As the WNBA grows, so does tension between players and media

As the WNBA grows, so does tension between players and media

When the New York Liberty's Courtney Vandersloot sailed a three-pointer wide of the hoop with the clock ticking down, a thrilling Game 4 of the WNBA Finals ended, and the Las Vegas Aces emerged as back-to-back champions.

The series pitted two teams overflowing with stars and was the most-watched Finals in 20 years, the latest data point that more fans are paying attention to women's basketball.

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But for a league that has been clamoring for more coverage since its inception, the game's aftermath hinted at continued growing pains. The famous scenes of athletes celebrating in champagne-soaked locker rooms never emerged because cameras were not allowed to capture them.

A number of reporters and TV outlets requested to speak with some of the Liberty's stars, including Sabrina Ionescu and Jonquel Jones, but the players did not talk to them. The entire Aces team, meanwhile, visited the media room for a news conference but, amid the celebration, didn't answer some questions to offer insight into how they won the game.

"In decades of covering sports, have never seen this happen," Barbara Barker, a columnist at Newsday, posted on social media.

What looked from the outside like a mishandled moment for a league acclimating to a higher profile, though, was a window into a larger dynamic, according to interviews with nearly 20 reporters and officials around the WNBA.

The league, reporters said, often falls short of making itself more accessible to the media, even as its leaders rebuke the media for a lack of coverage, often citing a statistic that women's sports receive less than 5 percent of total sports coverage. Just two years ago, the Phoenix Mercury declined to speak to reporters after losing in the Finals. (The league fined the Mercury $10,000 then; this year the Liberty was fined $25,000 and three players $2,000 for not following the league's media policies.)

"Women's sports is at a tipping point," said Lindsay Schnell, a reporter for USA Today who has covered the WNBA. "People are watching. They want stories behind the scenes and information about the players. Shouldn't the oldest professional women's league be leading the charge? Instead, they're the worst."

The league declined to make Commissioner Cathy Engelbert available but said it received few complaints this season about access to players. WNBA spokesman Ron Howard said in a statement that the league would implement mandated media training for players and would issue more significant fines for players who do not follow protocols.

Terri Jackson, president of the Women's National Basketball Players Association, pushed back against any assertion that players did not prioritize speaking to reporters.

"Our players are the most accessible professional athletes out there," she said. "They stop and talk to anyone and everyone, almost to their detriment. They don't turn down interviews. We're looking for established, credible outlets and writers to be in and around this space to help grow this game."

In an interview, union president Nneka Ogwumike, who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, said she welcomed more media coverage but that players still were growing accustomed to increased visibility.

"There have been times as women athletes where there's this idea that our accessibility is taken for granted," she said. "But you know you have a responsibility. It's part of our job, and I think at times you have to square what that means, as a professional and a woman."

Questions over access have been increasingly common across men's and women's sports in recent years as news outlets contract and social media allows athletes more ways to reach fans directly. But reporters around the league said the WNBA was unique because it is asking for more coverage but then shutting down reporters trying to fill that gap.

The league closed locker rooms to reporters last season, which meant reporters must rely on PR staffs to facilitate interactions, including one-on-one conversations. Several reporters also said they have been told by teams that they are bad for women's basketball if they write something a team doesn't like. Over the years, reporters said they have repeatedly raised the issue of improving media relations to the league office.

Subria Whitaker, who has covered the Chicago Sky and also worked with WNBA players on their personal media strategies, suggested there was a lack of understanding between both players and reporters on the primary function of the media.

"Players are unclear on the jobs of media," she said. "Because of the general distrust of media and the biases we've seen, players tend to gravitate toward media members who have spoken about them more positively, and that's not fair."

That includes how to respond to critical coverage. After the Chicago Sun-Times published a story this year that questioned whether a struggling Chicago Sky team would make the playoffs, a player confronted the reporter during a postgame news conference and asked: "Are you with us or against us?"

"I hear from everyone in town - Bears, Blackhawks, all the teams - about our coverage, but I've never had reporters be targeted like the Sky reporters have been," Sun-Times sports editor Chris De Luca said.

Adam Fox, president of the Chicago Sky, said he couldn't imagine the Sky being more difficult than any other team, adding that the team hired a new coach and general manager and would be prioritizing media training with players under the new regime. "We should be treated like any other league should be treated," he said. "Pros, cons, everything that goes into it."

The WNBA, launched in 1997, came of age as local newspapers started to struggle financially, and has long scratched and clawed for coverage. Today, the league says there are just two outlets that regularly travel with teams, The Washington Post and the Sun-Times. Four years ago, the Athletic announced a big expansion of its WNBA coverage, hiring freelancers to cover each beat, but has since canceled the project.

Players have their own grievances, beyond the historic lack of coverage. Reporters show up for moments when the league transcends sports, Jackson said, such as when Brittney Griner returned home from detention in Russia, but not for their games. And media that are credentialed and cover teams regularly are part-time journalists or writing for fan websites, one of the main reasons players pushed to close their locker rooms ahead of this season. Further, a 2020 study at the University of Massachusetts found that White WNBA players received disproportionately more coverage than Black players.

Ogwumike said she has done interviews in which reporters repeatedly mispronounced her name and that players have been frustrated by the monotony of coverage, with the same handful of players getting so much of it. She said she engaged more with reporters outside of the closed locker room, too.

"Press conferences didn't feel as obligatory as someone hovering over my locker," she said. "I felt like I could be in a better space and have a better conversation."

Another factor, reporters said, is that team PR staffs are often less experienced than other leagues and suffer from high turnover rates. Those staffers are often doing multiple jobs for a team, in addition to coordinating player interviews.

Nancy Armour, a columnist at USA Today, put some of the blame on the NBA, which launched the league and owns 50 percent of it.

"Nobody in the NBA cares about the WNBA," she said. "When you have this dismissive attitude, it spills into other areas." A former league staffer agreed, pointing out that the WNBA has three league office PR people, compared with around 40 globally for the NBA. (The NBA sent a statement that lauded the league's support of the women's game but didn't address Armour's criticism.)

Multiple people involved in coverage of the league said media outlets played a role, too, noting that most reporters are White and the vast majority of players are people of color. Demographics across sports media skew heavily white and male - more than 80 percent for both groups. One WNBA reporter said that many of the national reporters for the league, though, are women and that demographics don't stop other players in other leagues from engaging with the media.

Reporters said there is often something personal about the job in a way covering another league isn't, making the conflict sting even more. They are covering women's basketball because they, too, believe women's sports have been undervalued and under-covered. "I've been doing this for 40 years," ESPN's Michael Voepel said. "I want women's sports to grow."

They said players are being done a disservice by those around them when reporters try to write stories that pull back the curtain but struggle to get buy-in.

Agents play a role, too. Seven reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid losing more access, said Lindsay Kagawa Colas, who has represented some of the league's biggest stars in the league, can limit access or not respond to requests for her clients. (Reporters said that they could have similar problems with other agents, too.)

Colas arranged the interview with Ogwumike for this story. Her clients have recently appeared in stories in the Athletic, Sports Illustrated, Time, People and ESPN.

"My clients expect, and for decades we have provided, elite and intentional strategy and services, and we seek the same level of storytelling and visibility for our women," Colas said in a statement. "Assumptions about how I should operate, and the access our clients grant, are often rooted in a powerful double standard when compared to the men as a woman agent representing women."

Whitaker said the players association could do more. "There is education that can be provided," she said. "There should be a mediation between players and media members, but I don't know who would facilitate that."

A dialogue was something Jackson said she would welcome, too.

"I'm disappointed if it looks like the players are to blame for this," she said. "I know our members have been good partners in this. If there are conversations to be had or suggestions that people want to make, I think they should share those suggestions with us and with team staff and league staff."

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