I see where the Minnesota Lynx won the WNBA championship last night by defeating the Atlanta Dream. It was a 3-0 sweep. Good for the Lynx.
As for the WNBA, all these years later, the data is still mixed.
The league says television viewership, Internet traffic and attendance are up. A Forbes.com story in July said viewership on NBA-TV was up 86 percent, gate receipts up 18 percent and attendance up .3 percent.
Yet I noticed in the box score that just 5,040 attended the final game, which is less than half the capacity for the Gwinnett Center near Atlanta.
The league has been running since 1997, when eight teams were formed. One of them was the Utah Starzz. The NBA came to owners in various cities and basically asked them to financially back the fledgling league. The Starzz stayed five years and then left for San Antonio. People in the Starzz organization told me the Jazz just didn’t feel they could continue taking the losses.
The move disappointed me. I thought WNBA players were good to work with and great in the community. There was fair interest in Salt Lake, though nothing close to a sellout. This wasn’t the only market with attendance problems. To have a championship game in a venue with 13,000 seats, but only 5,000 fans attending, is damning.
Considering the league has been in business 17 years, and that its biggest booster, David Stern, is retiring doesn’t necessarily bode well.
Various women’s sports do nicely, but pro basketball still has its problems, no matter how it’s spun. The U.S. national women’s soccer team draws big crowds, as evidenced when it played at Rio Tinto Stadium in 2012, attracting over 16,000. But the WNBA has been around long enough to prove one thing: There’s a limited audience for the sport. League-wide attendance peaked in the late 1990s.
How long will the NBA keep the WNBA afloat? Hard to say. Maybe it will be something that just needs to be there, whether it makes money or not – like a local ballet company or opera. Certainly incoming stars like Brittney Griner have their appeal. The Internet has increased visibility.
Still, don’t expect the formula to change much after 17 years of evidence. The WNBA has an audience, but not a big enough one to draw an impressive crowd for its title game. It’s still here because the NBA wants it to be.
It will survive only as long that holds true.