Sorting Out the State of the WNBA

This past season, fans of the WNBA got mixed messages about the health of the league: while Commissioner Laurel Richie remained positive about the league's future, the NBA's Adam Silver said, “We thought we would have broken through by now.”

by David Berri
Nov 4 2015, 4:36pm

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Last month, 18,993 fans showed up at the Target Center in Minneapolis on a Wednesday night to see the Minnesota Lynx win their third WNBA title in five years. The crowd included Prince, who gave a private celebratory concert that lasted until 4 AM. The local television audience was also impressive, with 105,408 households turned into the game—triple those who watched the Major League Baseball playoff game the same night between the Royals and Astros.

While the turnout at the Finals could signal the 19-year-old league's growing fan base, just weeks beforehand, Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA and representative of the league owners, was sending a very different message. At a Sports Business Journal Game Changers Conference panel in September, Silver told the audience that, in fact, the WNBA is really not doing so well. "We thought we would have broken through by now," he said. "We thought ratings and attendance would be higher."

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It was strange enough for Silver to be down on the league right as the playoffs were beginning: to criticize your product at a time when people are paying the most attention to it (i.e., the postseason) is probably not your best marketing approach. His comments also contrasted with what was being said about the WNBA at the league's All-Star break, in July.

At that time, WNBA Commissioner Laurel Richie noted the following: "One of the things I've learned in my personal experience is, once you go to a WNBA game, you fall in love with it. So in conjunction with our marketing team, I'm absolutely focused on how we get people to go to their first WNBA game. I know that our product is good. And marketing is always easier when your product is really good. "

The strategy seemed to be working. "The league has seen a 4.4 percent increase in attendance compared to 2014, marking the third year in a row that ticket sales have increased," wrote Colin Davenport, of SBNation's Swish Appeal, on the day of the All-Star Game. "The league's regular season games boast higher television ratings than those of Major League Soccer in the US."

But then the WNBA faltered. In 2014, the WNBA averaged 7,578 fans per game. Despite what was seen at the All-Star break, though, by the end of the season average attendance had dipped to 7,318 fans, the lowest in league history.

This decline, though, can be entirely explained by what happened to two franchises, the San Antonio Stars and the Tulsa Shock. First, the Stars saw a 37 percent decline in attendance. This decline has been attributed to the team being forced to move into the much older Freeman Coliseum while the AT&T Center was being renovated. Winning only seven home games probably didn't help. The Shock were more successful than the Stars, but the team still saw a significant decline in attendance after announcing that it was moving to Arlington, Texas, next season. Had attendance for the Shock and Stars not declined, WNBA attendance in 2015 would have been slightly higher than what we saw in 2014.

Signs of a strong and loyal fan base. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

If we look past these two teams, we do see reasons for the WNBA to be optimistic. In 2015 the WNBA had 33 sellouts, 25 more sellouts than the year before. In the lead were the Phoenix Mercury, who sold out nine of their 17 home games while averaging nearly 10,000 fans per game. When we look at what is happening in places like Minnesota and Phoenix, it is clear the WNBA can find a fan base. Despite Silver's assessment, WNBA commissioner Richie remains upbeat about the league's future.

"One of the things this year that I'm really proud of is the end of this season, 10 out of our 12 teams have marquee partners, and that is a real game changer in terms of their business model," she said when asked about Silver's comments during the finals. "I'm really impressed with the depth of talent in our league. I look, and it spans multiple generations. You've got Tamika Catchings to Kiah Stokes and everybody in between bringing it. So I think, first and foremost, we're a sports and entertainment vehicle, and when the talent is good, good things happen."

(When contacted by VICE Sports after the finals about Silver's comments, the WNBA referred to Richie's answer above.)

So what explains the two different visions—Richie's optimism versus Silver's disappointment—of where the WNBA stands as it prepares for its 20th season?

Adam Silver at an NBA game, which, yes, will likely have more people in attendance. Photo by Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It might be due, at least in part, to their different reference points. Silver is the commissioner of the NBA and, relative to the men's league, it's true that the WNBA does not do as well. However, it would be a mistake to compare WNBA attendance to the current NBA. While the men's teams had an average attendance of 17,809 in 2014-15, it was also their 69th season, meaning that they have a 50-year advantage on the WNBA in building up a reliable fan base—and it takes many years to establish a loyal audience, for any league.

In 2013, the league and ESPN agreed on a broadcasting deal worth $12 million per year. This deal apparently sufficiently covers the league's player costs, as I calculated earlier this year, leaving all other revenue sources to WNBA owners.

"The ratings of the WNBA on ESPN and ESPN2 have consistently shown that they draw a strong, loyal audience," Norby Williamson, then the executive vice-president of programming and acquisition at ESPN, told the Sports Business Journal in 2013. "Given the competitive landscape, I think most networks would be celebrating some of the results, if they could get to the numbers that we're getting with some of their properties."

In sum, after just 19 years it appears the WNBA has found an audience. That was the story the WNBA was telling in July and the story Richie appeared to be telling during the WNBA Finals. Why would Silver depart from that at the Game Changers Conference?

We might find clues elsewhere in Silver's comments at the conference, specifically when he was asked about the issue of player salaries. As I calculated a few weeks ago, the WNBA only pays 33 percent of its league revenue to its players; many have wondered whether, with players going overseas to make more money during the offseason, their current WNBA compensation is, in fact, hurting the league.

"We can't have it both ways," Silver said. "We can't say 'Well, why isn't this league making money?' and at the same time say the answer is to increase our expenses."

This is actually a very common approach for league owners to take. Economists James Quirk and Rodney Fort once noted that a standard joke among owners of sports franchises decades ago went like this: "Do you know how to make a small fortune? Start with a big fortune and buy a sports team."

Laurel Richie remains optimistic about the WNBA's future. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Silver insisted just a few months ago that "a significant number of teams continue to lose money" in the NBA, which pays about 50 percent of its revenue to its players. This is the same league that just signed a new TV deal worth $2 billion per year. This is also the same league that caps its total player compensation as a percentage of revenues agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement. Imagine an alternative world where Silver admits that all teams are doing quite well: NBA players might ask why they had to see the percentage of revenues they receive decline from 57 percent to 50 percent (as they did in the last agreement).

A similar story applies to the WNBA. If Silver continued to echo what we heard at the WNBA All-Star break, more and more WNBA players might start to wonder why they are paid so little. To stop such talk, Silver appears to be playing "bad cop" to Richie's "good cop." For Richie, the WNBA is doing quite well—but, Silver reminds us, not so well that it can pay players more money.

Acknowledging the league's popularity can impose costs on the league owners. Looking at other sports leagues, history suggests that the WNBA is doing just fine for a league approaching its 20th year. It also means that we shouldn't be surprised if Silver continues to focus on the league's problems, as many in his position have done before. To argue the league is doing quite well given its age might lead some to wonder why the WNBA players receive so little for their part in its success.