The WNBA grows up

August 6, 2008, 9:00 PM UTC

“You’ve come a long way, baby.”

That was one of many heartfelt messages that Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America, shared with the WNBA and its guests last week at in San Francisco. The WNBA’s Inspiring Women luncheon was held to honor Roberts and send the U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Team off to Beijing.

Roberts was talking primarily about the growth of the women’s pro basketball league. Game attendance and television ratings are up. Companies like Pitney Bowes , Kia , and Dineequity , which owns IHOP, have joined Discover Financial Services and Southwest Airlines as sponsors. The league recently signed a new contract with ABC and ESPN2. And seven of the WNBA’s 14 teams have asserted their independence from their parent, the NBA — another sign of the 12-year-old league’s maturation.

But coming a long way also has to do with the WNBA’s scoring on diversity. Last week the league received the first-ever A-plus rating from the Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sport. The WNBA tops the Institute’s annual diversity report card in part because it has three women-owned teams: the Los Angeles Sparks, the Washington Mystics and the Seattle Storm. Lisa Brummel, senior vice president of human resources at Microsoft , has an ownership stake in the Storm. Says Kathy Goodman, who owns the Sparks with Los Angeles attorney Carla Christofferson: “Boys are exposed all the time to role models. Girls don’t have as wide a spectrum to choose from. It’s a lot easier to be what you see, so we want to make sure these women get as much exposure as possible.”

The WNBA is now old enough that some of its best players grew up with female basketball role models. Sparks superstar Candace Parker, last year’s No. 1 draft pick, told me, “I was 10 when the WNBA was founded. I feel so lucky to have had women athletes to look up to.”

In a strange way, even last month’s on-court brawl between the Sparks and the Detroit Shock points to the WNBA’s evolution. The tussle, which started with an encounter between LA’s Parker and Detroit’s Plenette Pierson and led to 10 player suspensions, garnered more media attention for the league than any event in its history. Not that the WNBA would seek the NBA’s notorious reputation. But as Seattle’s Sue Bird, in her seventh WNBA season, notes, the melee and media around it established the WNBA firmly in the echelon of professional sports. “It’s just part of sports, it’s an emotional — well, not emotional — but it’s intense,” Bird told me. “Fighting is not just a guy thing. This is a physical sport and you want to win.”

So yes, the WNBA has come a long way. But there was one sign last week that the league — and maybe women in general — still have a ways to go. At the start of the lunch, WNBA president Donna Orender asked current and former league players to stand and be recognized. Even with their vast accomplishments, most of the women hesitated to rise and accept the applause. Seems to me, they still don’t quite believe in their own achievement. – Jessica Shambora