There’s the Internet trope “Pics or it didn’t happen.” For the WNBA, the saying goes, “Pay attention to our games or people won’t know the league exists.”
There’s truth to that, according to the WNBA’s 2011 No. 1 overall draft pick Maya Moore, who currently plays for the Minnesota Lynx. She also plays for the Shanxi Flame in China because, unlike the NBA, where top players sign multimillion-dollar contracts with their teams, the WNBA’s highest-paid player gets $107,000 per year. But that’s a separate problem, and one that will likely only be fixed when people start paying attention to the WNBA more often than on those rare occasions when players get arrested or Isiah Thomas inexplicably is named president of a team. But how?
“That’s the key: visibility,” Moore writes in an essay for The Players’ Tribune, a site written by athletes and created by Derek Jeter.
Moore, who played for the country’s highest profile women’s college team, the University of Connecticut Huskies, compares her current profile in the WNBA to her celebrity in the past. While one might think turning pro would allow athletes to level up in recognition, for Moore and other former college stars going to the WNBA has had the opposite effect.
“After four years and two national championships, I went No. 1 in the 2011 WNBA Draft. That’s when I felt the drop,” she writes and continues:
“There’s this unnatural break in exposure for the highest level of women’s basketball in the world. Wait, what happened here? That’s a question we as WNBA players ask ourselves. We go from amazing AAU experiences to high school All-American games to the excitement and significant platform of the collegiate level to … this. All of that visibility to … this. Less coverage. Empty seats. Fewer eyeballs. In college, your coaches tell you to stay focused on your team and the game — not the media attention. But you know you’re on national television. You know people are following you. You can feel the excitement. And then as a professional, all of that momentum, all of that passion, all of that support — the ball of momentum is deflating before my eyes.
Ratings for WNBA games are not great, either compared to other sports or NCAA women’s college basketball. But they have been worse. The 2014 WNBA Finals series which saw the Phoenix Mercury beat the Chicago Sky in a three-game sweep, was the most-watch series since 2006, according to Sports Media Watch. The games, which aired on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, averaged 659,000 viewers, up 91 percent compared to the 2013 WNBA Finals series and 38 percent compared to the the 2012 series.
However, when compared to NCAA women’s basketball, those numbers are small beans. The 2015 NCAA tournament final between Moore’s alma mater and Notre Dame in April drew 3.1 million viewers on ESPN, Nielsen reports. The year before, when Connecticut faced off against the Fighting Irish once more, 4.3 million people watched, according to Sports Media Watch.
Attendance is also an issue with the WNBA. Teams averaged just 7,578 fans per game in 2014, according to Sports Business Daily. The silver lining is that that figure is up slightly from the year before, but it’s still down from the 1990s when WNBA’s attendance rates were at their highest. In 1999, attendance peaked with an average of 10,864 people attending games.
“It’s frustrating on several levels,” Moore writes. “We professional female athletes are continuing to grow and evolve, and trying to make an impact on our communities and other young lives — all of those things we maybe didn’t have time for as student-athletes. And now, there are fewer eyeballs to even inspire or influence because the exposure to the players and our game isn’t as great.”
“It’s hard. Somewhere up the chain of command — in companies that, in many ways, dictate what is ‘cool’ — people are making choices not to celebrate the WNBA and its players. We have a great deal with ESPN — they renewed our contract to televise a certain amount of WNBA games, which is great. It’s a huge reason of why we’re going to continue being successful as a league. But engaged and invested cultural influencers and partners in corporate America are crucial in elevating the profile of the WNBA. We have a product worth celebrating.”
While Moore’s point of view as a player is unique, her observation is nothing new. Many have pondered why the WNBA hasn’t lived up to the potential many see in it.
In 2007, the league tried to attract viewers by making the uniforms sexier. The WNBA tightened the silhouette of the jerseys, narrowing the shoulders and introducing a racer-back design. Others have suggested the league also shorten the players’ shorts, which currently hit above the knee, but Moore, among others, rejects that ploy.
“I don’t want to compromise our identity as basketball players to become something that we think people will like on a superficial level. Celebrate us for the things that matter — the stories, the basketball, the character, the fiery competitiveness, our professionalism,” she writes. “I want someone to watch me play because of my jump shot, not my tight shorts.”
Moore says celebrating the game and not the players’ bodies will be what sustains current and future fans.
“A cool appearance might initially get you to buy something but you’re not going stay if the product isn’t good,” she writes, adding, “We have an incredible product in the WNBA.” Moore’s highlight reel proves it.