After taking the women’s college basketball world by storm over the course of four dominant years at Baylor, Brittney Griner has tried to embrace her status as the new face of the WNBA, a league beginning its 17th season on the heels of a 2012 campaign that saw attendance hit record lows. She just never expected it to be such a grind.
Not only must Griner suit up for the Phoenix Mercury, but she also is carrying the league mantle off the court, with interviews and promotional appearances across the country. No matter the venue, she is supposed to deliver.
“I think I’ve been on just about every news [outlet] there is. It was a lot, actually,” Griner said this week during her latest national teleconference with reporters. “At night, I would just be beat, bum tired. Just like, ‘Whoa,’ like I needed to step back for a bit.”
Billed by the WNBA as one of the “Three to See,” along with fellow rookies Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins, the 6-foot-8 center with an 88-inch wingspan will make her first appearance in Washington on Thursday night, when the Mercury visits the Washington Mystics at Verizon Center.
Griner, the first pick in April’s WNBA draft, made league history by dunking twice in her first professional game last month, a debut that garnered the highest ratings in nine years for a regular season game on ESPN2. But the effect that her notoriety will have on the long-term fortunes of the league remains up for debate.
“I call it nuttiness because we don’t see women’s basketball in the news and we’re hearing about this on music blogs, on culture blogs. You will see clips of Brittney Griner dunking on every ‘SportsCenter,’ ” said Mark Zablow, the CEO of Cogent Entertainment, a New York-based marketing company.
“But I hate to say it this way: It’s bigger than Brittney. While she’s a role model and breaks the mold . . . unfortunately it’s likely the WNBA will hurt her ability to be impactful, not only as a marketer but her brand beyond basketball.”
The WNBA has made certain Griner was front and center for months, immediately anointing her the centerpiece of a marketing strategy focused on “the importance of telling the stories” behind the league’s players, WNBA President Laurel Richie said last week. “I feel like every time I open a newspaper, I learn of a new hobby or a new habit of hers.”
Griner’s revelations have run the gamut between commonplace and controversial, from her pet snakes and tattoo-filled arms to suppressing her homosexuality at Baylor and the childhood bullying that drove her to consider suicide as a teenager. She recently became the first openly gay athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Nike, and the landmark contract will allow her to model men’s clothing.
Richie is convinced that Griner, as well as Delle Donne and Diggins, can have the same transformative impact on the WNBA that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had when they entered the NBA together nearly 35 years ago.
“In 20 years, we’re gonna look back at 2013 as a really significant period in the history of the WNBA,” Richie said.
The early returns have been encouraging, with metrics such as Web traffic, sponsorship and television viewership on the uptick across the league.
Attendance at Phoenix Mercury home games is up by 32.3 percent thus far, surpassing the levels seen after the franchise won the WNBA title in 2009. According to team president Amber Cox, the Mercury has sold more tickets through one month of the regular season than it did all of last year.
The presence of Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins — and the considerable attention they accumulated during illustrious college careers — also helped persuade ESPN in March to extend its contract with the WNBA through 2022 for $12 million annually. The network televised the league’s draft lottery for the first time last fall and moved the 2013 draft into prime time in April.
But skeptics remain, especially because six of the WNBA’s 12 teams saw attendance drop by double-digit percentages last year. Griner’s recent appearances in Minnesota, Indiana and Tulsa had a negligible impact on attendance, and the Mystics are not expecting a larger-than-average crowd Thursday night at Verizon Center.
“These players have to deliver now. They’ve got the public eye, the spotlight is on them, and now they just have to step up and perform,” former WNBA president Val Ackerman said. “If they turn out to be ordinary players, then this kind of fanfare won’t last.
“In the end, it’s about the stars. These were college stars. The question is will they be pro stars.”
Griner’s acclimation to the WNBA has featured some obstacles, including a sore knee that limited her playing time early this season. She was averaging 15.3 points, six rebounds and 2.9 blocks in seven games entering Tuesday night’s game in San Antonio.
Since the season began, the Mercury (4-4 entering Tuesday) has also scaled back her obligations and turned its promotional focus more toward veteran guard Diana Taurasi — a five-time WNBA all-star — and the rest of Griner’s teammates. Though there is a 75-foot banner of Griner hanging over the recently renamed Griner Street outside U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, Cox was quick to point out, “This is Diana’s team.”
That seems to suit Griner just fine. With her “media circus” over, she can admit that saving the WNBA was never really in her plans.
“I think I can help add on to the game, just bring maybe a different element playing above the rim. The dunking that I do and the blocked shots that I get, it brings excitement,” Griner said. “I don’t look at it as me changing the game or changing the league, but adding on excitement.”