By Beth Werge
Increased game attendance, a growing loyal fan base and new big-money partnerships have allowed the Chicago Sky and the WNBA to reach new audiences, offering numbers that suggest the WNBA isn’t going anywhere but up. Yet rumors of a fold and questions about the WNBA’s sustainability still swirl.
“The WNBA is continuing to get incrementally stronger,” said Sky President Adam Fox.
Despite the disappointing end to the finals, Fox said: “[The Sky is] doing better than alright.” The Sky lost to the Mercury three games straight to give Phoenix its third WNBA championship.
The National Basketball Association funds the women’s league for the most part, but the WNBA acts as a separate entity and has its own broadcasting deal with sports giant ESPN through 2022.
Though the Sky went 21-25 this past season – they suffered a number of injuries over a four-month span, particularly among their starting lineup – the team had an average attendance of 6,685, according to Sky Media and Communications Coordinator Lauren Niemiera. That’s almost double the attendance average in the Sky’s inaugural season back in 2006, which was 3,392 per game.
“It’s really significant,” Fox said. “We are not doing this with a big advertising budget. We don’t have same luxuries as our brother teams around the city [such as the Bulls and other men’s squads], but our success is measurable.
“We would love for it to be a cascade, a massive growth,” he said, “but we are currently getting slow but steady growth. And we’d obviously like to see more.”
Attendance totals have grown from 57,657 for the Sky in 2006 to 113,640 this past season, and the team currently has 1,019 season ticket holders. For the WNBA overall, the 2014 total attendance of a little more than 1.55 million is a .6 percent increase from 2013 and a 42 percent increase over its first season in 1997. Both the Sky and the WNBA saw a slight increase in attendance from last year.
“It’s become a mainstream sport,” Fox said. “I don’t think were in trouble at all.”
But Allen Sanderson, senior lecturer in the department of economics at the University of Chicago, disagrees.
“Can the WNBA make it? Only if Maria Sharapova learns how to play basketball,” he said. “Would I like to invest in a WNBA team? No. And I say that from a flat-out investment or economic view. The WNBA couldn’t stand on its own feet, and that becomes the bottom line: Could it sustain itself on its own?”
At this point, Sanderson’s answer is no, though Fox cited having a partner like ESPN and a fresh wave of avid fans as major signals of growth for both the team and the WNBA as a league.
“Our fans come to the game wanting to see us play very well, and win,” Fox said. “We are a nice feel-good story, but it’s not that ‘hip hip hooray, this is so nice that women get a chance to play basketball’ kind of thing.”
But Sanderson said the WNBA is more of an entertainment outlet than it is a serious sport.
“I’m not saying let’s get rid of the WNBA,” he said. “Look, we do things consciously and we lose money at them. We buy dogs. And dogs are losers unless I have a pitbull in a high-crime neighborhood. But they lose money. Boats lose money, but rich people love having them. I raised a teenage daughter – which is expensive.
“It’s a question for the NBA: How much money are we willing to lose because of PR value we get [from the WNBA]?”
Multiple requests for the Sky’s profit and loss figures were declined.
Sports is also a highly competitive field for consumer dollars, particularly in Chicago. Plus, streaming live events is cheaper and easier than ever, so people have endless options. And when it comes to nationwide sports leagues, Major League Baseball leads the way in attendance and seats, pulling more tickets than the National Basketball Association, National Football League and National Hockey League combined, in part because they play so many games. The NFL leads in terms of value of franchise ownership, Sanderson said.
But no matter how you spin it, there’s a huge drop between interest in football and baseball versus basketball and hockey. Then there’s another huge drop to get to Major League Soccer numbers and another drop to get to golf, and still another for women’s basketball, women’s soccer, and the like.
Sanderson said in some ways he thinks of the WNBA as the Special Olympics.
“We have the Olympic Games and Para-Olympic Games, but the Olympic Games probably draw 96 percent of the revenue and the Special Olympics draw 4 percent,” he said. “[The Special Olympics] lose money. But one does it for other kinds of social reasons. It’s basically subsidized.
“Could you hold a Special Olympics and make it pay? No way. If you didn’t have an NBA, could you have a league that had a law that said men couldn’t play? No.”
Sanderson also compared it to the summer and winter Olympics: “No one watches men’s gymnastics. And I suspect male figure skaters are [technically] better than women, but no one watches that. Women’s figure skating is the most-watched event in the winter Olympics, by Americans.”
Though the WNBA has been going strong for 17 seasons now, the WNBA remains a branch of the NBA. So one thing that could trigger a fold is if players began demanding higher salaries that the leagues couldn’t handle.
Women in the U.S. league can make salaries stateside that won’t crack $50,000 a year. Britney Griner, the 6-foot-8, No. 1 draft pick in 2013, was paid $49,440 her rookie season with the Phoenix Mercury. She played for China’s Zhejuang Golden Bulls that same year and was paid a salary of $600,000, according to ESPN The Magazine. Women’s basketball is extremely popular overseas.
David Berri, sports economist and professor at Southern Utah University, said it’s important to remember that the WNBA is a young league and that it’s probably not the case that the WNBA is struggling.
“One of the key elements that goes into the attraction is the history,” Berri said. “There’s no history. There’s no narrative. So really all you have as fans are people who are hardcore women’s basketball fans, not so many casual fans. There might not be a tremendous amount of interest… it takes time to build that up.”
The NBA likes having this league, according to Berri. “In the off-season their arenas don’t have anyone in them. If you can sell 6,000 tickets to an event [like the Sky does], that’s just revenue. That’s extra. I don’t see any reason why the WNBA would go away.”