COLUMN: In 20th season, WNBA still struggling
The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) kicked off its 20th season on May 14 and depending on your point of view, it’s either on track to rival the success of its male counterpart or a league that’s still struggling for success and relevancy.
In 1997, one year after the women’s Olympic team began a stretch of five straight gold medals and twenty-five years after the passage of Title IX, optimism ran high that the WNBA would be successful. And why not? It was underwritten by the NBA, played in first class arenas during the NBA’s “off season,” and included the greatest female basketball players in the world. League attendance in the first two seasons did nothing to dampen that enthusiasm, climbing from an average of 9,664 in its inaugural season to 10,864 in 1998.
But that proved to be the apex. From there the league began a downward trend that reached a nadir last year of 7,318 per game. Critics compare those figures to last year’s NBA record attendance of 17,849 and ask why, 20 years in, the WNBA has failed to match that popularity? Other comparisons between the two leagues are even more sobering.
The WNBA’s minimum salary is around $40,000 with a cap just north of $100,000 for 6-year veterans. The average player salary is approximately $75,000. Players can earn much more money in the offseason playing overseas. Diana Taurasi, one of the league’s highest paid players at $107,000, was paid $1.5 million by her Russian League team to sit out last year’s WNBA season in order to keep her healthy for their season.
By comparison, NBA players have an embarrassment of riches. The minimum rookie salary is approximately $550,000, the average salary exceeds $5 million and teams are permitted to offer certain free agents in excess of $20 million per year.
The wide discrepancy in salaries makes sense in the context of league revenues, particularly television revenue. The WNBA has a modest television contract with ESPN that pays the league $12 million per year through 2022. The NBA signed a series of new TV contracts that will pay the league more than $2.5 billion per year beginning next year. TV ratings for the NBA are on the rise while the WNBA experienced a significant drop in TV ratings last year over 2014.
Currently, over half of the 12 WNBA teams are losing money and collectively, the league has yet to see a profit in 19 seasons of operation. However, the WNBA isn’t alone in losing money. Other leagues - men’s and women’s - have come and gone in the past two decades. Currently, there are several other women’s professional leagues. The National Women’s Soccer League is in its fourth year but counts as the third iteration of women’s professional soccer during the WNBA’s existence. The National Women’s Hockey League completed its inaugural season in March but doesn’t pay its players a living wage. While the individual sports of tennis and golf have been financially kind to women, professional team sports have been a financial failure.
Supporters of the WNBA claim the league’s survival for 20 years constitutes success. Additionally, they point out that the league is ahead of the where the NBA was at a similar point in its development. According to David George Surdam, author of the book The Rise of the National Basketball Association, in 1965-66, average attendance was 6,749. But that’s like comparing a soccer ball to a softball – the only similarity is they’re both round. In the mid-1960’s, the population of the U.S. was approximately half of what it is today. Live sports were just beginning to air on television. Technology as we know it - PC’s, cell phones, and social media - didn’t exist. It was not only a different time but a different world. For supporters to compare the WNBA and the NBA at 20 is no more fair than it is for critics to compare the two leagues today. The former is disingenuous and the latter is misleading.
If longevity is your standard for the success of women’s professional sports leagues, WNBA supporters have a strong case. But if making money - which has long been the traditional goal of professional sports - is your standard, the WNBA still has a long way to go.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.