League woos lesbian fans Women's pro basketball enters new territory with targeted ads

January 11, 1998|By DEBBIE WOODELL

LESBIANS aren't stupid. If our shooting guard is wide open at the top of the key and has a chance at a game-winning shot, we don't care whether she's gay or straight.

Just shoooooot it!

But beyond the immediate matter of winning the ball game, lesbians are excited at the sudden abundance of strong women to look up to - some quite literally.

Just about as exciting is the fact that savvy business people in the basketball business are recognizing the importance of including lesbians among their growing legions of fans.

Only the ignorant would claim not to notice the great numbers of lesbians who support female athletics. Just look around, folks. That's us in the stands, cheering, yelling, chatting up stats with you, even sharing the popcorn.

But we're in new territory here, when the Philadelphia Rage and its fellow American Basketball League teams woo us with ads in gay publications.

They want us - from Atlanta, which became the launching pad for hoops mania after the U.S. women won Olympic gold in 1996, to Long Beach, Calif., home of the league's newest team.

"The core audience for women's basketball in today's market has a heavy concentration of lesbian women," Jim Weyermenn, the ABL's Seattle Reign general manager, told Curve, a lesbian magazine.

Frankly, we're not excited about being courted because it helps us promote some lesbian "agenda." No, this is something more simple. It's merely nice to be wanted.

So far, I haven't felt that sense of welcome being extended by the more powerful, more deeply pocketed Women's NBA, whose representatives prefer to speak in such generic terms as "just marketing good basketball."

Nor has such hospitality emerged from the college ranks, where coaches, often unfairly branded as "recruiters" - and not of basketball talent - remain most reticent to acknowledge lesbian fans. Hell, Penn State coach Rene Portland claims she has no lesbians on her team. With that kind of attitude, I'm surprised lesbians would want to spend a thin dime on that team.

And the news media still are way too titillated by the subject. When then-Toronto Raptors exec Isiah Thomas remarks to Newsweek that he's heard "little jokes" about lesbians in the WNBA, but that "we've progressed too far for that," the news magazine obviously begs to differ when it feels compelled to run the quote.

The optimist in me likes to think maybe reporters are afraid of approaching the subject and that if one brave journalist talked with one willing player, everything would just spill out.

I wonder if perhaps the news media engage in a practice Penn communications Professor Larry Gross has called "inning" - deliberately keeping someone "in" the closet, as opposed to forcing someone out.

Yet the realist in me figures that these women still fear they have much to lose by coming out. Despite incredible gains everywhere - when someone comes out, lesbians who play pro basketball know how precarious their situation is and are doing all they can to ensure success. Playing sports is about self-sacrifice - taking one for the team.

That's not really OK with me, but it'll have to be - for now. Most of us who are out know how hard it was to take those first steps. And we'll be there when the first big name in basketball takes that huge first step. (Hint to anyone who's reading: It feels like making a game-winning shot.)

We'll be there for her. Cheering her on.

And, in my case, from my courtside seat.

Debbie Woodell is a columnist and sports copy editor for the Philadelphia Daily News. Write to her at: the Philadelphia Daily News, 400 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19130. This article was distributed by the Knight-Ridder News Service.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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