WNBA: Hoop skills not enough for women’s teams

Nearing its 18th birthday, the women’s pro basketball league is gaining new fans, but will sports media pay attention?

Maya Moore, No. 23, of the Minnesota Lynx reaches for a rebound against Erika de Souza of the Atlanta Dream during Game 1 of the 2013 WNBA finals in Minneapolis in October 2013.
David Sherman / NBAE / Getty Images (Copyright 2013 NBAE)

When the Phoenix Mercury and the Minnesota Lynx open their western division finals playoff series tonight, the two best Women’s National Basketball Association teams will know what to expect. Close to the action, several thousand screaming fans of all ages, banging thundersticks and cheering on their hometown squads. And up in the rafters, several thousand empty seats.

For most sports fans, these are the two competing images of the WNBA: The arenas are either half empty or half full. The WNBA is, hands down, the most successful women’s pro sports league in U.S. history, with 18 seasons in the books, a contract to broadcast games on ESPN through 2022 and a fresh crop of young stars like the Lynx’s Maya Moore and the Mercury’s Brittney Griner. When the league launched in 1997, it was difficult to imagine that a women’s pro sports league in the United States would survive this long. The Women’s Professional Basketball League, the first attempt at women’s pro hoops, lasted just three seasons before disbanding in 1981 in a sea of red ink.

Yet the WNBA still struggles with the perception that it’s a niche league, more akin to men’s indoor lacrosse than an organization worthy of consideration alongside the top men’s leagues. Attendance peaked in the league’s second year, leveling off at about 7,500 per game in recent seasons — a little less than half the NBA average. After six WNBA teams folded in the first decade of the century, the number of franchises has solidified at 12, while even top players earn only a tiny fraction of what their male counterparts are paid. And while being partly owned by the NBA has helped provide stability, it has also led to criticism that the WNBA is merely a vanity project propped up by the more popular men’s league.

After the initial rush of curiosity seekers, attention has been a slow build. “For the first five years, I’m not sure that the Lynx were a household name,” said Chris Wright, who is president of the WNBA team and its men’s counterpart, the Timberwolves, also based in Minneapolis. “Today, I don’t believe that there would be many households in the Minnesota marketplace that do not know who the Minnesota Lynx are and the names of at least two or three of our players.” 

‘For 75 bucks, I can sit four rows behind the bench [at WNBA Mercury games]. For $75 at an NBA game, you’re lucky to get third tier.’

Alex Chambers

author, “13 Teams”

It helps that the Lynx have become one of the league’s elite franchises, winning the championship in 2011 and 2013 and drawing more than 9,000 fans per game. (Despite the relatively strong attendance, like many other WNBA teams, the Lynx closes off the top deck of its arena for most games to create a more intimate atmosphere — a polite way of saying “to avoid a building that looks half empty.”) Lynx execs say the team turned a $1 million profit last year, in a league in which it’s more common for a team’s losses to be covered by its NBA partners.

“You would think that if you’re running an NBA franchise, you can basically adopt the same sort of business model,” said Wright. “Really, you can’t.” Rather, he said, marketing the Lynx has required figuring out how to “appeal to the core markets” for women’s pro hoops and then turning negatives into opportunities — selling fans on low ticket prices, seats close to the floor and the chance to meet players at promotional events.

By core markets, Wright means first and foremost women. Team surveys, he said, show that 78 percent of fans at Lynx games are female. The growing popularity of women’s college basketball, as well as the growing number of women who have played sports, has helped create an audience that didn’t exist in the league’s early years.

As for that other 22 percent, they’re drawn to women’s games for varied reasons. Alex Chambers, who traveled to every WNBA city for his book, “13 Teams: One Man’s Journey With the WNBA,” describes the typical male WNBA follower as an “old-school” fan, one who migrated from the increasingly dunk-obsessed NBA to the below-the-rim passing game of college and women’s hoops. It doesn’t hurt that while NBA ticket prices have soared in recent years, WNBA tickets are relatively cheap. “For 75 bucks, I can sit four rows behind the bench” at Mercury games, said Chambers. “For $75 at an NBA game, you’re lucky to get third tier.”

WNBA president Laurel J. Richie at a news conference before the WNBA All-Star game in Phoenix, July 19, 2014.
Matt York / AP

This diversity was on display on Sunday at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where 9,000 fans showed up for the New York Liberty’s regular-season finale. Asked what drew them to the WNBA, fans entering the newly renovated arena gave myriad reasons, from tweens hoping to play someday in the league to NBA fans drawn by the offer of free Liberty tickets for Knicks season subscribers.

“It’s really a feminist thing for me,” said Tara Polen, a Liberty season ticket holder since the team’s inaugural year. She said she hoped attendance would soon rebound after low turnout in Newark, where the Liberty was forced to play for three years while the Garden underwent summertime renovations. “More wins would draw even more,” said her friend Janine Tulchin.

Asked what first drew her to the WNBA back in 1997, Farrah Abdul-Wahhab, decked out in a custom Liberty jersey, explained, “I’m a baller. Played for my college.” Does she attend NBA games as well? “When I can afford it.”

It’s a demographic that the WNBA has celebrated — up to a point. League president Laurel Richie proudly cites the “wonderful mosaic of fans” who are “united by progressive views on gender.” Two years ago, WNBA vice president Hilary Shaev declared that the league would focus outreach efforts on what it saw as its three core groups: African-Americans, lesbians and youths — then quickly added that she still wanted to reach “that mainstream American sports fan who knows everything about sports.”

The WNBA’s difficulty in deciding on its target market came to the fore after the Phoenix Mercury took Griner, the Baylor University center who finished all-time second in college points scored, as its first pick in 2013. A few weeks later, Griner casually mentioned to an interviewer that she is gay. (And earlier this month, she and fellow WNBA All-Star Glory Johnson of the Tulsa Shock announced their engagement.) Spurred by a groundswell of support from fans in the wake of Griner’s coming out, in March the league announced a WNBA Pride campaign to declare its support for LGBT rights.

‘It’s not like people needed to be dragged to their television sets and strapped in to watch Martina Navratilova or Serena Williams play.’

Jennifer Doyle

blogger, Sports Spectacle

The league’s lesbian fans cheered the move, but it was a potential marketing mistake, according to some sports analysts. Such “cause marketing,” warned University of Southern California professor David Carter, could be perceived as “an act of desperation.”

The issue is not so much homophobia, he insists, as it is sales savvy. “The perception that a league is primarily focusing its marketing efforts on one demographic can be very dangerous, a slippery slope,” he said. “Not only can it serve to alienate other consumer groups, but should its core marketing initiatives falter, the league will have very few options to cultivate new consumers and fans.”

It’s a common criticism, if a frustrating one for women’s sports fans. (No one has publicly criticized the league’s Dads and Daughters campaign for possibly alienating fans who are not fathers.) Some say that asking why women’s pro sports rarely attract a mass audience is the wrong question.

Jennifer Doyle, a University of California at Riverside professor who writes the Sport Spectacle blog, said plenty of people are happy to watch. WNBA games score higher TV ratings than men’s Major League Soccer, which gets significantly more media coverage in the United States. When female tennis players successfully lobbied for equal pay and coverage in the 1970s, they quickly matched and even surpassed the ratings of their male peers.

“It’s not like people needed to be dragged to their television sets and strapped in to watch Martina Navratilova or Serena Williams play,” she said.

And yet, according to a 2010 USC study, coverage of women’s sports has actually declined, with ESPN’s “SportsCenter” devoting less airtime to women in 2009 (1.4 percent of all coverage) than it did a decade earlier (2.2 percent). Even during the summer, when the WNBA is playing games and the NBA is in its offseason — a controversial decision made early to take advantage of vacant arena dates and avoid direct competition — the NBA receives far more coverage than the WNBA.

‘I’ve often sat down with people and said, ‘What does it really take for us to get similar coverage to the Wild, Vikings, Wolves, Twins?’ The coverage is significantly better than it was. But is it where we would all like it to be?’

Chris Wright

president, WNBA’s Lynx and NBA’s Timberwolves

Wright acknowledges his frustration that a team with a significant following — he said the Lynx’s WAL number (fans who watch, attend or listen to games) is a substantial 600,000 — gets short shrift on sports reports. “I’ve often sat down with people and said, ‘What does it really take for us to get similar coverage to the Wild, Vikings, Wolves, Twins?’” he said, referring to Minneapolis’ four major men’s pro sports teams. “The coverage is significantly better than it was. But is it where we would all like it to be? I would say no.”

Much of the existing coverage, meanwhile, perpetuates the notion that women playing sports are a sideshow. Chambers notes a recent interview on Chicago’s Fox32 in which the interviewer asked Chicago Sky stars Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne how tall they are (both are 6 foot 5), then followed that with “And in heels, what are you two when you’re all dressed up?”

League and team executives hold out hope for change, especially as more female athletes break into male-dominated sports news. One such moment came early this month when longtime San Antonio Silver Stars standout Becky Hammon was hired by the NBA champion Spurs as an assistant coach. Wright cites Moore’s selection as the first female athlete to be signed to advertise Michael Jordan’s Nike clothing line as one of the “significant lightning-in-a-bottle moments that propel leagues forward.”

WNBA president Richie hopes that putting better and better players on the court will convince fans that her league is worth watching. “We have a generation of players who’ve grown up with the benefits of Title IX,” she said, referring to the landmark 1972 law that required colleges to fund women’s sports on an equal basis as men’s. “They are stronger. They are faster. They are basketball-savvy.”

Moore and San Antonio Stars guard Jia Perkins, No. 7 in Game 1 of the WNBA western conference semifinal, Aug. 21, 2014, in Minneapolis. The Lynx won, 88-84.
Stacy Bengs / AP

That evolution suggests that the WNBA is at a crossroads. Just as the post–Title IX era produced more quality players, it also cultivated a new breed of fan. With the WNBA now almost two decades old, a generation of girls — and boys — has grown up seeing female athletes on TV. They could start to shift the conception of what a typical sports fan is. 

Yet, said Chambers, “there are still marketing guys in the league who think, ‘What can we do for the straight white male guys?’” It’s a tension exacerbated by the arrival of Griner, who last year signed on to model men’s clothing for Nike and has complained about such WNBA nods to mainstream male sports fandom as league-run classes for rookies in how to apply makeup, as well as proposals — ultimately rejected — for more-form-fitting uniforms, including optional leopard-print tights.

“For the haters, when it comes to that, no shorts will be short enough, no dunks will be enough, no plays will be enough,” said Chambers. Instead, he counsels, the league needs to give up on resistant male fans and focus on those who might be more amenable to the women’s game.

There are at least tentative signs that the fan base may be coming to meet them. “I was reading one of the tweets from a father who had taken a photograph of his daughter, a little tyke with a huge basketball, saying, ‘This could be the next Becky Hammon,’” said Richie. “That’s the ripple effect of what we do.”

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