fans will look back on April 17, 2004, as the day the die was cast. That was the day that the league’s strategy—of putting the good of the league ahead of the goal of strong franchises—was put to the test. That was the day that the only individual player who would ever matter to the Lynx, Gopher superstar Lindsay Whalen, was available in the WNBA draft. The Lynx, sitting on the fifth draft choice, knew that that was not good enough to get Whalen and neither they nor the league could think of a way to make it happen.
And so that was also the day that the Connecticut Sun became Minnesota’s favorite WNBA franchise. Just consider, the largest crowd the Lynx have ever drawn was 14,171 for a game against Orlando on August 20, 1999, as the team fought for a playoff berth in its first year of existence. Since the novelty of that first season wore off, the largest crowd the Lynx have ever drawn was 13, 560 on September 3, 2004, as they again scrambled for a spot in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Sun, with Whalen at point guard, drew 16,227 to the Target Center for a “meaningless,” early-season game on July 14, 2004. Of course, the truth is that whenever Whalen straps on her Nikes, it is the most meaningful of games. And Minnesotans are also sure that had Whalen become a Lynx, it would have been our Minnesota team in the WNBA finals instead of Whalen and the Sun, regardless of what it took to get her into the green and gray.
The Lynx, of course, protested that they would have to give up too much to move up in that fateful draft. Seriously, what would the Lynx’ attendance be these days with Whalen and a .333 winning percentage, versus the reality of no Lindsay and the .471 they have actually posted since she got away? The fact is the Lynx do not even publish their 2005 attendance on their Web site, but if you dig deep you can find out that it dropped by 10 percent over 2004 to an all-time low of 6,670 per game, 12th in the league.
Perhaps a strong league can float all of the boats. Or maybe the NBA had it right, all those years ago. Maybe a league is no better than its franchises. If that’s the case, the WNBA will someday rue the day it made it so very clear to potential (but not quite) fans of its Minnesota franchise that their interests are subservient to a larger purpose.