With star support from Rosie O'Donnell and Tyra Banks and high ratings, women's basketball is the hottest game around

By Kristen Baldwin
Updated September 05, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

A couple of years ago, Saturday Night Live ran a wickedly biting sketch in which Kevin Nealon and Paul Reiser played a pair of disaffected CBS sports announcers relegated to broadcasting women’s basketball. ”We’re glued to a triple-overtime, 16-15 nail-biter victory by the Lady Red Raiders of Wellesley,” Nealon recited with sarcastic enthusiasm.

Two years later, no one is making fun of such hoop dreams. In fact, women’s basketball — specifically, the new Women’s National Basketball Association — is the sport of the moment. That’s because in its first year, the WNBA has become not only a successful start-up — a rarity in pro sports these days — but also a pop-cultural phenomenon. Turn on The Rosie O’Donnell Show — there are three New York Liberty players introducing the program. Flip channels to a McDonald’s commercial — there’s the Liberty’s Teresa Weatherspoon dunking McNuggets. And you want to talk street cred? Those bizarrely comic Nike spots featuring an obsessed WNBA fan communing with cardboard cutouts were directed by none other than indie auteur Steve Buscemi.

Now, as the league’s successful inaugural season comes to a close (the first championship game takes place Aug. 30), it’s time to step back and evaluate: Just what exactly is the WNBA? The WNBA is the new star scene. The NBA has always measured its relative hipness by the number of famous faces courtside. By that same standard, the WNBA is rapidly following in its big brother’s star-studded footsteps. Arsenio Hall, Penny Marshall, Billy Baldwin, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, and Gregory Hines have all been spotted at games this year. Many celebs have already developed fierce rooting interests, including New York Liberty regulars Jimmy Smits and Rosie O’Donnell. ”I’ve only missed two games,” boasts O’Donnell, who also admits to being a rabid fan of Houston Comets forward Sheryl Swoopes. ”She had a baby,” O’Donnell says with awe, ”and six weeks later was back on the court looking fierce!”

The star power has given the fledgling league an immediate coolness quotient — a factor carefully cultivated by the famously savvy NBA marketing team. (Unlike the other women’s league — the lower-profile ABL, which debuted last fall — the WNBA is owned and run by the NBA.) ”It is certainly in our best interest that [stars] are attending,” says WNBA president Val Ackerman. ”It makes the general public want to see what all the fuss is about.”

The WNBA is a TV phenomenon. When was the last time a new sport received coverage from not one, not two, but three major networks? The WNBA scored the broadcast equivalent of a three-pointer when it received backing from ESPN, NBC, and Lifetime (yes, Lifetime). Lured by the promise of young female viewers — a valuable demographic — the networks partnered to air games on Fridays (Lifetime), weekdays (ESPN), and weekends (NBC). ”It’s probably the biggest thing to happen for women in a decade,” says Lifetime CEO Doug McCormick. ”It’s something we had to be a part of.”