As the WNBA celebrates the tip off its 20th season this weekend, it's easy for naysayers to paint a picture of a league that's stagnant at best, and a NBA charity case at worst. After all, WBNA average per-game attendance last season was only 7,138—the lowest mark in league history, and well below the average per-game NBA draw of 17,849. Women's professional basketball, this line of thinking goes, has had two decades to build a fan base and establish itself in America's sporting consciousness. So why can't it come close to the NBA?
Here's the answer: that's the wrong question. Or, more accurately, it's the wrong comparison, and a misleading one. To understand where the WNBA is now, and how far it is has come, we can't compare the league to today's NBA, which just completed its 70th regular season. Instead, we should compare the WNBA to where the NBA was on its 20th anniversary.
Today, the NBA is a league with global appeal. But in its early days, few could have imagined that. In The Rise of the National Basketball Association, author David George Surdam chronicles just how much men's pro basketball struggled to find an audience. The league's first president, Maurice Podoloff, had this to say in 1949:
"We are getting very bad publicity due to the fact that some of our team managers are just a bit too scrupulously honest in giving attendance figures to radio and newspapers. If you can avoid giving the figures out, do so. If, however, you must announce figures, a little padding will be forgiven."
How bad were the honest numbers? According to Surdam, the average NBA team only attracted 3,142 fans per game in 1946-47. A decade later, average attendance had risen to just 4,498. And in 1965-65—the NBA's 20th season—that number was 6,019.
In other words, the NBA at age 20 was only drawing about 33 percent of what an average NBA team draws today—and less than what we see in the WNBA.
The NBA's early history is not unique. The NFL began playing in 1922. In 1941, NFL teams in played before an average of 20,157 fans. Today, the average team draws 68,278 fans per game—which means that attendance at the 20-year mark in the NFL was only 30 percent of what we see today.
What about baseball? While the National League had existed since the 1870s, Major League Baseball began with the arrival of the American League in 1901. In 1920, average MLB attendance was 7,391. That's about 24 percent of today's 30,504 mark.
Why was attendance in men's professional sports so low early in the history of each league? To use the same logic used by today's WNBA pessimists, did people simply not like watching men play sports?
Obviously, there has to be a better, more helpful explanation. Let's ask a related question: what makes sports interesting? The answer will vary from fan to fan, but to venture a guess: sports capture our attention because they offer conflict, and from that, drama. And it makes a difference when that conflict happens between characters—between players and teams—that we know.
Knowing those characters produces rooting interests, and early in a league's history, most potential fans lack that knowledge. They aren't familiar enough with teams and players to truly care about the conflict, and the rivalries and tribal dynamics that make games matter take time to develop. Without all that, every game is just an exhibition game—and without a rooting interest, those same spectators don't have nearly as much reason to show up.
This helps explain the difference between women's professional leagues like the WNBA and international sporting events. Women's sports definitely do well on the international stage: witness the Olympics, the tennis Grand Slams, the record-breaking ratings for the Women's World Cup. Indeed, the success of women's basketball during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics led to the establishment of the WNBA in the first place.
At the international level, fans have a clear rooting interest: cheer for your country. This summer in Rio, American fans will tune in and watch Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, and other American stars compete for a gold medal. But what happens when the Delle Donne's Chicago Sky faces Griner's Phoenix Mercury)? Who does that same fan root for?
Since the history of the Sky and Mercury is so brief, the storyline of each franchise has yet to be written, and the reasons to care are harder to come by. This explains why beloved American Women's World Cup stars struggle to bring fans to games in struggling domestic leagues; fans know these athletes as teammates much more than competitors.
Interestingly enough, we can see echoes of this with the NBA. The Golden State Warriors had a historic season in 2015-16, setting the record for regular season wins. Why did that matter? Well, because NBA fans already knew about the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, the team that held the previous record for wins in a season. And why was that season so magical? Because NBA fans remembered the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, whose record the Bulls broke.
Well, that last point is not entirely true. When those Lakers—led by Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich—won 69 games in 1971-72, average league attendance was only 8,061. A league with the Lakers, teams in New York and Boston, and talents as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Bob Lanier, and John Havlicek had about as many fans at games as the WNBA does today!
In sports, building a bigger fan base takes time, because creating the context that leads to emotional investment takes time, too. As the examples of the NBA, NFL, and MLB show, there are no shortcuts. You need a rich history, a reason to care season after season, a rooting interest to pass down from one generation to the next. Compared to today's NBA, the WNBA is struggling; but compared to its male counterparts at age 20, it's arguably on schedule.