On the WNBA’s opening night a little more than a month ago, an announced crowd of 11,579 came to see the Washington Mystics play the New York Liberty at Verizon Center. It was by far the largest turnout for a Mystics home opener since Mike Thibault took over as coach and general manager in December 2012, during which time he has transformed the franchise into a regular playoff participant.
Arenas league-wide enjoyed elevated fan support for the tip-off of the WNBA’s 20th season. The momentum hasn’t lasted. Subsequent games yielded significant declines in attendance, a disparity not lost on Thibault as the winningest coach in league history scanned Verizon Center’s mostly vacant lower bowl before a recent game.
“A team like us, we play in a huge building, and even if you fill two-thirds, that’s a decent crowd, but not in here, not in several of the NBA buildings,” Thibault said. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves that we are a 15,000- to 20,000-seat [draw]. We are [8,000] to 10,000 fans, and if you do that consistently, you’re going to be good.”
With that business model in mind, the Mystics, who averaged 7,714 fans last season, are moving to a more intimate arena in two years on the site of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington. Groundbreaking began in September, and since then two structures have been demolished to make room for the 5,000-seat facility that also will serve as the practice home of the Washington Wizards.
The $55 million venue will be the first in league history constructed with a WNBA team’s home games in mind. Every other club either shares its arena with an NBA counterpart or college program.
“We’re going to go in a building in a few years that’s a small building, but if it’s full, you have demand,” Thibault said. “You have sellouts. You have a home-court advantage. You have sponsors getting on board. It looks good for TV. Everybody gets excited about it, so I think that’s some of the growth.”
Downsizing, however, is hardly a blueprint going forward for the entire league, according to first-year WNBA President Lisa Borders, despite figures released in a Sports Business Journal report in September revealing that the average attendance last year slipped to an all-time low of 7,184.
The highest average attendance of 10,864 came during the WNBA’s second season in existence.
“Every team is playing in the arena that they think is the appropriate size for their market, so I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a one-size-fits-all,” Borders said. “I think like any business, you have to make sure your product is a good one, and no one argues that our product isn’t superb, but how you deliver the product is different in different markets.”
Borders pointed to the Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks, two of the WNBA’s original eight teams, as flagship franchises with consistently robust fan support suitable for NBA arenas.
The Mercury, with three WNBA titles and one of the most high-profile players in the world in Diana Taurasi. Phoenix led the league in attendance last year, drawing 9,946 per game at Talking Stick Resort Arena, which holds more than 18,000.
The Sparks play at Staples Center with a capacity of 18,000-plus. They averaged almost 9,100 in attendance last year. Attendance remains strong this season, too, with Los Angeles winning its first 11 games behind MVP candidate Candace Parker before losing to the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx on Tuesday.
The only other franchise left from among the original eight is the New York Liberty, which plays in Madison Square Garden. The Liberty averaged 9,159 last season, third best in the WNBA.
“At 20 years, it’s a remarkable position for any sport, any league,” Borders said. “To have endured this long is incredible, to be a women’s sport on top of that. You look at the core product on the floor. It has evolved to an amazing place. When we first started, it was not there, and like anything, it has gotten incrementally better.”
The WNBA remains the most high-profile, longest continually operating female professional sports league in the United States. Its staying power has far exceeded the lifespan, for instance, of women’s professional soccer, which has seen two leagues fold despite astronomical television ratings for the U.S. women’s national team during the most recent World Cup final.
Television ratings for the WNBA, though, were down last year, falling by 14 percent from 2014 to an average of 202,000 viewers on ESPN and ESPN2. The league was eagerly anticipating a spike in viewership for Tuesday afternoon’s matchup between the Sparks and the Lynx, who improved to 13-0 with a 72-69 win at Staples Center that was carried live on NBA TV. The game was played on the 20th anniversary of the league’s first game.
The Lynx played the Mercury on opening night in the most-watched WNBA game outside of an ABC broadcast since 2001, drawing an 0.3 rating with an average of 505,000 viewers on ESPN2.
“I’ve been in it now, this is 14 of the 20 years, and in every single year in the offseason, I get asked, ‘Is the league going to survive?’ ” Thibault said. “And I kind of laugh because I was around when the NBA was in its 20th season, and I have a little bit of perspective on that. In many ways, we’re ahead of where the NBA was at 20 years.”
Still, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said during a conference on women’s sports in September that he had hoped the WNBA would have “broken through by now” but indicated full commitment to the league.
It was the NBA Board of Governors that approved the concept of the WNBA to begin in 1997. The NBA initially owned each WNBA franchise, but these days, half of the league’s members — the Connecticut Sun, Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky, Dallas Wings, Seattle Storm and Los Angeles — are independently owned. The Mystics fall under the ownership of Ted Leonsis, who also owns the Wizards and the Washington Capitals .
That the WNBA no longer is beholden solely to its male counterpart for financial support suggests sustainability in the long term, according to WNBA officials and others with lengthy connections to the league.
So, too, does the rapid proliferation of social media, which the WNBA has been deploying aggressively in an attempt to boost interest. The push was especially vigorous on opening night via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, with followers across those platforms having increased 25 percent compared to last season.
Also of great benefit has been the WNBA’s most recent deal with ESPN in 2007 that included a rights fee in the neighborhood of $17 million, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. Before that contract, the WNBA did not receive a rights fee for allowing ESPN to broadcast games.
Two years ago, the WNBA and ESPN agreed to a new contract set to kick in next season in which the rights fee escalates to $25 million.
Additional television exposure figures to come during the Rio Olympics in August. The entire U.S. women’s national basketball team roster is composed of WNBA players, with Borders saying the talent level around the league has reached unprecedented heights.
“It’s a huge accomplishment that we’ve gotten to 20 years,” said Sky forward Elena Delle Donne, the reigning WNBA MVP and a member of the U.S. women’s national team. “It’s awesome to celebrate that. I feel like we’re in incredible hands with Lisa Borders, and I definitely think our future is extremely bright.”