Candace Parker got her storybook ending on Sunday when she brought her hometown Chicago Sky the team’s first WNBA championship over the Phoenix Mercury, closing out a 3-1 Finals win with an 80-74 victory.
The series, which capped the WNBA’s season-long celebration of its 25th anniversary, saw record-setting attendance and spikes in viewership that bode well for the league’s future—but also pointed out areas, such as playoff merchandising, where the W’s business still lags.
Parker, a Naperville, Ill., native, returned to the Windy City after 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks, and like LeBron James in Cleveland, brought a title to her hometown. Chicago entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed after a 16-16 regular season, and Parker’s storyline helped the playoff box office. The series closed out with consecutive sellouts at 10,387-seat Wintrust Arena, almost four times the league’s average attendance. Both of the games in Phoenix, where the Mercury led the league in regular season attendance, also drew big crowds, with Game 2 topping 13,600 fans.
With games across ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, viewership for the Finals also saw healthy jumps. While ESPN has yet to release the full series’ data, Game 1 marked the most-viewed opening game of the WNBA Finals since 2017, and Game 2 was the most-viewed second clash since the 2003 Finals, averaging 789,000 viewers and peaking at 1 million. Both boosts followed a 70% increase in viewership for the semifinals over 2020’s bubble season.
Ahead of the 2021 playoffs, the WNBA announced that sales from its online store were up 50% over last year. And yet, fans expressed frustration over their inability to find Chicago Sky jerseys online throughout the Finals. Not a single jersey was available for purchase on the WNBA’s own website as the team contended for a title, and the only Mercury jersey listed was a custom one.
The jerseys of only two of Chicago’s stars, Diamond DeShields and Courtney Vandersloot, were sold online at Dick’s Sporting Goods, which came on as a partner in September as one of many 25th anniversary season sponsor additions, among them Google and Amazon Prime Video.
Parker’s jersey was the league’s sixth-best seller this season, but it was unavailable for most fans during the postseason. Even during the regular season, merchandise is only sold for a few of the league’s players. Of the 144 players in the league, fewer than 20 had jerseys available in WNBA’s official online store this season, and even fewer had both youth and adult versions ready for sale. To order the jerseys of the league’s other players, customization is the only option, and it’s a more expensive one at that.
Dick’s Sporting Goods and the W articulated a desire to get more gear into fans’ hands when the partnership was announced, wanting to make merchandise more widely available across the country, but it didn’t appear to solve the issue before the playoffs. The WNBA’s postseason is historically when it has seen the most growth in viewership and attendance, with its regular-season audience typically remaining relatively flat. This season, though marked the league’s most-watched regular season since 2008. Viewership was up 51% over the 2020 bubble season across its television partners (ABC, CBS, ESPN and ESPN2).
That said, regular-season viewership for the 2021 campaign averaged just 306,000 viewers across ESPN’s networks, good for a smaller 24% jump over the league’s last pre-pandemic season in 2019.
Postseason games airing in prime broadcast slots on the main networks of the league’s partners typically contribute to those boosts, but even Game 3 of this year’s Finals series found itself relegated to ESPN2.
Issues regarding the league’s travel policy and the financial inequities among owners also came to light this postseason, with Phoenix star Diana Taurasi pointing out some of the problems as she chartered her own plane to fly home from a semifinals game to make it home for the birth of her second child. Some, including Joe Tsai, owner of the WNBA’s New York Liberty and the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, say they are working with the WNBA to address the issues and find airline sponsors for chartered flights.