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Sun fans being left in dark

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published June 12. 2013 4:00AM

A friend who works for the Connecticut Sun calls the WNBA a "secret society." Translation: The league's levels of competition, entertainment and accessibility grow in direct proportion to your willingness to give it a try.

And say this much for the longest running women's professional sports league in the history of the world: It has earned a straight 'A' thus far this season in keeping itself a secret.

No, really. DirecTV subscribers have been unable to watch games that haven't been televised nationally (ESPN or ABC), despite the appreciable number of games offered via franchises' local television deals. Note to the W: You'll fix this forthwith if you are honestly trying to cultivate a wider fan base.

Repeated e-mails and phone calls to the league and DirecTV have produced industrial strength vats of exasperation.

This foray began with an e-mail from DirecTV subscriber and Sun fan Steve Levin, a resident of Simsbury, who makes the hour-plus drive to Mohegan Sun for all Sun home games. Levin was home one night earlier this month and wanted to watch the Sun play at Minnesota.

CPTV Sports, the network that broadcasts the Sun locally, is not offered on DirecTV. Hence, Levin flipped to Fox Sports Northwest, a channel to which he subscribes with the sports package, only to find the game blacked out.

"I could not attend the game or watch it on another channel," Levin wrote. "I would like to know why I can't watch these road games that would be otherwise available to me on my satellite subscription. This is the second year it's happened. It happened throughout the 2012 season."

Spokespersons for DirecTV, all of whom sound as though they are reading from a script, say DirecTV follows the blackout parameters established by the league.

WNBA spokesman Ron Howard spoke to league officials and wrote in an e-mail, "local broadcast rights are for the team's territory, not national."

Hence, it would be at the discretion of the Sun and CPTV Sports to either impose or lift local blackout rights. Bob Yalen, who runs CPTV Sports, said he sent a letter to the WNBA before the season began lifting blackout rights in Connecticut because he knows it wouldn't be fair to Sun fans. Yalen is aware that CPTV Sports has a place on all the state's cable systems (and ATT U-Verse shortly) but isn't yet offered on DirecTV or Dish Network.

To recap: The Sun and CPTV Sports have lifted blackout restrictions and still, a man home on a Saturday night in Simsbury cannot watch his team play a game in Minneapolis.

Poor Steve. A more cynical fellow would suggest that, well, he's just a customer.

Turns out it's not just Joe Average Customer that's vexed. Mystics coach Mike Thibault has spoken to the league office on the matter. Thibault hasn't been able to record a single game on DirecTV for scouting purposes this season because of blackout restrictions. Except that greater Washington, DC crosses into no other WNBA market, thus making blackout rules irrelevant.

Or not.

The WNBA offers "Live Access," an ability to watch all games on the computer (when it's actually working). But as Levin writes, "I didn't want to watch the game on an IPad or computer when I have a 60-inch TV."

I have no idea who is at fault. But I've tried to negotiate arcane television blackout rules before. Let me just say that I'd rather sit next to Curt Schilling on a transatlantic flight.

Example: I am a DirecTV subscriber in East Lyme. Someone in the NBA or at DirecTV decided a few years ago that the Nets should be our "home" team on YES, thus blacking out the Knicks (MSG) and Celtics (Comcast).

I have lived in this corner of the world for 20 years. I can say without a hint of hyperbole that I have never, ever, ever, never, never encountered one fan of the Nets around here. It's three-quarters Celtics. And yet someone designated the Nets our team. Frankly, I'd have a better time finding Hoffa's remains than finding that certain someone who made this decision.

So it surprises me not an iota that WNBA fans can't get answers either.

Sad. The WNBA has been a lot of fun here, now into our 11th summer. Good things are happening. Brittney Griner's debut on Memorial Day drew 455,000 viewers on ESPN2, according to Sports Media Watch, a web site that tracks television ratings. It was the most-viewed WNBA regular-season game since Diana Taurasi's debut in 2004.

"Overall, ESPN2 averaged 366,000 viewers for the Memorial Day doubleheader," the Web site reported. "To put the numbers in perspective, ESPN2 earned 221,000 viewers for its Major League Soccer season opener in March and NBC Sports Network drew 388,000 for its first IndyCar race of the season the same month."

The WNBA should be encouraged.

More people are watching.

So, you know, could we figure out a way to let more people watch?

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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