When the first WNBA game tipped off in June 1997, amid a surge of interest in women’s basketball after the U.S. team’s gold medal-winning performance at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, there were eight teams—each of which, along with the league itself, were collectively owned by the NBA. Those original franchises were operated by the existing NBA team in their market, but every player was signed to a contract with the league. There was no minimum salary, no guaranteed contracts, no free agency. Players got no year-round medical or any maternity benefits, no retirement plan, no group licensing or marketing rights, and no revenue sharing, either.
At the end of the season, the now-defunct Houston Comets emerged as the first WNBA champions. They would go on to win the next three titles as well, marking the league’s first dynasty. But the once-dominant Comets, disbanded in 2008, were victims of the ebbs and flows, the growth and contractions every young sports league experiences. They were one of six WNBA franchises that have folded over the years due to low attendance and insufficient revenue; another five have relocated.
And while the lows got the best of the Comets, they didn’t get the best of a league that has maintained just enough backing and shown just enough business savvy to get by for a quarter of a century– far longer than its predecessor, the ABL, which didn’t make it through its third season. But getting by isn’t enough anymore. The WNBA’s 25th season, starting on Friday, aims to spur recent momentum after two-and-a-half decades of sometimes painstakingly slow but steady growth.
The W’s first-ever commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, enters her second full season leading the league, as the 12 teams and 140 players endeavor to finally “push the league over the top,” as WNBPA founding director Pam Wheeler put it. Wheeler, who negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in women’s professional sports, spent 15 years in her role with the PA.
“When we started the league, the goal was to become the fifth Major League,” Val Ackerman, the WNBA’s first president, said in an interview. “Baseball, football, hockey, the NBA—we wanted to be the fifth. I think maybe what you’ve seen in recent years is the league sort of growing into the model we built for it back then.”
While even an avid fan would say the league probably isn’t quite there yet, the WNBA at this moment has the most corporate sponsorship and media support to date. Average player salaries surpassed six figures for the first time in league history as of the 2020 CBA, and star players are eligible for annual compensation that can top $500,000. The $57,000 minimum rookie base salary is more than double what it was in the league’s first CBA in 1999. Additional earning opportunities and player benefits are also woven into the newest pact, each agreement building upon the last.
There have been other markers of progress along the way: In the league’s second CBA in 2003, free agency gave players power and a freedom they hadn’t had before. The new agreement also shifted the ownership model from a single-entity league to one that allowed for outside ownership and independently-owned franchises. Two such were added in short order: the Connecticut Sun (owned by Native American-run casino Mohegan Sun) and the Chicago Sky, which debuted in an existing NBA market without any ties to the men’s franchise or its ownership. Today, only five of the league’s 12 teams still share NBA ownership.
“There was always this eye, especially for those early players, on how they were going to move this thing forward,” Wheeler said in an interview. “We’ve made some not just steady progress, but especially in the last year, I think there’s been some amazing progress. We’re coming along. I just want to be around when that first player signs that first million-dollar contract.”
While that may still be a future CBA or two away, the momentum is there for the league to take another step in key business areas, like sponsorship, which along with television and attendance drive crucial revenue streams including ticket sales and merchandise.
Historically, less than 1% of all corporate dollars for sports sponsorships go to women’s sports. Engelbert’s Changemakers partnership platform, launched last year to find sponsors with deep pockets and an ability to provide direct support for the W’s business development efforts, has started to make headway. The WNBA also banked significant support from global brands like Google, AT&T (the league’s marquee partner and inaugural Changemaker partner), Deloitte (where Engelbert served as the company’s first female CEO until 2019) and Nike. The foursome are part of the WNBA’s roster of more than 30 marketing partners (up from 25 in 2020) and 30 licensees.
“One of the first things I asked—maybe this is my business background—is how big is the denominator?” Engelbert said in an interview. “If I wanted to get the 1% to 10%, how hard would it be? Are we talking 400 basis points or 600 basis points? Turns out, it’s enormous. But that didn’t mean it was something we’re not willing to push up the hill and work on, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Due in part to one of those new sponsors, Google, and a three-way deal with ESPN, 100 of the league’s games will be nationally televised this season—the first 100-telecast slate since 2011—across six networks. During the inaugural season, that number was 34. Streaming is also part of the strategy through Facebook, Twitter and more. But despite the growth in coverage, regular-season viewership numbers have remained relatively flat throughout the league’s history, according to Nielsen, though they have seen consistent growth during the postseason.
Last season started to change that tune: In 2020, the WNBA was the only major team sport to observe year-over-year television audience growth during the pandemic, marking one of its most-viewed regular seasons in league history. The league’s average audience during the regular and postseason together was up 38% over 2019 while television ratings cratered across sports properties everywhere. Female viewers drove that growth, comprising a greater percentage of the WNBA audience than in any year since 2003 to make up 45% of the league’s audience—an especially attractive demographic for advertisers given women’s control over global consumer spending.
Social media has also become a particular bright spot for the league, which saw a 30% increase in engagement across social platforms.
Continued viewership and audience development could also mean more media money. The WNBA—which didn’t earn a dime for its TV rights during the first decade of its existence—earns around $25 million per year from its ESPN deal as of the start of the 2016 season; the amount is still less than 1% of the $2.6 billion per year the NBA brings in on its current deal.
The numbers show a growing affinity for the sport and the league, and a very engaged audience—fans that now need to be what Wheeler describes as “activated.” Viewership and social engagement can only get the league so far. After holding steady at around 1.5 million fans per season for several years, league attendance dropped in 2018 and 2019. During the latter season, WNBA teams averaged just 6,528 fans. When the league debuted in 1997, it welcomed almost 10,000 fans on average and more than 10,000 per game the next year.
“People haven’t moved their emotional connection [to the WNBA] to an economic connection,” Wheeler said. “They haven’t really realized, ‘Hey, this is a business that has to operate as one, and in order for it to continue to be a sustainable, viable venture, people need to put their money where their mouth is.’ If you believe in it, you think it’s a great product, then buy tickets. Go to the games.”
Ackerman says that switch from viewers to attendees has to happen for the league to take its next steps. “The objective for any pro league is fan support, and what will be important for the league will be that growth,” she said.
WNBA store online sales, which were up 350% last season, might hint at an increasingly eager-to-spend audience. Due to ongoing pandemic restrictions, 2021 won’t be the season the WNBA finds out how many fans it can get in the doors, but it can still be a year of realizing the league’s potential.
“The one thing that hit me a couple of months in was that this is a real sports and entertainment media property,” Engelbert said. “There is real revenue and real potential and a real embodiment of diversity, equity and inclusion. I think about the strong data that we have to support this league that pulls all of those points together, and I see the strength of our ecosystem.”
-With assistance from Anthony Crupi