A couple weeks ago, I was invited to cover a WNBA game, the Washington Mystics versus the Connecticut Sun. Some people snickered. Some asked why. Some didn’t care.
And that’s fine. This post isn’t to convince anyone that the WNBA is great or that it’s even better than they think. Plain and simple, the WNBA is worth it. Worth the effort to make sure it works. Worth the support and subsidization of the NBA … although, the current level of the NBA’s assistance is somewhat mysterious.
WNBA president Donna Orender was recently interviewed by Fortune’s Poppy Harlow on CNNMoney.com. When asked if the league gets financial support from the NBA, Orender carefully said, “We are an entity that runs ourselves, but with … I would say we have support from the NBA, but there’s always been these rumors that they’re writing big checks for us …” Harlow interrupted and implored Orender to clear the record on if the WNBA stands on its own feet financially. Ordener responded, “At the league level, we do. Yes.” A bit vague, but certainly indications of progress from Orender.
Individual teams, however, are another story. A report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Henry Unger last December indicated that the Atlanta Dream, in its second season of existence, lost $3 million, although official financial numbers are disclosed.
Over the league’s existence, six teams have folded: the Portland Fire (2000-02), Miami Sol (2000-02), Cleveland Rockers (1997-03), Charlotte Sting (1997-06), Sacramento Monarchs (1997-09), and Houston Comets (1997-08). The Comets won the first four championships in league history. The Detroit Shock, winners of three championships in the past seven seasons, most recently in 2008, relocated to Tulsa for the current season.
Orender responded to trouble keeping teams afloat by comparing the WNBA to the struggles of other leagues in their youth, specifically citing the NFL and the NBA. Clearly, however, an apples to oranges situation. In this day of new media and high technology market research, the ability to penetrate markets and pinpoint target audiences is vastly different from trying to grow a sports league over 50 years ago.
Fact is, a growing audience has been hard to come by for the WNBA, evident by the league’s attendance history. In its fourteenth year, the league is young, but it’s not that young. According to WNBA attendance records on WomensBasketballOnline.com, in the league’s first seven seasons, the league-wide attendance average was 9,560. In the last six years, the league-wide average has been 7,999. The reported average game attendance for the first four weeks of the 2010 season is 7,198. That’s not exactly growth.
“We’re watching [attendance numbers] very carefully,” said Sheila Johnson, Washington Mystics president & managing partner, when I spoke with her after Ted Leonsis’ introductory press conference as majority owner of the Washington Wizards. “I think the league has grown in many ways as far as our fan base, but we’re still struggling a little bit with sponsorships.”
Johnson, who also serves a vice-chair of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the ownership group that controls the Wizards, Mystics, Washington Capitals and the Verizon Center, also pointed more toward societal factors as an influence on attendance. “I still don’t think society as a whole has really embraced the female athlete as they should,” she said in terms of goals to increase the WNBA’s fan base. “And so it’s something we’re constantly working on and we’re struggling with, and trying to really get the message out there of the importance of women and sports. Once society can start seeing its strengths, I think it’s going to grow.”
Cultural factors also come into play. For the most part, professional women basketball players get paid more overseas than they do in America. Thus, women’s pro basketball is more embraced in other countries. The WNBA’s summertime schedule does allow many players to participate in dual leagues, but that comes with the sacrifices of increased injury risk and shorter careers. But if the WNBA had a winter schedule, they simply couldn’t compete, with foreign women’s leagues or with the NBA.
NBA commissioner David Stern projected that his league’s owners would collectively lose $400 million this season. It’s the economy, stupid (and a CBA that allows NBA owners to take “stupid pills,” as Ted Leonsis would say). NBA union head Billy Hunter recently called the $400 million figure, “baloney.” Nonetheless, the health of the WNBA is certainly affected by the overall health of professional basketball in the United States, something which will improve in a better economy.
There are positive signs for the WNBA. Before the 2009 season, Stern said he was forecasting the league to finally break even. And in April, the Seattle Storm signed a marketing deal with Microsoft to put the name of the company’s search engine, Bing, on the front of their jerseys. Orender said it was a “seven-figure plus” deal. LifeLock and Farmers Insurance have similar deals with the Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks respectively.
Sheila Johnson said jersey sponsorships can be the difference. “We are definitely looking into it,” when asked if the Mystics were considering the option. “That marquee sponsorship really does make the difference between our being in the red and being in the black. So we have been constantly talking with major corporations to see if we can get a marquee deal.”
Johnson also sees Ted Leonsis’ majority ownership of the Wizards as a plus specifically for the Mystics franchise. “The beauty about what we’re doing here is we’re going to be able to kinda blend the Wizards and the Mystics back together, as far as sponsorship sales, as far as even being able to sell packages.” Six of the 12 current WNBA teams have connections with NBA ownership groups.
Still … surely none of this matters to you. It all comes down to the product, right?
If you’re a fan of men’s basketball, it’s probably not a two-way street toward fandom of women’s basketball. Same sport, different games … the main discrepancy coming in athleticism.
Men’s basketball is more athletically entertaining in contrast to general human athletic capabilities. This can’t be argued. Not to say women’s basketball isn’t athletically astounding in its own way, just very small in comparison to a pool of the world’s greatest athletes. But athleticism is not a point that should be focused upon as a quality of the WNBA game anyway.
In fact, it’s somewhat arrogant to consider the merits of the WNBA solely based on the idea that NBA-caliber athleticism spoils you from watching the women’s game. If the game of basketball is all about dunking and athletic feats, then you aren’t appreciating or getting the nuance of the sport, much less why people compete in the first place.
So the WNBA is not for you. It doesn’t matter. The WNBA provides an alternative outlet for those passionate about basketball in ways that needn’t matter to everyone.
The WNBA is for someone … for young girls to cultivate a love for the game with the tangible goal of playing at the highest professional level in the United States … for promotion of the sport on a worldwide level to both men and women, and not just across cultures, races, religions and ethnicity.
Through all the struggles, criticism and growing pains, the WNBA is worth the effort and worth the presence. For the greater good of the game of basketball, the WNBA is worth it.
After the game I attended, I spoke to a couple WNBA players, Marissa Coleman and Monique Currie of the Washington Mystics and Tan White of the Connecticut Sun, about the role their league plays in the ambassadorship of the game of basketball, especially for girls.