A Matter Of Value Instead Of Profit

David Stern
"We have a good strategic reason to support the WNBA, which is the growth of viewership and fans for basketball," NBA Commissioner David Stern says. (Robert Sullivan - Getty Images)
By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

As the WNBA prepares to play its All-Star Game tonight, the biggest accomplishment the 10-year-old league can celebrate is that it's still around -- thanks largely to its financial angel and chief advocate, the NBA.

Average WNBA attendance is down from the league's first season in 1997, television ratings are sluggish and most of its 14 teams still lose money, requiring annual infusions of $12 million or so from the NBA.

While NBA Commissioner David Stern says the league is on track to turn a small profit next year, he also emphasizes that the WNBA's value as an ambassador that draws new fans -- especially women -- to the sport is worth the financial losses it has incurred over its first decade.

"We have a good strategic reason to support the WNBA, which is the growth of viewership and fans for basketball," Stern said.

Stern points to the recent NBA playoffs, which had a double-digit increase in the number of women ages 18 to 34 who watched on television compared with last year.

And Stern lists other reasons for the WNBA to exist: "There's compelling logic . . . to have 20 dates [in an NBA arena] in the summertime, to have additional programming for your regional sports network and to have goodwill ambassadors in the community promoting the sport of basketball among boys and girls and fans of all ages."

Sports industry experts said the league likely will always be an adjunct to the NBA, and although recent television ratings are abysmal, its potential warrants modest expectations.

"They simply cannot attract the eyeballs to watch the games on television," said Marc S. Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports marketing firm.

The league's 13 games on ESPN2 last summer averaged an anemic 0.26 rating. While its games on national network ABC were higher at 0.7, the WNBA has a long way to go as a credible television draw. The league is hoping a spike in its 2005 playoffs augers well for this season and the potential for bigger television contracts in the future.

The WNBA's television ratings are higher than the National Hockey League's cable ratings and Major League Soccer's TV audience. WNBA games in 2005 had broad coverage if not audiences, airing throughout the world in 31 languages with 68 TV partners.

Professional sports teams cannot thrive without hefty television contracts that bring big sponsors and national buzz. Ticket sales and local sponsorship can help cover the team's expenses, but the path to real profitability lies in the multimillion-dollar television rights deals, which the WNBA does not enjoy.

"If you think this is going to be the NBA or get men's college basketball ratings or baseball ratings, that's not going to happen," said Len DeLuca, senior vice president for programming and acquisitions at ESPN, which along with parent ABC carries some WNBA games. "But it's a good niche and it has to be done at a realistic scale."

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