Why the WNBA remains irrelevant to most sports fans 21 years later


I’m not sure what most fans who watched the June 21, 1997, debut of the WNBA thought about the future of women’s professional basketball, but if you could have taken the people who watched that very first game and transported them immediately to today, I’m guessing a good number of them would have the same response.

“This is it?”

As in, a league with the money and marketing background of the NBA has, in 21 years, grown to virtually nothing more than what it was?

The NBA is more popular than ever, generating more than $7 billion in revenue with each franchise now being valued at $1 billion or more.

Meanwhile, the WNBA continues to muddle along, playing in front of more empty seats than full ones and failing to gain any traction with the majority of sports fans.

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Turn on any sports talk radio station, wade through the hours of debate-type shows on ESPN or FS1 during the summer months and you’ll hear a lot about the NBA — which isn’t in season — and nothing about the WNBA, which is in season.

The fact the league has failed to generate much publicity is particularly telling considering how little there is in the sports world to cover in the summer. Once the NBA and NHL champions are crowned, Major League Baseball has the team sport stage to itself until football season starts. Anyone who works in daily sports coverage knows that summer is the slowest time of the year.

I’ve lived in Phoenix for seven years. The Mercury are not only one of the league’s original franchises, they’re also one of its most successful, having won three titles. The team’s biggest star is Diana Turasi, who is one of the most recognizable players in women’s basketball in the world.

And yet, the team is all but invisible. I never see anyone wearing Mercury merchandise. I’ve never spoken to any sports fan who has talked about going to a game. Like most WNBA teams, the Mercury’s games are not on local radio, and the only coverage the team gets on sports radio is a mention of the score of the previous night’s game at the end of a sports update.

Would the WNBA be more successful if it were played during traditional basketball season?

This situation is obviously not unique to Phoenix.

In the league’s largest market, the New York Liberty now play in the league’s smallest arena — the 5,000-seat Westchester County Center in suburban White Plains. The basketball mecca of Madison Square Garden proved to be just too big for the Liberty, who averaged 15,000 per game in 2001.

I remember watching that first WNBA game, thinking that if a women’s sports league ever had a chance to be a huge success, it would be the WNBA. The NBA owned the league and spent money to promote it. The NBA basically required NBC, it’s national TV partner at the time, to televise games, giving it instant national exposure — something that’s critical to any new league’s success.

Plus, my daughter and just about every other girl she knew who played basketball had to have one of those bright, multicolored WNBA basketballs.

As with any new league, the WNBA’s first games were sloppy, but the league had its share of stars. Eight members of the USA women’s team that had won a gold medal a year earlier at the 1996 Summer Olympics were in the league. Players like Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes were already recognized as among the best in the world. The talent level of the women’s game in college had improved dramatically, and those players now had an avenue to turn a successful collegiate career into a lucrative professional career.

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The WNBA had eight teams when it launched, all with tie-ins to the NBA team of the same market. The teams played in NBA arenas, often with nicknames that were somewhat related to their NBA counterparts — i.e., the Houston Rockets and Houston Comets, Charlotte Hornets and Charlotte Sting, Utah Jazz and Utah Starzz. Other NBA cities were in line to get teams in the coming years, with Detroit and Washington joining the league in 1998 and Orlando and Minnesota coming a year later. By 2002, the league had doubled in size to 16 teams.

Success seemed all but guaranteed.

More than two decades later, the WNBA has just 12 franchises. Only three teams from that inaugural season — the New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury — are still in place today.

In the WNBA’s first season, it averaged 9,684 per game. A year later, that averaged jumped to 10,869. By 2000, attendance had dipped to 9,074 per game — below the first season — and it has never been more than 9,000 a game since 2002.

Last season, the league’s average attendance dipped to 7,716.

In its 21 seasons, there have been eight franchises that have won titles. Three of those teams no longer exist, including the Houston Comets, who won four straight titles in the league’s first four seasons.

So why has the WNBA become almost more irrelevant today than during its debut season?

To be honest, the WNBA is like a lot of other women’s sports ventures in its struggles to attract large numbers of fans. Look at the size of the galleries at an LPGA event compared with a PGA event.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team makes headlines in every Olympic or World Cup year, but few fans know there’s a professional women’s soccer league. Many of those same female players who pack stadiums in the international events play in the NWSL before crowds smaller than what most minor league baseball teams attract.

Compiling a list of successful women’s pro sports leagues in this country is about the easiest task you’ll ever be assigned because there’s never been one. So the WNBA is definitely swimming upstream in its battle.

When it comes to women’s professional basketball, the game has improved noticeably over the years, particularly in ball handling and outside shooting. But the reality is, women’s basketball is still a below-the-rim game. It doesn’t have the “wow” moments — alley-oops, rim-rocking dunks — that you’ll see even in an NBA preseason game.

Last year, David Berri of compared the WNBA’s attendance after 20 years to that of the NBA and MLB in their first 20 years. Average attendance in year 21 of the NBA (1966-67) was just 6,631 per game while MLB’s 21st season (1921) produced an average attendance of only 7,391 per game.

By those metrics, Berri reasoned, the WNBA’s average attendance of 7,716 fans per game suggests the league is on the right track.

But comparing the growth of sports leagues from that long ago is definitely a case of apples and oranges. MLB didn’t have national TV contracts in the early 1920s. In fact, 1921 was the first time a game was ever broadcast on local radio. Television coverage of the NBA in the mid-1960s was a little more than one game a week on ABC, and local broadcast rights were usually limited to a handful of games each season.

Neither league had the social media exposure of the WNBA, or access to the marketing power of the NBA.

Perhaps a more fair comparison of the WNBA’s lack of audience growth in two decades is Major League Soccer, which debuted one year prior to the WNBA in 1996.

The MLS had an average attendance of 17,406 in its inaugural season. That average dipped to 13,756 in 2000.

But last year, the MLS averaged more than 22,000 fans per game, and the league’s Atlanta expansion team led the MLS with an average attendance of more than 48,000 in its inaugural season. More than 8.2 million fans attended MLS games last season, more than three times as many as in its inaugural season.

Few would argue that basketball is followed by far more sports fans than soccer, so why has MLS enjoyed significant growth in 20 years while the WNBA hasn’t?

The MLS is taking advantage of the growing interest in soccer among U.S. fans. As people are exposed to the rabid interest for events like the World Cup or the elite leagues in other countries, teams with large foreign populations are finding a willing fan base — especially among men.

Basketball is growing internationally, and many WNBA players go overseas when the WNBA is not in season and make more than they make in the U.S. But it’s hard to convert existing basketball fans in the U.S. to fans of women’s professional basketball.

Some have suggested the WNBA move to a winter schedule to put it in line with most sports fans’ interest in basketball. But that would also put it in direct competition with the NBA and college basketball, not to mention football and hockey. If the WNBA can’t attract fans with very little competition in the sports market, the odds are it wouldn’t do much better when fans have more places to invest their money and attention.

Financially, the league is surviving largely off its TV contract with ESPN, which — as a broadcast partner of the NBA — tries to stay in the league’s good graces by spending $25 million a year on WNBA rights. It’s unlikely ESPN would pay that much in the months when its already broadcasting NBA, college football and basketball games.

The teams also negotiate sponsorship deals with companies to put corporate logos on uniforms, which is fans who turn on the TV and see the New York Liberty might wonder when the team changed its name to the “Draft Kings” since that’s the name of the sponsor that’s splashed across the front of their jerseys.

What would be the impact if the WNBA weren’t able to survive?

It would be a blow to the NBA’s ego, knowing it could not create enough interest in a basketball league to make it financially feasible. Some would probably consider it a blow to the pride of women’s sports, but again, it wouldn’t be the first women’s sports league to fail.

But from the perspective of most sports fans, the loss of the WNBA would be almost impossible to detect. How would people miss something that most people have never cared about in the first place?

And that, after 21 years, is what’s most disappointing about the WNBA. If it had crashed and burned in its third or fourth season, it would have been thought of in the same light as the USFL or even the XFL — a league that tried something new but failed for a simple lack of fan interest.

But during its time, the WNBA hasn’t made a mark in the sports world, it hasn’t reshaped the landscape of professional women’s sports, it hasn’t done much to enhance the following of women’s basketball in general, and it hasn’t been an asset to the NBA, which has invested countless millions in the league with little to show for it.

The fact the league has survived for 21 years is impressive in light of how many other women’s leagues have failed. But beyond its longevity, the WNBA doesn’t have much to show for itself. And there’s no reason to believe explosive growth is anywhere in the league’s short-term future.

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Scott Kelnhofer is a writer for The Western Journal and Conservative Tribune. A native of Milwaukee, he currently resides in Phoenix.
Scott Kelnhofer is a writer for The Western Journal and Conservative Tribune. He has more than 20 years of experience in print and broadcast journalism. A native of Milwaukee, he has resided in Phoenix since 2012.
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