Jay Parry, the chief operating officer of the Phoenix Mercury, said she had no idea what kind of turnout to expect when the team hosted a party for its fans on the day of the 2004 WNBA draft. After all, how many people would show up for a party that began at 9 a.m. on a Saturday?
Try about 500. The crowd was more than the restaurant the team booked for the event could hold, so they placed chairs and televisions at the team shop at America West Arena, across the street. Fans cheered as Phoenix selected Diana Taurasi, the University of Connecticut all-American, with the first overall pick.
"It was huge," Parry said. "There was so much interest. We had a great time, and there's just a buzz so far."
Scenes like that have those around the WNBA excited about the 2004 season, which began last night with three games. The league's eighth season kicks off in earnest Saturday, when Phoenix faces the Connecticut Sun in a nationally televised game from sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena and the Washington Mystics play the Charlotte Sting at MCI Center.
A year ago, the WNBA opened its season following a tumultuous winter that included two teams folding, two teams relocating and a labor dispute. This year, the uncertainty is gone, and optimism is rampant after a remarkably successful women's college basketball season.
The NCAA women's basketball tournament earned its highest television ratings. The deepest and most talented class of rookies -- including Washington's Alana Beard, Charlotte's Nicole Powell, Connecticut's Lindsay Whalen, and of course, Taurasi (whom WNBA President Val Ackerman referred to as "the most visible college senior we've ever had," and whom Houston Coach Van Chancellor called "one of the best players I have ever seen") -- have entered the league. ESPN, naturally, has pinned much of its preseason advertising campaign on the rookies.
"This is going to be one heck of a season for the WNBA," Los Angeles Sparks Coach Michael Cooper said. "With the new talent coming into the league, I compare them to what Magic and Bird did for the NBA. These talented players are going to make their teams a lot better."
Ackerman has said this will be "without question, our most competitive season." The Detroit Shock is the defending champion, having gone from the league's worst team to becoming the first Eastern Conference team to win the WNBA title. Competition for roster spots this year has been fierce, with the influx of new talent and the dissolution of the Cleveland Rockers, leaving the league with 13 teams.
Ackerman said the league would like to add another team in the next two years. She also said a handful of teams are profitable, and that the league projects the WNBA will be profitable by the 2007 season.
Like its (very profitable) big brother, the WNBA -- which includes 30 international players from 19 countries -- is trying its game outside the United States. The league drew 13,536 for a preseason game earlier this month in Monterrey, Mexico, between the San Antonio Silver Stars and the Shock.
The league will shut down its season for almost the entire month of August, because of the Olympics. The entire U.S. roster is composed of WNBA players, and seven other countries could have a current or former WNBA player on their rosters.
"I think [the Olympics are] going to increase the fan base because people are going to be watching on TV -- everybody follows the Olympics," Mystics forward Chamique Holdsclaw said. "They stay up until 1 a.m. to catch the games, and they're like, 'Wow, they can compete.' Hopefully, we'll grab some more fans."
The league is also hoping interest in the women's college basketball tournament will carry over to its season. The NCAA championship game between Connecticut and Tennessee drew a rating of 4.3, making it ESPN's highest-rated basketball telecast, men's or women's.
"There's a lot of energy and excitement coming off of the Final Four," said Carol Stiff, ESPN's director of programming and acquisitions. "I don't know what kind of ratings [the WNBA] will get, but we have wrapped our arms around the marriage of the two, the NCAA and the WNBA."
The draft was moved to a Saturday, and its first round was televised on ESPN as a lead-in to the network's coverage of an NBA first-round playoff game. (In previous seasons, the draft was held on a weekday and was televised by ESPN2, which reaches fewer households than ESPN.) The draft had a rating of 0.61, a significant jump from a 0.16 rating in 2003, Stiff said.
The WNBA's Web site received 1.3 million page views on the day of the draft, a single-day record.
"The fact that they have had so much visibility already works to our advantage," Ackerman said of the rookie class. "It stands to reckon that if Diana Taurasi can attract fans to watch basketball in a U-Conn. uniform, then they will be interested to see her go against better competition."
The league has incorporated both Taurasi and Beard into its marketing campaign. Phoenix, which had an average attendance of about 8,500 per game last season (5,000 fewer than its average attendance in 1997, its first season), has made Taurasi the centerpiece of its marketing efforts.
In the month of April, the Mercury Web site registered 560,588 page views, surpassing the total page views from all of last season (526,754). Season ticket sales, single-game ticket sales and merchandise sales have doubled, Parry said.
Late last week, as she flew home to Phoenix from New York, Parry struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to her on the plane. He had recently moved to Arizona from Chicago, and his eyes lit up when Parry mentioned she worked for the Mercury.
"He said, 'Oh! You got Diana. I watched her in the NCAA final. I'd like to see her play,' " Parry said. "That is just what I wanted to hear."