WASHINGTON — It's not that Elena Delle Donne doesn't like the NBA summer league.

No, she has nothing against the NBA's offseason diversion, and she doesn't often have the time to watch it during the WNBA's packed schedule anyway.

But when summer league games are played at the same time as WNBA games and only the men's action gets televised, that's when she begins to have a problem.

"You see every single game on TV, all day long," said Washington Mystics star and Delaware native. "And our games are rarely ever on TV."

Everything else in Delle Donne's life and career is going well. She is averaging more than 20 points this season, married longtime partner Amanda Clifton in the offseason, and has her lifetime Lyme-disease sentence as in check as it's ever been.

But the Wilmington native realizes that despite her growing legacy in women's basketball, few American sports fans even know her name, much less any other among the league's multitude of stars.

She has identified tangible, fixable reasons for that, too, beyond the popular opinion that women's sports just can't hold fan interest. All 82 games from the NBA's Las Vegas summer league (July 6-17) were televised on either the ESPN networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU) or NBA TV. During that same period, only four of the WNBA's 26 games appeared on those channels, even though the WNBA has contracts with both networks. And on mediums ranging from social media to newspapers to billboards, WNBA players aren't discussed and promoted as superstars in the same way local NBA icons are.

All of that has led Delle Donne to voice her concerns.

"We need way more marketing," said Delle Donne.

"There's still a lot of people out there that don't know the WNBA exists, don't know when our season is. So we've got to get it out there and make people aware that we're here."

Speaking up

Until recently, speaking out this publicly was rarely part of Delle Donne's repertoire. The 6-foot-5 forward remains quiet on the sideline and stoic on the court, has rarely played overseas during the winter as many of her teammates do, and first made national headlines a decade ago by forgoing the chance to play at prestigious UConn out of high school to end up at the University of Delaware.

So for Delle Donne to step outside her shell to the extent she has over the past six months — to author an autobiography and make on-camera appearances on the likes of ESPN's Outside the Lines and embrace her new role as women's basketball's arguably most recognizable player and spokeswoman — is somewhat monumental. She says her decision to do so is driven partially by the realization that the WNBA's audience has not improved nearly as fast as its product has over the past six years, and partially by a greater sense of her own individual significance.

"Coming into the league, everything is new and you're trying to get a feel for everything, and the veterans were handling stuff like that," she said. "Now, I've grown up; I'm starting to become more of a vet. I feel like this is our league, and we have to be the ones to speak out when things just don't feel right."

She long ago proved herself one of the sport's brightest stars. As her 29th birthday nears, Delle Donne said she feels she's just now coming into her prime. That "vet" status has been well-earned by her perennial all-star status, but its implications about declining production and advancing age don't apply in her case.

After all, Delle Donne is well on her way to a sixth consecutive season of averaging more than 17 points, the first four with the Chicago Sky and the most recent two with Washington. She became the fastest player in WNBA history to reach 3,000 career points earlier this month. She's a captain for this year's All-Star Game, which will be held on Saturday in Minneapolis (3:30 p.m., ABC).

"Every night, she's rolling out there with 20-somethings," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. "That's a nice thing for a coach to have in their back pocket."

And yet to say it all comes to her effortlessly, naturally, inherently — all those words so often used to describe the dominance of stars in every sport — would be a false assumption. It's not, because of what she describes as a "daily struggle" of fighting off the unpredictable symptoms of Lyme disease.

Delle Donne's struggles with the chronic illness have been hardly secret, especially when a series of flare-ups in the summer of 2014 held her to nine starts that season. But the fact she continues to battle it — she missed four games earlier this year because of another flare-up — have been less documented. They occur "out of the blue" and leave her fatigued, feverish and dealing with severe inflammation for weeks or months at a time, she said.

"I've gotten better and more aware of when it's coming on, and not trying to push through it like I used to in the past," she said. "I would think, 'Oh, it will just go away.' It won't. The second I'm not feeling too great and I'm not recovering properly, that's when I've got to get going [on a treatment plan]. … I have to realize that beating myself up isn't going to make me better."

Delle Donne’s assist numbers are up and her turnover rate is down during her second season with Washington.
Courtesy / Washington Mystics
Delle Donne’s assist numbers are up and her turnover rate is down during her second season with Washington.

Through balancing an uncontrollable illness and a pro athlete's physical duties, working through the social insecurities that come with being a 6-foot-5 gay woman, and learning to embrace basketball after once deserting it for college volleyball, Delle Donne has developed the confidence, stature and voice needed to puncture the bubble into which the rest of the sports universe has long relegated the WNBA.

She is "speaking out because I want it to be better for the next generation coming through," she said. "Knowing how hard we all work and how talented we all are, and just not getting the props and the pay that we deserve."

Less than 25 percent of total WNBA revenues go to player salaries, compared to around 50 percent in the NBA, and an opportunity to opt out of the current WNBA collective bargaining agreement in 2019 has brought that issue fervently into the spotlight lately.

However, Delle Donne has focused more on the "props" side.

Marketing the WNBA

After NBA commissioner Adam Silver gave a surprising and critical analysis of his perceptions of the WNBA in a mid-April ESPN segment, Delle Donne responded on Twitter — one of several social media platforms on which she is very active, in what she says is an effort to compensate for her sport's lack of traditional media coverage.

She tweeted that others "continue to cover the negatives of the WNBA as a league, and it's exhausting," then directly called out the NBA for its failure to market the league sufficiently. Silver had noted that six of the WNBA's 12 teams lose money and that many fans are older men rather than young women (a claim Delle Donne has contested), among other things.

That statement prompted articles on Delle Donne from a variety of national news outlets that otherwise rarely even mention the WNBA star. It also earned her a segment on a much-watched May 2 episode of ESPN's Outside the Lines, and started a wave of increased attention that has persisted throughout the summer. Through June, WNBA ratings on ESPN2 were up 39 percent compared to last year and at their highest levels since 2013, albeit still minuscule compared to major men's leagues.

The WNBA is taking some steps to expand its visibility, such as hiring brand-consultant group Sylvain Labs to evaluate the league's marketing strategy. Chicago Sky owner Michael Alter said in June that the league expects to create a more comprehensive long-term marketing plan by this winter, and highlighted the league's scoring-focused rule changes and non-conference-based playoff format as two recent modifications intended to better engage fans.

But Alter added that the league's efforts are hindered by the "still terrible" lack of media attention the sport receives, and on that note, Delle Donne agreed. (The Inquirer does not cover the WNBA regularly because there is no franchise in Philadelphia.)

"It's tough to be a WNBA fan: You have to seek out our games, seek out our players, do your research to know about us," Delle Donne said. "[But] I think once they come to a game, they enjoy it and they come back."

Delle Donne herself might be part of why they do come back, at least in Washington. She has the Mystics in contention in the Eastern Conference lead and is shooting 47 percent from the floor. She has increased her assist numbers and decreased her turnover average after an offseason — spent, as always, under the radar in Delaware and Maryland — in which she focused on improving her passing.

Yet Delle Donne also realizes she'll never be able to become the reason they come for the first time, if only because few outside women's basketball circles know who she is. That has never bothered her personally — if anything, her limelight-averse personality appreciates it. Nevertheless, she knows that expanding her marketability would be good for the league overall and the star players, five or eight years down the road, who follow in her wake.

And so now, in 2018, in the midst of yet another MVP-caliber season, in this crucial moment when the WNBA's long-term path seems to lie in the balance, that has become motivation enough for her to try to do something about it.