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Adam Silver: One of the WNBA’s problems is that not enough young women pay attention to it

Adam Silver was frank about the WNBA’s troubles during an ESPN appearance Friday. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver touched upon the usual pro-basketball subjects of the day — sports gambling, the one-and-done rule and tanking — during an extended appearance Friday on ESPN’s “Get Up!” Little of what he said was revelatory until he got to the WNBA, when Silver candidly opened up about what he sees as the league’s shortcomings.

On the heels of last week’s news that male players in the G League, the NBA’s developmental circuit, would be getting a raise in base salary to $35,000 per season, Silver was asked by Michelle Beadle about how WNBA players can get a bigger chunk of the money generated by their league.

“By growing the business,” Silver said. “The WNBA players are still paid significantly more than the G League players, certainly the top players, but ultimately this is not a Title IX issue, this is a business issue and we still have a number of teams losing money. … We haven’t figured out a winning formula, to be quite honest.”

According to one study, WNBA players receive only 20 percent of total league revenue, with their salaries ranging between $39,000 and $115,000 per season. In 2016, the New York Times reported that half of the league’s 12 teams were losing money.

NBA players, for comparison’s sake, get about half the money that comes in to their league. That league currently is in the second year of a nine-year, $24 billion television contract with ESPN/ABC and Turner Sports, and player salaries have skyrocketed accordingly.

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Silver said there are two main issues facing the WNBA, one being attendance, and he mused about possibly aligning the league’s schedule with that of the NBA and college basketball. Last year, the season ran from mid-May to early September, a change from previous years in which the WNBA Finals were not held until mid-October, when pro and college football are in full swing and the Major League Baseball playoffs are also attracting attention.

“We have a lot of empty seats in our buildings,” Silver said. “The ratings have been decent on ESPN, [but] it’s been harder to get people to come to the games, maybe because the games are in the summer. One of the things we’re talking about is do we need to shift to the so-called more natural basketball season, sort of in the fall or  winter. That may be part of the issue.”

WNBA games averaged 7,716 fans per game in 2017, the highest number in six years but far from a significant improvement. WNBA games haven’t averaged 8,000 fans per game since 2009, and the 2017 figure was down 28.9 percent from the league’s all-time high attendance in 1998, which was the WNBA’s second season.

Moving the season to the fall would be risky, considering football’s stranglehold on the fall and an already-crowded basketball market that now starts in mid-October (for the NBA) or early November (college basketball). By holding its season in the summer months, the WNBA avoids those would-be competitors and gives television networks live-event programming during a time of year filled mostly with baseball and Major League Soccer.

Silver also expressed surprise at the demographics of the WNBA’s hardcore fan base, and touched on the league’s struggles to attract female supporters.

“It’s interesting: Women’s basketball is largely supported — just in terms of the demographics — by older men, for whatever reason, who like fundamental basketball, and it’s something I’ve talked a lot to the players about,” he said. “We’re not connecting with almost the same demographic that our players are. I’m always saying our players are roughly, let’s say, 21 to 34, in that age range. I’m saying [to the players], ‘Why do you think it is that we’re not getting your peers to want to watch women’s basketball?’

“So in a way I think it’s a good problem to have in that I think the game looks fantastic, and it’s amazing where the league now is from over 20 years ago when it launched,” Silver said, “but we still have a marketing problem, and we gotta figure it out. We gotta figure out how we can do a better job connecting to young people and how they could become interested in women’s basketball.”

Mystics star Elena Delle Donne must have been watching Silver’s segment. She tweeted her thoughts on the subject at Beadle, along with her gratitude for pressing the issue.

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