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The WNBA is having trouble catching on, but men’s pro sports had problems, too

Washington Mystics forward Kahleah Copper, left, rebounds during a 2016 home game in which there are plenty of seats empty. The Women’s National Basketball Association has had problems building its fan base, but men’s pro teams also had low attendance in their early years. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The 23rd Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) season tips off this weekend with games beginning Friday night.

The league has a new logo, new tagline (“Make Way”) and new partnerships with AT&T and the CBS Sports Network, so more WNBA games will be shown on television.

Still, there are problems with the top women’s basketball league. Attendance was down in 2018 — on average, fewer than 7,000 fans attended a WNBA game. And there’s a sense that the women’s game is having trouble catching on with American sports fans.

But lots of professional sports leagues that are a big deal today took a long time to get that way. Let’s look at some sports history and how today’s biggest pro sports leagues were doing around their 23rd seasons.

Major League Baseball: MLB started in 1876, and by the late 1890s had one league — the National League — with 12 teams. (The American League started in 1901.)

Professional baseball, however, was a mess in the 1890s. Teams, led by the Baltimore Orioles, played dirty . . . real dirty. Players spiked other players on purpose. They tripped them or grabbed them by their belts when they were trying to run the bases. Fights among players and even umpires happened almost every game. In those days, a major league ballpark was no place to bring kids.

Some teams, including the Washington Senators and St. Louis Cardinals, had so much trouble attracting fans to home games that they played most of their games at other teams’ parks. In 1899, the Cleveland Spiders (there’s a strange name for a baseball team!) canceled the last two months of home games and played the remaining games on the road.

After 23 seasons, Major League Baseball was not major league.

The National Football League: The NFL, which started in 1920, had a big problem by its 23rd season in 1942. Many of its players — more than 600 — were leaving to join the U.S. armed forces to fight Germany and Japan in World War II.

NFL teams kept playing. With fewer players, teams had to make changes. In 1943, for example, the Pittsburgh Steelers merged with the Philadelphia Eagles. Fans called the combined team the “Steagles.”

The NFL survived World War II but didn’t become the wildly popular sport it is today until many years later.

National Basketball Association: The NBA, originally called the Basketball Association of America, played it first season in 1946-47. The Boston Celtics won their 11th championship in 13 years during the NBA’s 23rd season (1968-69). Despite having some of the greatest players of all time — Bill Russell, Sam Jones and John Havlicek — Boston averaged fewer than 8,000 fans a game during that championship season. The NBA went big-time years later with stars such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

I know those times were different, but it may take a few more years for the WNBA to become more popular. Sports history teaches that.

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