The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was founded on April 24th, 1996. The initial idea of having a women’s professional basketball team wasn’t unsound. The National Basketball Association (NBA) was very popular at the time, so it made sense to make a women’s version. However, 22 years later we can now see that the WNBA never developed into a feasible business.
Attendance and Viewership:
In 2018 the average attendance for a WNBA game was 6,721, which is an all-time low. When this is compared to the 2018 average attendance of the NBA, which was 17,987 and lead to a record total of over 22 million for the season, we can see there is a significant disparity between the two leagues in terms of popularity. This isn’t the only indicator of a significant popularity difference however, as television viewers for the WNBA are also lower than the NBA’s. In 2018 the WNBA averaged 266,300 viewers each game (which was up 26% from 2017) and the NBA averaged 1.28 million per game (up 8% from the 2016-17 season).
Some might point out that in the 1968-69 NBA season, which was its 22nd year, the NBA averaged around just 6,400 attendees per game. They point this out in an effort to explain how the WNBA is doing better than the NBA did. However, the American Basketball Association (ABA) came into existence that same year and drew just under 3,000 attendees per game. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that if the ABA hadn’t become a direct competitor, then the NBA attendance would have been higher than it was. It is also worth noting that the WNBA has never had a direct competitor and it still set record lows for attendance this year. Meanwhile, the NBA has done nothing but climb in popularity since its birth. It managed this growth mostly in an age where they didn’t have the benefit of social media and widespread internet access.
I should also point out that the WNBA is on ESPN and ABC because the NBA forces television stations to include the women’s league in their contracts. They don’t get television exposure based upon their own merit.
The average yearly income of the entire WNBA is $52.4 million dollars. Which results in the league only being able to allow 20% of its income (about $11 million) to be split among players. These numbers have lead to the average WNBA player making around $75,000 per year with a maximum veteran salary of $113,500. The NBA on the other hand generated 7.4 billion in 2018 alone, which was up 25% from 2017. The NBA allows 50% of its income to be split among players, roughly $3.7 billion. This allows the NBA to have an average salary around $5 million dollars with the minimum salary being $838,464. Perhaps the most telling piece of information is that the NBA subsidizes the WNBA, which means the WNBA can’t cover all of its operating costs and the NBA floats them somewhere around $10-12 million per year (I couldn’t find a solid number on it). So, in essence, without the NBA the WNBA would go under in a metaphorical heartbeat.
The women practice sound basketball concepts and they implement proven strategies on the court. However, their execution of these practices and strategies is less exciting due to their lack of speed, strength, and all-around athleticism. This cannot be overstated because a big part of what makes the NBA so successful is the excitement and intensity of the way the men play the game. It is an oddity when a male professional basketball player can’t dunk, but in the WNBA that is the norm. They could help this issue by using a shorter hoop, but they insist upon using a 10 ft hoop like the men do. Another issue is that the women only play 34 games, meaning the season is shorter and fewer games means fewer dollars. It also makes it difficult to generate as much hype, as there is a smaller window of time for people to take notice and become interested.
The WNBA is a nice idea, but lacks a marketable product. It has repeatedly been shown that the general public just isn’t interested in women’s basketball as it is currently played. Even with the benefit of social media and massive internet access, the league continues to decline in game attendance. Without a product that people are willing to pay to see, the league simply cannot support its own weight. If any other business were reporting numbers like these, even if it were the men’s league, it would be shut down due to not producing a profit. Could it be that it is kept afloat because it is a women’s league and they are seeking “social justice?” That might very well be, but that is a subject for a different post.