After Two Decades, W.N.B.A. Still Struggling for Relevance


It is as if fans needed to be reminded, she said, that “we’re actually the same players.”

Before the season, the league hired a new president, Lisa M. Borders, to replace Laurel J. Richie. Silver likens the task of managing the league to running a political campaign — something that Borders has done, when she was on the Atlanta City Council and ran unsuccessfully for mayor. More recently, Borders chaired the Coca-Cola Foundation.

She is trying to augment increased television coverage with a vigorous digital and social media marketing plan in an effort to lift attendance and viewership.

She is fond of adages, like one from her grandfather, who told her, “You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you talk.” She talks about the Harry Truman-like whistle-stop tour that will take her to each market during the season. And she promised to bring a businesslike approach to reversing the league’s troubles.

“Here’s my job,” she said emphatically. “I am the No. 1 salesperson in the W.N.B.A. My title says president, but economic viability is my No. 1 job.”

Borders recognizes the challenges in making the W.N.B.A. stand out to hard-core women’s basketball fans as well as more casual sports lovers who might not pay attention to women’s sports.

“People have to know there’s a team in their market,” she said during a recent interview in her office at N.B.A. headquarters in Manhattan. “They have to know it’s affordable family entertainment. There is no reason why people shouldn’t know that a W.N.B.A. game is being played.”

The 2016 season is a reboot, an opportunity to watch the rookie season of Breanna Stewart, one of the league’s biggest new stars who was drafted by the Storm after leading the University of Connecticut to four consecutive N.C.A.A. titles; and to celebrate the final campaign of one of the league’s most popular players, Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever.

It is also a season to follow the Dallas Wings, a franchise with three W.N.B.A. titles and as many relocations to build an audience — exemplifying the ups and downs of the league.

Fighting to Remain Viable

The W.N.B.A. strives to keep the failure of other leagues from haunting it. Two women’s soccer leagues succumbed after three seasons; one of them, the Women’s United Soccer Association, which was launched in the afterglow of the United States’s victory at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, had a group of cable television companies and executives as its backers.

Photo

Skylar Diggins of the Dallas Wings high-fives a fan after halftime at a W.N.B.A. preseason game in Arlington, Tex.

Credit
Cooper Neill for The New York Times

“I’m optimistic, but I’m not naïve,” said Michael Alter, the owner of the Chicago Sky. “It’s not easy to get the word out. We don’t have the support of all the free media; we have to work really hard. It’s a grind, and we’re just plugging away. But we’ve got great athletes, and we’re doing everything possible to expose them to the media.”

To combat criticism that the league has not come as far as it should have, executives often repeat a mantra: The W.N.B.A. is ahead of the N.B.A. at a similar period in its development.

Last year’s average W.N.B.A. attendance of 7,318 a game exceeded the 6,749 at the same period of the N.B.A.’s development in the mid-1960s. The N.B.A. then was not the marketing juggernaut it would later become under the former commissioner David Stern and lacked a nurturing, financially well-heeled league as its parent, as the W.N.B.A. has had.

The comparison between the leagues is less favorable now: The N.B.A. is a global sports force, with $5.18 billion in revenue last year, that just set a regular-season attendance record of 17,864 a game.

Still, Val Ackerman, the first W.N.B.A. president, said: “Longevity is itself a victory. There were naysayers around every corner who said we wouldn’t last a year or even two years, and now it’s 20.”

Backed by the “We Got Next” marketing campaign and the ownership of its teams by N.B.A. franchises, the W.N.B.A. started with unexpected strength the year after the United States women’s team won the gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics. Original average attendance projections of upward of 4,500 fans in the first season were obliterated in the surprising rush to see the women play. That average attendance of 9,664 in 1997 swelled to a peak of 10,864 in 1998, then began its gradual downward descent.

“The first year or two, sure, there was a lot of sampling and a lot of excitement coming out of the Olympics,” said Rick Welts, president of the N.B.A.’s Golden State Warriors. “The league did a great job launching, but a whole lot of N.B.A. fans looked, watched and said, ‘I don’t like this league that much.’ That was the biggest wake-up call of all, that there was not an automatic migration of N.B.A. fans to the W.N.B.A. It took us a while to figure out that this was not the N.B.A. and we had to approach it differently.”

Silver said his goal within three to five years was to bring attendance back to 10,000, a level the Phoenix Mercury, the Minnesota Lynx and the Liberty approached last year.

That may help shore up finances that contribute to the W.N.B.A.’s low player salaries, from $39,676 to $111,500 this season, that push many of its players, like Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Tina Charles, to play in Europe and China during the off-season for multiples of their league wages.

“Hopefully, in five years, players won’t have to go overseas, and we’ll have the off-season to make ourselves and the W.N.B.A. better,” said the Sky’s Cappie Pondexter, who has played in a Turkish league between seasons.

Often, it seems, the league is striving for respect even in supportive quarters.

In January, ESPN and league officials met to discuss plans for the upcoming season and narrowly avoided what could have been a major slight. The league’s original 2016 television schedule omitted an opening-night game, an oversight John Skipper, the ESPN president, said he rectified.

Skipper said: “I asked what day the season opened and what game we were doing, and I was told we weren’t doing a game. And I said: ‘Guys, that’s an issue. We can’t be the league’s partner and not to do an opening-day game.’”

Silver was relieved at Skipper’s intervention.

“I had accepted that we’d gotten all we could out of ESPN and was thrilled when John added the opening-day game,” Silver said. “It was a reminder of how much more we need to do.”

The opening game ended up being the Lynx’s 95-76 victory over the Mercury with a paid attendance of 9,221 fans at Target Center — which sells only lower-bowl seats for most Lynx games — on an opening weekend when league attendance was up 7 percent over last season.

Finding a Fan Base

The Wings hope they have made their final move and that it will generate attendance. Starting out in 1998 as the Detroit Shock, the team moved to Tulsa, Okla., in 2010 and then relocated to the Dallas-Fort Worth area after last season.

Bill Cameron, the franchise owner, thought that taking the team to Tulsa, where it would be the city’s only major franchise, would be as beneficial as it was for the Seattle SuperSonics when they moved to Oklahoma City, where they became the Thunder.

But he was wrong. The franchise, which won three titles in Detroit, foundered in Tulsa. Three key players did not join the relocation. The team won as few as three games during five consecutive losing seasons. Last season’s team was hurt by injuries to its stars, Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims, but still won 18 of 34 games.

“As we looked ahead, the protracted downturn in the energy economy in Tulsa was worrisome,” Cameron said, but the Dallas area beckoned.

“When the opportunity came to move to Dallas, we needed to pursue it,” Cameron said. “In a short time, we’ve almost reached the same level of ticket sales and sponsorship we had in Tulsa after five years.”

In moving to the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington, Cameron took the team from BOK Center in Tulsa, with 17,800 seats for basketball, to College Park Center, with 7,000 seats.

To Sims, it is the right size for a W.N.B.A. team.

“Obviously, we’re not going to fill up 20,000,” she said at the team’s media day. “No W.N.B.A. team has done that. They should just make arenas smaller. Even if you only have 3,000 fans on a bad night, it’ll sound loud.”

The small Arlington arena needed most of the first half of a preseason game between the Wings and the Connecticut Sun before the crowd appeared to reach its paid attendance of 2,326. The first regular-season home game, a victory over the San Antonio Stars in a sellout arena, was a better early indicator of local interest in the relocated team that will try to break through in a crowded market. The region features the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys and Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers, who play nearby, as well as the N.B.A.’s Dallas Mavericks and the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars.

For more than a quarter, even as the Wings took a big lead, fans were quiet, many with arms folded, as if sending a message to the players: Show me. The recorded exhortations to shout “Defense!” were not being followed. Slowly, the fans came alive. They started razzing Sun players at the free-throw line. A white-haired man jawed at the visiting team.

And Tiesha Bailey, who watched the game in a state of exuberance near Spivey, said: “I was 11 when the W.N.B.A. started. I remember being so excited that Sheryl Swoopes was in Houston. Now I have season tickets, so I can take my 9-year-old niece here.”

The Houston Comets were the league’s early powerhouse, winning the first four W.N.B.A. championships and attracting as many as 12,602 fans a game in 1998. But by 2008, they were out of business, victimized by their owner’s lack of finances.

“I only wanted to risk myself so far,” the owner, Hilton Koch, said at the time. “My money was only going to last so long.”

Barbara Miggins stayed on her feet through nearly all of the Wings’ preseason game, gesturing with her right arm while cradling her 17-month-old daughter, Gina, in her left. Her older daughters, Chrissy, 4, and Lina, 5, and her husband, Reggie, sat nearby.

“I’ve been waiting 17 years for this,” she said after the Wings’ loss to the Sun. “This is a role-modeling experience for our daughters. I want them to see this.”

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