Cheryl Reeve has been around the WNBA for a long time. Throughout her 15-plus years coaching in the league, she’s witnessed the evolution of professional women’s basketball firsthand from its early beginnings to Saturday night’s 130-121 victory of the West, coached by Reeve, over the East in the WNBA All-Star Game. As the fiery head coach of the Minnesota Lynx and one of the most successful and outspoken coaches in the game, Reeve has a lot to say about the WNBA’s early days, where the league is at now, the need for more consistent media coverage, and how she handles a conversation with the average naysayer who says, “women’s basketball is boring.”
Deadspin: You were an assistant coach in the WNBA for seven years and head coach for the Lynx since 2009. What was it like in the early days of the league as far as the naysayers go, what you had to put up with, the quality of basketball, and the overall lack of support—monetary or otherwise?
Reeve: During my early days coaching in the WNBA—2001 through roughly 2005—because of the naysayers, I spent each offseason concerned about the uncertainty of whether there would be a next season for our league. During that time, the naysayers were not only those who disparaged women in sports in general but some of the franchises themselves. Back in 2001, every team in the league had a brother franchise, an NBA counterpart. Many teams did not receive overall support from its own franchise, including the one I worked for in Charlotte. The folks running the NBA team viewed the WNBA team as second, heck, even third-class citizens. In Charlotte, the Hornets brass did not want the Sting in the building when they were there. Resources provided for the Sting operation were minimal, meaning minimal sales and other support staff, salaries, etc.
On top of this internal climate, we had to deal with slow-to-change, basic societal norms, which meant women playing professional basketball was a challenge to sell.
Through it all, the league was highly competitive, with many great players who are now legends of our game. Dawn Staley, Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson, Teresa Weatherspoon, Rebecca Lobo, Ticha Penicheiro—they were the talent that launched the WNBA. In Houston, New York, Phoenix, and Washington the fans turned out in droves. The players in those cities were of “movie star” status. And this group of stars worked tirelessly to help the WNBA gain its footing on the professional sports landscape.
How have things improved for coaches and players overall?
Fast forward to 2017, and I no longer worry about our league not making it. The narrative now is about ESPN’s long-term partnership, jersey sponsorships, and a game that is thriving and growing. With the league being around for 20-plus years, we are seeing the evolution of the WNBA athlete—bigger, faster, stronger. Players still work tirelessly to promote the league. They still fight for media coverage that reflects the interest in the game. They still long to be recognized for the tremendous athletes they are. Coaches are seeing more resources come back into the game compared to my early years in the WNBA. Staffs are growing, salaries are improving, while travel is the same.
For players, their voice in the game has grown. I’d say the overall climate for each team has improved both internally and externally. I believe the WNBA has benefitted from the wave of social justice we see occurring in the world today. Social media has allowed people to “say something if they see something” thereby, in general, making people more mindful of their actions. Overall as a society we are doing better. Yes, the WNBA remains subjected to racism and sexism, however, I’ve watched the demographics of the WNBA fan evolve to include a diverse base that not only includes “diehard women’s basketball fans,” but also families, the 30-year-old SportsCenter viewer, CEO’s of companies, and group outings. In other words, it’s more mainstream.
Part of the knock on the lack of viewership regarding the WNBA today is the lack of televised games during the season, especially marquee matchups. What can the league do to help increase viewership?
Every league is defined by its ability to garner the “television deal” that makes them relevant. The WNBA is in the midst of some of its most healthy financial times because of its partnership with ESPN. However, the WNBA is still carving out its place on the programming landscape. We all know that to truly grow the game to the level we know it can achieve, we have to have eyes on the product. In the digital world in which we live today, there are a multitude of ways we can get eyes on the game. Viewing a sporting event is no longer just about sitting in front of a television. Our league can place more resources in this area to capitalize on this growth opportunity.
As for marquee matchups, ESPN mostly drives the games that are televised. For ESPN, it’s about ratings—sometimes a rivalry, sometimes a personality they know will draw viewership. They study these things and air those games that they think will bring the most eyes to the program.
You’re currently (I think) the longest tenured coach in the WNBA, and the winningest coach in league history. How do you keep the Lynx at the top of their game year in and year out?
Mike Thibault is the winningest coach in the league, but I might be the longest tenured coach.
In a nutshell, the Lynx have had sustained success because we have a group of players who were in their prime in 2011 and they are selfless, highly-competitive, and never believe they’re done growing. They always want more, to do better.
Minnesota is one of the cities that wholeheartedly supports its WNBA team. What is it about the community that differs from other cities whose WNBA team doesn’t get the same support?
I can’t speak to other communities as I am not in the trenches in those places that have struggled to gain footing, but I can tell you that from day one, Lindsay Whalen told me Minnesota supports a winner. She said, “Coach if we win, they’ll support us.” Boy, was she right! We also have a talented business staff that has capitalized on the rise in popularity of our team. Lastly, and most importantly, we have a successful franchise on and off the court because our owner, who also owns an NBA and D-League team, believes in us and truly advocates for us.
There’s been an uptick in transfers among women’s college basketball players over the past few years, and many college coaches have had to adjust their coaching style. Have you noticed a difference in players when they get to the WNBA level now?
In Minnesota with the Lynx I have not noticed a difference in players coming into the league today. However, I’m sure that others have. It’s a trend for kids growing up—loyalty, longevity, commitment, communication—these are all getting harder to achieve with young people in my view because of technology. Their attention span has been affected. Coaches have to find creative ways to deliver their messages in 140 characters or less.
The anniversary of Title IX recently passed, but there are fewer female coaches in sports now than ever before—especially women’s basketball. What are your thoughts on that and what can we do to address it?
It’s all about opportunity. Sports are a microcosm of society. With the increased financial commitment to women’s sports as a result of Title IX, more and more athletic directors, nearly 90 percent of which are men, are injecting themselves into the hiring process. Just like in every other employment sector, those who do the hiring trend toward hiring those that look like them. I think it’s time for drastic measures like implementing a version of the “Rooney Rule” in athletics—and not just women’s athletics—to ensure opportunities for women and people of color.
What’s your favorite thing about coaching women’s basketball?
The willingness of the players to listen and grow, and the resiliency of players to drive on despite facing daily biases that suggest they are “less than.”
You, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson have established a bit of a dynasty with four future hall of fame players and one future hall of fame Coach. Does that ever make you step back for a moment and say, “Wow, I’ve got one hell of a team?”
No. I wonder how we can win the next game.
You’ve always been up front and outspoken. Why do you think media coverage of the WNBA has been so lackluster? What needs to change? What can the league do to get people talking about the WNBA on a regular basis?
Society needs to change. How we view women needs to change. Men advocating for women is one of the most powerful ways to advance women in the media, women in business, women in sport, and women in society. To this end, Adam Silver has a large role in the WNBA reaching its potential.
Lastly, what do you do/say when you run into to that person—the one who says women’s basketball is boring, that women aren’t as talented, and that he/she only watches men’s sports?
I try to engage in conversation and educate the person; I try to understand where his/her views are based and make it a goal to get that person to open their mind. Then I offer them my tickets to the next game. Works every time.