By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

It is four hours before a Women's National Basketball Association game between the Washington Mystics and the Los Angeles Sparks. There, a somewhat solemn, somewhat static occasion is taking place as USA Basketball is announcing the formative pool of players who will be making up the 2000 Olympic basketball team that will be playing in Sydney.

The weekend is chosen because four of the 10 members of the team play for Washington and Los Angeles. While large video cameras are set up for interviews, and are taken to various points inside the National Sports Gallery for interviews with the players and head coach Nell Fortner, a young man with an "Inside Stuff" polo shirt is waving a hand-held video camera, taking pictures of the press conference from low angles, high angles, even while he was in motion.

Later, inside the MCI Center, scattered players from both teams are taking jump shots and working on their skills before a game, feeling for dead spots or checking out the characteristics of the floor. The maple is solid, but there are slightly different characteristics on those spots where the large decals cover over any trace of the words "Washington Wizards."

A few bystanders and one trainer are sitting on the padded press table on one side, facing the bays where the television cameras sit. The press table not only serves as a place for media, the PA announcer, and scoreboard operator, but it also hosts the big paper rotating advertising signs for those who have the clout and money to have their logos plastered courtside.

While all of this is going on, the purple-shirted ushers are briefed by their blue-blazered bosses. All around the arena, white-shirted Mystics interns are taping names of '70s television shows to the front walls of sections around the inside of the arena.

A couple of the interns are blowing up a pair of balloons some 20 feet in diameter. Elsewhere in the arena, one female intern is wearing a sea-foam green polyester leisure suit and a shaggy black wig.

The WNBA has been called "the most well-marketed sports league in the world." But what, exactly, does that mean?

The first factor, of course, was the decision in the early 1980s by NBA commissioner David Stern to make the players the center of the league, not the teams or dynasties. To that end, he pulled together the necessary resources to create NBA Entertainment, which creates player and team videos, as well as highlights for the weekly half-hour show "Inside Stuff."

Video has brought NBA and WNBA players into American homes and homes worldwide. They helped crush the competition from the American Basketball League, which lasted a shade more than two seasons.

But marketing is much more than the end, but it is the means. Certainly, the two driving forces behind the league are television, and the entertainment value of the live event.

Each of these are meant to reinforce the other; television promos of WNBA televised games focus on players as part of teams: "Sheryl Swoopes and the Comets take on Dawn Staley and the Sting, today on NBC!"

As the players are placed on the same level on the marquee as the teams, going to a professional basketball game has a distinct flavor in the United States. People in Washington, D.C. don't say that they are going to see a Mystics game on a particular night. Instead, the phrase that true aficionados say inside the Beltway is, "I'm going to go see Chamique tonight."

There, in part due to the television coverage, WNBA games are often sold out amongst the four big franchises: New York, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington. The games are very much a festive atmosphere, fitting in with modern sports marketing's ideal of the "entertainment experience."

Deep inside a shadowy hallways underneath the stands, five figures with arms and legs are getting loose. But it is hard to call them recognizable humans.

The figures are wearing colored body stockings, gold trim, and black basketball sneakers. Only when they get together for a psych-up cheer does an observer understand what is going on. This is the halftime entertainment, a troupe of basketball dunkers who ply their trade thanks to mini-trampolines and padding in the free-throw lane.

The dunkers are one of numerous half-time acts who travel NBA, and now WNBA, arenas. These professionals range from a frisbee-catching dog to the aging man who can spin a basketball on an 18-foot tree branch to the guy who wedges himself into a rigging alongside four mannequins dressed like The Village People.

Much is needed to fill the "dead time" during halftime as well as the eight three-minute timeouts during network telecasts.

Once such distraction took place during the first timeout of the second half. Interns pushed two large balloons from under the stands into position amongst the fans at a set starting point. The "Balloon Race" is a favorite of Mystics fans, where the idea is to bat one of the two huge balloons from one side of the arena to the other, a bit like a cross between pursuit bicycle racing and that staple of 70s culture, Worldball.

Music pumps, the crowd cheers, and there are scattered boos for the losing half of the lower bowl of the arena.

Events like the balloon race, propelling T-shirts into the stands with a large slingshot, trivia questions, shoe giveaways, and shooting contests are connected directly with WNBA and local team sponsors.

On 70s night, interns, including the one with the green leisure suit and black wig, join in with the kids' dancing and acrobatics troupe dancing to K.C. & The Sunshine Band.

But Mystics management has found that there is entertainment aplenty amongst the fans in the stands. A couple of team timeouts feature nothing but scattered crowd shots of hand-drawn signs, painted faces, and one zealous fan pointing and shouting at the camera with a look in her eye that would make Stone Cold Steve Austin cringe. The entire throng of more than 20,000 are transformed from boisterous to bellicose, making the stands shake.

Coming out of the timeout, the MCI's advertising signage at courtside switches from a league sponsor to a montage of what looks like several hundred WNBA basketballs -- with the alternating brown and white panels -- several times as large as the real thing.

It is a symbol of how far the league has come in less than five years: the WNBA ball is as well recognized as a symbol of a sport as the New York Yankees' interlocking NY or the Montreal Canadiens' jersey.