By Barry Janoff
September 21, 2015: In the midst of its 2015 post-season, and nearing its milestone 20th season of play, the WNBA is seeking what all teams and leagues want but is still struggling to achieve: A growing fan base, stronger TV numbers and an expanding roster of marketing partners.
The WNBA was founded 1996, played its first season 1997 and has been operating much longer than its critics predicted. But the league faces significant challenges in fan attendance, TV ratings and marketing power.
"With women running for president in both parties, the United States is catching up to where the WNBA has been for 20 years. "The WNBA is the intersection of gender, race and sexual orientation."
Richie, speaking on a panel, "The State of Women's Sports," during last week's Game Changers sports marketing conference in New York under the auspices of Sports Business/Global/Journal, stressed the positives that the WNBA has shown and continues to build upon, but admitted that crucial challenges exist.
"We at the W are focused on building a genuine and sustained fan base," said Richie. "That’s where our sustainable growth comes from," "All good things happen when we achieve that . . . When that is in place, your games look better on TV," she said. "Your sponsors like that — a lot — and you can generate more interest and involvement from those who might not yet be fans."
During the same conference, NBA commissioner Adam Silver highlighted the WNBA's positive attributes but also focused on what he sees as its faults.
Speaking on the eve of the 2015 WNBA playoffs, being presented by league-wide marketing partner Boost Mobile — which began Sept. 17, with Conference Finals scheduled to start Sept. 24 and the best-of-five WNBA Finals Oct. 4 — Silver said, "I think we might have been ahead of ourselves 20 years ago in terms of what we were doing, (In 2015, interest is) not where we hoped it would be. We thought it would have broken through by now. We thought ratings and attendance would be higher.”
According to Silver, "In terms of our marketing overall, we may have lost our way at certain points."
The WNBA's average attendance in 2015 was 7,318, lowest in league history. The average is down 3% from 2014 and down from a one-season high average of 10,864 in 2009.
Phoenix Mercury led with 9,946 this past season, the Los Angeles Sparks had the biggest year-to-year gain, up 9% to 9,065.
The league has the best and most-high profile women's hoops players in the world, among them MVP Donna Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, Sue Bird, Skylar Diggins, Candace Parker, Cappie Pondexter. They all currently are on the U.S. Women's National Team roster, which will compete for gold in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
TV numbers have shown some flicker of growth but overall are flat.
In 2013, ESPN and the WNBA extended their agreement for six years, through the 2022 season. The majority of televised games top out at 275,000 viewers,
Viewership for the 19 games broadcast for the 2014 regular season averaged 240,000. The 2014 WNBA finals averaged 659,000 viewers across the ESPN channels, up 91% from the 2013.
Also on the upside, the 2015 WNBA All-Star Game on ABC (played in Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.), averaged 583,000 viewers, a 23% increase over 2014 (when it aired on ESPN).
WNBA marketing partners include adidas, America Express, BBVA Compess, Anheuser-Busch (Bud Light), Coca-Cola, Diageo, EA Sports, Gatorade, Harmon Kardon, Kaiser Permanente, Nike, P&G, Samsung, SAP, Spalding and State Farm.
Several teams have jersey-sponsor deals, including the Washington Mystics (which signed with daily fantasy sports firm Draft Ops last week), Chicago Sky (Magellan), Minnesota Lynx (Mayo Clinic), Phoenix Mercury (Casino Arizona), Indiana Fever (Finish Line), Tulsa Shock (Osage Casino), Los Angeles Sparks (EquiTrust) and New York Liberty (DraftKings).
Boost Mobile has its logo on all eight WNBA playoffs jerseys.
Even during the season, however, national marketing campaigns with WNBA stars are relatively scarce, especially when compared to in-season and year-round efforts that feature NBA players; and, closer to home, campaigns that feature such top women athletes such as tennis players Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova and members of the U.S. National Women's Soccer Team led in marketing deals by Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Kelley O'Hara.
State Farm has Sue Bird among its "National Bureau of Assist" squad, alongside Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and John Stockton. Maya Moore is a national spokesperson for Nike's Jordan Brand and has several Air Jordan kicks.
But the distant between where the WNBA is and where many feel it should be is noticeable.
"After four years and two national championships, I went No. 1 in the 2011 WNBA Draft. That’s when I felt the drop," Moore, an all-star with the Minnesota Lynx, wrote in a column in May for The Players Tribune. "There’s this unnatural break in exposure for the highest level of women’s basketball in the world. Wait, what happened here? That’s a question we as WNBA players ask ourselves. We go from amazing AAU experiences to high school All-American games to the excitement and significant platform of the collegiate level to . . . Less coverage. Empty seats. Fewer eyeballs."
“I’m not running a charity here. I’m running a league, and running a business," said Richie during the Game Changers conference. "We are fundamentally a sports and entertainment vehicle. We cannot lose site of that. That’s where our sustainable growth comes from.
"I feel that we have, on occasion, sold the WNBA too much as a cause. We are played by women . . . and we’re very proud of that, and we don’t walk away from that," said Richie. "This is 144 elite athletes, the destination for the very best in the world, and we cannot lose sight of that. That’s where our sustainable growth comes from.”
According to Richie, "There is no single model. Every single market is different. We have to tailor our business plans to what is unique about each individual market. The Connecticut Sun, they are owned by the Mohegan tribe and play in an arena (Mohegan Sun) that is attached to a casino. That is not a typical model.
"I look at the conversations happening in this country . . . .as being more authentic than they’ve ever been," said Richie. "The country is catching up to where the WNBA has been for the last 19 years.”
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