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Can Breanna Stewart transform the WNBA?

Can Breanna Stewart transform the WNBA?

BREANNA STEWART HAS spent the past several hours in stiletto heels, and her hair has been teased so many times that it must be self-conscious. So it’s a relief when her day ends, finally, at an after-hours dinner at Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain, just outside the melodic jangle of the Mohegan Sun casino floor. Stewart’s parents have spent much of this April night waiting for the photo shoots to end. They woke early this morning and drove 300 miles from upstate New York to Uncasville, Connecticut, to see her get drafted into the WNBA, and somewhere around 10 p.m., after scanning the steak tartare and duck confit on the menu, they settle in to exhale.

For a family that temporarily kept her awards on the floor of the basement this spring so the dog wouldn’t gnaw on them, all this rock-star attention has taken them aback. Stewie, who used to put her head down and say “Ummm” during interviews, had a handler whisking her around earlier in the evening. Meanwhile, a crowd lined up outside the arena hours before the draft, all to watch the inevitable: Stewart holding up a jersey from the Seattle Storm, the team that drew the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery seven months earlier.

The night is big, and the Stewarts know it. Her dad, Brian, who normally wears shorts regardless of the temperature, has thrown on a pair of slacks. Just before the show started, UConn coach Geno Auriemma took a seat next to Breanna at a round orange table. Auriemma insisted on being here, even though he had been so ill that he had to skip the national championship parade a few days earlier in Hartford. (By the end of the week, he’ll be hospitalized for three days with flulike symptoms.) When Stewart’s name was called, he embraced her, germs be damned, and whispered, “Does it feel good? Do you deserve it?”

“Yes,” she answered.

Auriemma is long gone by the time Stewart arrives at Bobby Flay’s, and she takes a seat near her soon-to-be agent. Before she can catch up with her family, Stewart learns that Good Morning America wants her in New York by 6 a.m. It’s a 2½-hour drive, and she’s got to go. She asks her dad for a credit card so she can get a hotel room and dashes out the door.

For one night, Breanna Stewart is the toast of the sports world. And if history is any indicator, it is all downhill from here.

IN THE WNBA’S perfect world, this dizzying night would go on, and Stewart would become the face of the league, carry it to new heights and tap demographics that have gone untouched for two decades.

But that’s not how it’s gone for any of the No. 1 picks who have come before her, from Tina Thompson to Candace Parker to Diana Taurasi. On the court, they have lived up to the hype, winning MVPs and championships. But none of it has provided enough traction to give the league a significant boost in attendance, revenue or TV ratings.

“In the NBA, the draft is about hope for a franchise,” says Lon Babby, a senior adviser for the Phoenix Suns. “In the WNBA, it’s not just about whether the pick is going to make the Mercury or Seattle or the Silver Stars better. It’s also about whether this player is going to make the league better. Because the league is constantly fighting this challenge to succeed and endure. They’re always fighting the perception that the quality of play is not worthy, and in the early days, maybe that was valid. But it sure isn’t valid now. The play is extraordinary now.”

Interest, however, is not. The 2015 season saw a record low for attendance — the league averaged 7,318 fans per game — and TV viewership dipped. In September, NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted that the WNBA isn’t as popular as he thought it would be. From afar, Val Ackerman, who was WNBA president from 1996 to 2005, still hopefully watches the league she helped start. She’s “befuddled” by a landscape that fixated on women’s soccer during a World Cup run last summer but barely notices that the U.S. women’s basketball team is going for its sixth straight gold in this year’s Olympics.

These are issues that new WNBA president Lisa Borders will tackle in 2016, and she’ll look for opportunities almost anywhere. But she held off on putting Stewie on a pedestal. Borders scoffs at the notion that any 21-year-old could be the league’s greatest hope.

“We feel that we have bright, shining stars,” Borders says. “But that doesn’t mean they’re the silver bullet to correct anything or enhance or amplify what we have happening. That’s just not rational. That’s like saying one person who comes in as the CEO will completely turn a company around. Nobody says that outside of sports. We know better.”

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