At first glance, the state of the WNBA looks dire. Over 21 seasons, the league doesn’t appear to be profitable, though concrete financial information is scarce. Only four of the original eight teams are still around. Players make a fraction of the salary of their NBA counterparts.
And yet, analysts say, the league is not far from where it should be at this point.
“Everyone would like this to go faster, I think, but it’s only been 21 years,” WNBA President Lisa Borders said in a phone interview last month.
With news last month that its New York franchise, the Liberty, is for sale, analysts who study the finances of the nation’s youngest major professional sports league are getting a better look at the team and the WNBA’s long-term future.
“[The Liberty] hasn’t made money,” James Dolan, chairman of franchise owner Madison Square Garden company, told HBO’s “Real Sports” program in 2015, adding that he was considering handing his franchise back to WNBA leadership to cut his losses. “Its prospects of making money, at that time and even today, are still slim.”
When WNBA teams sell, the purchase price is rarely announced, analysts say, because the teams aren’t worth much in cash. But despite Dolan’s concerns over a big-market team’s financial viability, Borders believes the league itself is on track in its second decade. In young professional sports leagues, attendance fluctuates, teams get bought, sold and relocated. Market volatility is routine.
“[Twenty-one years is] not a long time,” Borders said. “Our big brother, the NBA, is 50 years older than us, which is two generations. Those sports leagues have had a much longer time horizon to sell teams, to expand teams, and have all the time of a maturing business.”
The WNBA debuted in 1996 after the Atlanta Summer Olympics as a smash hit. By 1998, games drew nearly 11,000 fans on average. And then the “novelty,” as Borders labeled it, wore off. Attendance steadily declined. The league shrunk as the NBA couldn’t find independent owners for teams in Miami and Portland.
Owners had to start treating the teams like businesses rather than fancy toys, said Aswath Damodaran, a professor of finance at New York University, and realized in some cases they didn’t make a lot of money.
“As much as we’ve done in lending the league our name,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said to the New York Times in 2015, “the people who have been in the sports business for a long time, and I’m one of them, historically underestimated the marketing it takes to launch a new property.”
More than a decade later, the league’s financial future has started to stabilize, and its fan base is the size of any fledgling professional sports league 20-some years old, said David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University who studies gender and sports economics.
The NBA at 21 years of age in 1966 averaged 6,631 fans per game. Players were not paid anywhere close to the exorbitant salaries they now command. The league had 10 teams. The WNBA in 2017 averaged 7,716 fans per game. Players make between $39,000 and $115,000 per season. The league has 12 teams.
WNBA owners have an incentive to maintain that the league is in the red, Berri said, as it gives them better bargaining position when negotiating with players. If owners said the league was profitable, players would be better positioned to ask for more money, which would drive up the cost of running a franchise — and even profitable WNBA franchises run on tight margins.
The WNBA only pays players roughly 20 percent of total league revenue, or $11 million split between every player in the league, according to Berri’s studies. The NBA pays players about half of league revenue, or about $3 billion.
With the state of women’s and girls’ hoops on sturdy ground, the league is not want for new players, and with the tiny size of the league — only 144 players, who can be replaced by college superstars in the draft each year — franchise leaders are bargaining from a position of strength.
The more money players make, the more likely the league’s brand is to catch on.
“The same forces that are making it more pricey as a business are the same forces that will make more people get interested,” Damodaran said.
And women’s basketball has already carved out a place in the American sports media landscape. NCAA basketball dynasties at Connecticut and Tennessee prove women’s basketball can consistently fill up arenas, especially if the teams’ brands are recognizable.
More than 3.8 million people watched the 2017 NCAA women’s basketball national championship (which, after stunning upsets, didn’t feature either of those marquee teams). That’s more than 10 times the size of the viewership of a locally broadcast Major League Baseball game.
The WNBA also has a cultural underpinning — rooted in American law — that almost guarantees the league future players and fans.
Title IX, the 1972 federal law that mandates equal funding for boys’ and girls’ sports at public institutions, created two extra scholarships in women’s college basketball that have increased the stakes of high school and AAU competition.
But the cost of tools that will attract those future fans — things like marketing, investing in better facilities and improving the fan experience — are at odds with owners’ desires to finally turn a meaningful profit off a league that has for 21 years been a long-term investment, Damodaran said. The league needs owners to remain patient and to keep pumping resources into products that will make the game more popular.
Think about what Mark Cuban has done with Dallas Mavericks, Damodaran said, to turn the team into a national brand, or the broad appeal of the Green Bay Packers or Pittsburgh Steelers. Those franchises spent the resources to make their teams relevant beyond midsize to small media markets.
“That’s become the essence of running a sports franchise,” he said. “It’s become, how do you take a local sports franchise and turn it into a national brand?”
That’s the task for the WNBA, and whoever becomes the new owner of the New York Liberty.
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