The din inside MCI Center is resounding, but different from the roar of the crowd at a Wizards game or the loud thunder after a Capitals goal. It's the screams of 16,000 camp kids last Tuesday watching the Washington Mystics, just off a 3-2 road trip, hosting the Houston Comets and Sheryl Swoopes.
When the league began play in 1997, Swoopes was one of the marquee players the WNBA hoped would bring significant crowds to vacant NBA arenas in the summertime, create an impact on television and increase interest in the game among women.
And while Swoopes and a number of other stars have done their part, the WNBA now finds itself in a bit of a rut -- its novelty fading, struggling for space in newspapers, scratching for the slightest TV ratings and seeking corporate sponsors that for the most part prefer newer advertising vehicles (i.e., Michelle Wie).
Swoopes, who helped her team win four WNBA championships and has been the league's MVP twice and defensive player of the year three times, has a career scoring average of better than 16 points a game. After Swoopes scored 17 points to help the Comets defeat the Mystics, she was reflective in discussing the state of her league.
"We're in our ninth season and I'm very frustrated today from where we were five years ago," she said. "The league hasn't grown the way we've hoped. Talent-wise, the league has gotten better and we know we're providing good family entertainment. But we're not noticed very much on the national sports scene and corporate sponsorships are hard to grow."
Franchise shifts and a lack of acceptance by many in the guy-dominated sports media establishment, particularly in the sports-talk radio world, have made it tougher for the WNBA. A league official said this week that the average WNBA crowd the past few years numbers between 8,000 and 9,000 compared to the first two seasons, when the league average hit almost 10,000 a game. The Mystics are drawing an average of more than 11,000, they report, down about 1,400 from last year and nearly 5,000 from its high in 2002.
Donna Orender, who took over as president of the WNBA this year from Val Ackerman, challenges Swoopes's observations, noting: "If anything, the league has more momentum than we've ever had. Our attendance is flat, but we've generated at least 10 new sponsorships in each of our markets and we're holding our own with regards to television. At the end of the day, we will have drawn more than two million fans." Added Mystics Coach Richie Adubato, "The key to growth is getting more games on television."
Demographic charts and ratings points notwithstanding, a day in the arena watching Swoopes and friends duel Alana Beard and dynamo rookie point guard Temeka Johnson -- with the Powerhouse Tumblers, the trampoline dunk team, entertaining at halftime -- is good fun. Johnson, who went to LSU and grew up in New Orleans with WNBA players as role models, said, "Everyone in the WNBA is here for a reason -- they're all good. This is what I love to do."
Reasons for Optimism
The Redskins gather at Redskins Park today, a day before the start of training camp, with Joe Gibbs starting his second season back at the helm facing more questions and pessimism than last year, when optimism and good cheer were rampant.
Preseason prognosticators generally have dissed the Redskins -- with good reasons -- leaving the more positive Gibbs-backers to look hard for good stuff. Such as:
Patrick Ramsey will come into his own at QB.
Sean Taylor will see the error of his ways.
Tackle Jon Jansen's return will improve Joe Bugel's offensive line.
LaVar will find health and happiness -- with his knee and the missing $6.5 million.
Walt Harris or Carlos Rogers will be an able replacement for Fred Smoot.
Clinton Portis will get his space to run.
Chris Cooley will have more passes thrown his way.
Santana Moss will be more productive and less moody than Laveranues Coles.
Gregg Williams will patch together another top defense.
Metro service to FedEx (Morgan Blvd. station) will improve life.
Thursday night FedEx Field hosted football of a different color: Chelsea FC, champion of the English Premier League, owned by Russian mogul Roman Abramovich, who has Steinbrenner-like tendencies and a $200 million payroll, was in Landover to play MLS champion D.C. United with its $2.2 million payroll.
The crowd of 31,473, which would have been larger had the game been played at RFK Stadium, was at a high pitch an hour before the game. A section of blue-clad Chelsea supporters from England began their chants 45 minutes before the game while on the concourse, United fans mixed easily with Chelsea fans who had traveled far.
"I got hooked on this team [Chelsea] in 1999 when I got to see them play in London in 1998," said David Bone, who flew to Washington from Nashville with his 9-year-old son, Nathaniel. "I want to see Freddy Adu score," Nathaniel said. Joe Keough, of Severna Park, said soccer in Europe is played at a level comparable to baseball in this country. "They eat, drink and sleep it," he said.
Kerry Dixon, 44, played for Chelsea from 1983 to '92, scoring 147 goals in 331 games. He now holds a Jurgy-type role, doing commentary for England's Big Blue Radio. "This team winning the championship for the first time in 50 years was massive," he said.
Bobby Boswell of United and Damien Duff each scored in the first half before Hernan Crespo recorded the game-winner for Chelsea in the 56th minute, offsetting Dixon's analysis at halftime: "United has been the better side." Still, one half of superiority in the eyes of a London pundit is progress; Adu played in the second half: and most everyone went home happy.
Touching the Bases
* The Nationals' recent collapse at the plate and on the field overshadows the big picture of a hustling team that has played much better than anyone expected in front of large, appreciative crowds. This, despite a home stadium not equipped to handle big crowds on a daily basis, without an owner, restricted by a payroll capped at about $50 million and a major disaster from the outset in getting games on TV to the most people. Suggestion to fans and the manager: Take a deep breath and enjoy.
* The Wizards made a mistake allowing Juan Dixon to leave for Portland, despite their rationalizations. Logic aside, the fans really liked Dixon and so did I.
Have a question or comment, reach me at Talkback@washpost.com