WNBA Data Or: How I Learned To Start Worrying and Distrust WNBA.com

When I started Across the Timeline just under six months ago, I was excited to tell the stories of women’s basketball years gone by. I remember thinking, “This is going to present some major challenges, but it’s an important mission.” What I didn’t realize is that this would be so much more than just digging up information; it would be a journey of discovering the misinformation already out there.

I’m going to talk about some of that journey now through a series of examples of just how difficult and disheartening it has been with a focus on the WNBA, since that has been the focus of the summer. And, don’t worry; the title of this post will become clearer as we go, and the story has a happy ending.

Looking for History

I started my efforts on the WNBA’s website, trying to get a sense of how much the league already has put together there. When you get to the home page, nothing really stands out, but there are a couple places you can go.

First, under the Players menu, there is a Historical Players link. This takes you to a page that just lists (at least, presumably) everyone who has ever played in the league and isn’t still currently playing.

Okay, so this is something. It looks like a nice index of players, and each one is a link to that player’s bio. I haven’t really made use of this page myself (Google tends to be a quicker way to get you to the same place), but even here, on what should be a very easy feature to execute, we can find at least a couple slip-ups rather quickly.

This is a player many fans of the WNBA may not know much about. She was 32 years-old when the league started, and she only played 38 games over two seasons for the New York Liberty. But, the problem here is that her name is Trena, not Trina. It’s easy to make a spelling mistake, but it should not be acceptable for a professional sports league (which touts itself as the greatest in the world in women’s basketball) to publish pages with the names of its players (or coaches, officials, etc.) spelled incorrectly. It’s disrespectful at the very least and could easily lead to the propagation of bad information.

But let’s scroll back up to the top of the alphabet.

No, there haven’t been two players named “Monique Ambers” in the WNBA, and to my knowledge, there’s never been a player in the league whose name is all lower case. Credit where it’s due: Monique’s name is spelled correctly at least once, but this kind of mistake exemplifies the sloppiness that is the WNBA’s online presence. It’s a lack of care underlining so much of what you’ll run across.

And if you try to go to many of these players’ pages, it gets worse. Here’s a snapshot of the page for five-time All-Star and gold medalist, Shannon Johnson:

Shannon has no photo, and her bio (“…is a guard for the Orlando Miracle.”) is wrong on its own but also contradicts the fact that higher up on the page she is listed as a guard for Seattle. You can get to career totals and averages, but no game logs are available. This look is pretty common for historical players.

Let’s take a step back. From the WNBA’s menu, you can also go through the More menu, drill down to WNBA 101, and from there click on History.

This is actually a decent-looking page. Although somewhat brief, you can find summaries of all 21 champions in the league along with interesting photos. Then, you keep scrolling:

What could be a similar section on WNBA All-Star games is instead a desolate hint at what might have been. The section starts off with a photo of Maya Moore from the 2017 All-Star Game and a summary of her performance. But — and I checked my notes here — it’s 2018, and there was an All-Star Game this summer. There’s no mention of that, but I suppose the current season doesn’t count as history yet. Fine. But where’s every All-Star Game from before 2015? There have been quite a few since they started in 1999.

The rest of this page is nice, but there’s so much more to the history of the league. An obvious omission: how about league records?

One for the Record Books Wikipedia Page?

Records are a major part of understanding the history of the WNBA and the biggest events of the past 22 summers. Think about the excitement of Liz Cambage’s 53-point performance or how much time we spent on the edge of our seats wondering if Courtney Vandersloot was going to match or beat Ticha Penicheiro’s single-game assist record of 16. And on the other side, there are those games this past season when the Liberty and Fever only managed a couple of points in a quarter, inching up on less desirable records.

If I want to find NBA records, I can relatively easily find a comprehensive guide of the league that has 58 pages just on records. I haven’t been able to find anything close for the WNBA that is generally available in this same manner. Sadly, the best open resource I have been able to find is a Wikipedia page. Major props to the users who have maintained that page pretty successfully, but it’s far from enough.

First of all, it’s not easy to verify the information here. It’s a nice starting point, but you still have to do the leg work to cross-reference this information to be sure it’s correct. Secondly, it’s just incomplete. I’d like to be able to find regular season records, postseason records, and All-Star Game records separately, for example.

The one thing the WNBA will give you is all-time leaders, essentially a nice-looking table of player stats which you can sort by season types and eight stats.

This is a great tool, but what I can’t figure out is why I can’t sort by all the statistics listed here. Want to know who the all-time leader is in games played? It looks like the data is here, but that isn’t a sortable stat here. Fortunately, Basketball Reference can give you some good detail on season and career records in the WNBA, but you won’t find game or postseason records there either (yet). To seek out single-game records and data, we’ll have to check the game logs and box scores.

Elusive Box Scores

During the 2018 season, you can go through the WNBA schedule and find box scores for every game played so far. It’s incredibly useful to get a quick view of the complete statistics for a game along with play-by-play and recaps. But what about box scores from prior seasons?

I wish I had grabbed a screen capture, but prior to the start of this season, you could get to WNBA schedules from prior seasons just like the current year’s, which meant it was easy to get to those box scores as well. The look-and-feel of the schedule page changed slightly ahead of the 2018 season, and now that capability is gone. So, we just have to be a little more clever.

If you look at the URL for a game’s box score page, you can see there’s a pretty simple structure being used:

http://www.wnba.com/game/20180909/WASSEA/

  • Base URL: http://www.wnba.com/game/
  • Year: 2018
  • Month: 09
  • Day: 09
  • Delimiter: /
  • Away team (abbreviated): WAS
  • Home team (abbreviated): SEA

That means that as long as you have old schedules at your disposal, you can freehand the corresponding URL and get to a box score of interest. For example, Riquna Williams scored a then-record 51 points while playing for the Tulsa Shock in a road game against the San Antonio Silver Stars back on September 8, 2013. And here’s the box score: http://www.wnba.com/game/20130908/TULSAN/.

That’s great! I can get a full view of that game to better contextualize her record-breaking performance. I can even see who the officials were, how many technical fouls were assessed, and the attendance of the game.

But don’t get too excited; box scores are rarely complete. Even the one I just linked to has no information on how many minutes each player logged. Wouldn’t it be great to know how many minutes Riquna played to get 51 points? You’ll have to go through the play-by-play data manually to figure that out, but you can still get to a lot of information here. What’s important to understand, though, is this is actually a pretty exemplary case. In my work compiling both attendance numbers and game-by-game player statistics, here are just a few examples of (really, really) bad box scores on the WNBA website.

First, let’s go to June 14, 2000, when the Washington Mystics played a road game against the New York Liberty: http://www.wnba.com/game/19990614/WASNYL/. This is fairly tame, but for some reason coaches are listed in the box score as if they are players, there are unnecessary blank rows, and good luck finding the attendance; it’s just missing for no apparent reason.

Now take a trip back one year to a August 21, 1999, game between the New York Liberty and Cleveland Rockers. This one is fascinating to me: http://www.wnba.com/game/19990821/NYLCLE/. Apparently, the game never ended! But of course it did:

Lastly, jump to August 26, 2006, when the Sacramento Monarchs played in Los Angeles during the Playoffs. Here’s the link to the box score: http://www.wnba.com/game/20060826/SACLAS/. I’ll give you a second to look it over.

Whoops! There’s absolutely nothing there. Beyond being terribly frustrating when trying to aggregate data from these box scores, it’s such a strange and unprofessional oversight to me. It’s not like you could even make the case that this isn’t a particularly interesting game; it was the second game of the Western Conference Finals that Sacramento won to get to the Finals!

Patching Things Up

Fortunately, for any of these incomplete or missing box scores, there is a solution, tough as it may be: the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Type in the URL for a website, and you’ll get a chart of all the snapshots available for that web page over time. Starting here and drilling down a bit, we can dig up that August 26, 2006 box score we were looking for before. It’s still not as complete as the modern box scores — and don’t get me started on the missing attendance again — but it’s better than nothing.

When you’re really desperate, you can go one level further. Searching for the “Mystics” in newspapers from June 15, 1999, you can find a valuable clipping, but you have to do the work from here. This one happens to be from The Daily Oklahoman:

With all these disparate options, you can actually put together complete data sets of WNBA game-by-game attendance and postseason game-by-game statistics. I’m still working on game-by-game statistics for regular season games, and if you thought this was winding down, you’re sorely mistaken.

League-leading Mistakes

Here’s my process for aggregating game-by-game statistics:

  1. Sweep through once: Using box scores from the WNBA website, move through each season’s schedule game-by-game and pull stat lines for each player.
  2.  Check yourself: With the results gathered so far, check for missing data. Like I’ve already mentioned, some box scores are missing, while others are incomplete. Make a note of any games that will require more work.
  3. Search the archives: Go through old versions of the WNBA website and archived newspapers to fill in the gaps.
  4. Verify again: Feeling like you have all the game logs right? Verify against the WNBA’s league-leaders table to be sure the totals are right.

And this is where things get interesting and problems still remain.

Here’s a simple one I tweeted about recently: if you total up Tamecka Dixon’s assists in regular season games based on box score data, you get a total of 961 assists. Let’s go to the WNBA’s Assists Leader Board to verify that number. Here’s what is listed for 26th through 30th place:

Uh-oh! There must be something wrong with my data (well, the WNBA’s box scores, but I don’t want to get hung up on that point). Let’s go over to the career totals for Tamecka on the WNBA website and see where my numbers differ.

Oh.

Hm.

This is a major issue. The WNBA acknowledges that Tamecka had 961 assists, but she’s missing from the leader board entirely. She should be 29th, right above Kara Lawson. We can all be optimistic and hope this is the only discrepancy, but how can you be sure? (Update: As of September 11, 2018 5:13 PM ET, Tamecka Dixon is now correctly listed at 29th on the Assists Leader Board.)

And there’s still one more issue I’ve yet to resolve. I tweeted about it recently:

I’m not going to post all the data here, but this is the issue, just to reiterate: my totals for Ticha Penicheiro say she had 2,600 career assists, but the WNBA (and Basketball Reference) say she had 2,599. I drilled down by season and found that my totals show she had 225 assists in 1998, but the WNBA says it should be 224. I even got my hands on a 2003 Sacramento Monarchs media guide, and it also says 224. I have confirmed my total from the box scores on the WNBA website, box scores from archived versions of the WNBA website (from the corresponding season or just after), and newspapers from the days just after those games.

This is the player with the second-most career assists in league history. All the numbers are important, but this one is huge. I’ve reached out to the league to try to get this resolved, but I have heard nothing. I’m still verifying more regular season statistics, and I’m fearful I’ll run in to more issues like this.

Lost Trust

This is a statement I have struggled to write, but it’s the truth: I don’t trust the WNBA’s information. I started out by pointing out where the WNBA is lacking information because that is terribly important, but what is even more difficult to reconcile is when there is information available, but it’s verifiably incorrect.

If I want information about the WNBA, I should be able to start from the WNBA’s website. But, unfortunately, most of the time I can tell in a few minutes what I’m looking for isn’t there. And now I’m left with the awful truth that even if I find what I’m looking for there, I feel like I have to look elsewhere to be confident in what I’m looking at.

There are plenty of issues facing the league at this time, and WNBA Twitter will be more than happy to fill anyone in, but this is an important one: if you want to be respected and talked about as a league, it’s important that fans and media have easy access to reliable information.

And here’s the smiley, happy ending to walk away with: this will improve. Unfortunately, I can’t say that the WNBA itself will do anything about it, but whatever it takes, I will continue to expand what’s available from Across the Timeline until such time that my work is not needed. Along with covering angles and stories on women’s basketball history that have been left behind, I’m continually working hard on aggregating data you can trust.

Update #2: As of October 28, 2018 at 1:39 PM ET, several of these issues had been corrected:

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