As she departed the champagne-soaked post-game celebrations for the newly crowned WNBA Champion Minnesota Lynx at Atlanta's Phillips Arena earlier this month, Full Court asked league president Laurel Richie how she would grade the WNBA's 15th season -- and her own first summer at its helm.
Richie reflected for a moment before responding, "I think I'd give it an A. Wouldn't you?"
"An A, not an A-plus?," our publisher countered.
Richie laughed, then explained that when she went to school, report cards didn't have all of today's refinements like the "pluses" and "minuses," so she didn't think in those terms.
Whatever the grading system, the new WNBA president has ample reason to be proud of her league's performance during her first year in the saddle. For those of us who watch WNBA games on a regular basis, the on-court product in 2011 was outstanding with numerous games worthy of "instant classic" status. The quality of play was improved overall, and there were so many outstanding individual performances this season that singling out just 10 players for the All-WNBA first and second teams was a tough task indeed. Sure, Tulsa was dreadful, but every league has a few bad teams and by the end of the season, even the Shock began showing signs of a pulse.
The playoffs, every game of which was televised nationally, were competitive in both conferences, and the Finals, though ultimately swept by the Minnesota Lynx, were hotly contested, well attended, and -- with the exception of the foul-plagued Game Two -- fun to watch.
WNBA Live Access also deserves high marks, despite its occasional glitches. This is one of the best setups attempting to promote a womens sport anywhere, and this year the product got even better with archiving of ESPN telecasts which were not shown originally on "Live Access."
The league also announced a fifth consecutive year of increases in both attendance and ESPN viewership. According to the WNBA, 2011 regular-season attendance was up 1.25 percent as compared to last year; ESPN2 had more viewers than in any year since 2005, with an audience increase of five percent over last season; and the league's digital house organ, wnba.com, experienced the greatest growth, with unique visits up 13 percent and "Live Access" streaming game viewership up a whopping 55 percent in unique users.
No question some franchises did experience a major bump in attendance. But the league's attendance figures have long been suspect, and this year was no difference. Crowd counts by Full Court correspondents in attendance rarely coincide with the announced attendance figures reported by the franchises, with the exception of a handful of venues, such as the Connecticut Sun's Mohegan Sun, which are noteworthy for their reliable reporting of attendance. The differences are not minor -- announced attendance and our own crowd counts may deviate by as much as 20-35 percent -- and the team figures are invariably off in the direction of inflation, rather than understatement.
During this past season, WNBA message-board chatter often centered on the ups and downs of week-to-week league attendance. In numerous postings about individual game attendance, it appears more and more fans are becoming self-declared detectives, decrying the often outlandish posted WNBA attendance figures. Fans even took to posting panoramic photos online as evidence of the relatively modest crowds actually on hand in comparison to the obviously excessive figures posted by the teams.
In the end, however, the changing business model of the WNBA means that the league's health and continued existence does not rise and fall on the veracity of its attendance figures as much as some might think. Tucked into the same release that announced the league's continued growth in attendance and viewership was this note:
"The WNBA also formed eight new marketing partnerships in 2011 with several leading companies, including a landmark multiyear deal with Boost Mobile that made the company the WNBA's first league wide marquee partner."
Opinions as to whether that news merits an A grade for the season will vary, but it would be difficult to dispute that such sponsorships can only help sustain the league's vitality.
"Fuzzy Math": The League's Secretiveness About Its Basis for Its Attendance Figures Persists
Former WNBA president Donna Orenders was renowned for her unwillingness to discuss anything but good news about the league, and that pattern continues under the Richie regime. Obviously, the league thinks its attendance numbers are important enough to fend off any attempt to delve into them.
In the question-and-answer session that followed the president's annual "State of the League" press conference just before the Finals tip-off, in which Richie had touted the increases in attendance and viewership and claimed, "We are up in double digits" (double digits of what was never explained, Full Court put the question to her directly:
"Question: Could you please tell us on the subject of attendance -- it sort of brings to mind the old saying about how a person drowned in a river whose average depth was just three feet -- there were spikes in attendance in Mimmesota and a couple of other franchises, but we've perennially had a problem with the stated attendance not matching our eyeball counts, crowd counts. First of all, can we get a release of attendance year-to-year comparisons at all arenas in the league? And secondly, what those figures are made up of? Do they include give-away tickets? Do they include every in the building, including concessionaires, and tickets that are sold and given away to sponsors but never actually used and so forth?"
Richie's response was lengthy, but shed very little actual light on the subject, other than a clear indication that either she does not know -- and refuses to say -- what the league's attendance figures are based on:
"Answer: We have a ton of different measures when it comes to measuring our attendance, and we look at the number of tickets that are sold, the number of tickets that are out. We look at the number of people who actually make it into the game as fans. So not the concession folks, but as fans coming to the game. So we look at our attendance across a whole host of measures. And I will admit it is much more complex than I thought it was coming in.
"And that will be just in terms of my growth and development and my leadership of the league, one of the things that I really want to look at, how we report and really decide of all the measures we look at, which are the ones that are most important and which ones tell us where we are in terms of growing and building a sustainable business model for the league."
Richie ducked both the original request and a follow-up requesting the release of attendance figures for each of the league's 12 franchises, and a written request to the league's media relations office returned an email reply that "The league doesn't release it." We were, however, directed to Sports Business Daily which performs its own annual calculation. The Sports Business Daily figures are based on the attendance counts announced by the home team immediately following each game, with no attempt to verify those figures or even to incorporate adjustments subsequently made by the team or the league. Accordingly, one must keep in mind that the SBD numbers suffer the same inflationary tendencies that apply to their source material -- i.e., the team-announced attendance counts.
|2011 WNBA Regular-Season Attendance||Home Team||Games||Total Announced||Average||% of Capacity||2010 Average||% +/-|
|San Antonio Silver Stars||17||148,767||8,751||88.9%||8,042||8.8%|
|Source: Sports Business Daily, Sept. 13, 2011, based on uncorrected attendance figures announced by WNBA home teams immediately after games.|
Even a glance at these figures would fuel skepticism on the part of anyone who attended a game in many of these venues. The Washington Mystics the best-attended franchise in the league? Perhaps in a bygone era, but laughable this season. You can argue about the "why" of it, but the Verizon Center in DC is lucky to have half the number of live bodies in it that it had in the early years of the Mystics franchise although they continue to post the league's most glossy attendance figures in the box score.
Attendance at 102 percent of the capacity of the Verizon Center? According to the venue's own website, the facility seats 20,000. Simple arithmetic tells you that an average crowd of 10,000 and change comes closer to half of that capacity than to 102 percent of it. (The Mystics, like other teams in the league, routinely curtain off large sections of seating in the upper tiers, which they then elect not to count in calculating "capacity." Through this sleight of hand, they are able to declare a crowd a "sellout" even when 40 percent or more of the venue's seats are empty. Does anyone really believe that if there were takers for those seats they would be turned away?)
But even taking the league's figures at face value, the SBD regular-season attendance survey reveals that it was a mix of good and bad news for the league's 12 teams on the attendance front this season. The news was especially bad for the New York Liberty, who saw a 30.4-percent attendance drop after moving to the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, while their long-time home venue Madison Square Garden is undergoing renovations, a process expected to take three years.
Just how the teams and the league arrive at these attendance figures remains one of the WNBA's best-kept secrets. As a general matter, in the early days of the league, attendance figures often represented fans in the seats -- regardless whether those seats had been paid for or were given away. As the novelty of a women's professional league wore off, owners started placing greater focus on the bottom line, and the announced count was supposed to represent "tickets sold."
Lately, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, as more franchises have lined up sponsors whose deals include a quantity of tickets the value of which the sponsor can write off as an advertising cost. As a result, the count now often appears to represent tickets "out" -- meaning sold or handed out for no direct payment. The hidden beauty to this is that all tickets given to any sponsor are counted as sales, and therefore included in the attendance figures, whether the seats are actually used or not. Further adding to the smoke and mirrors of this approach, the sponsor, presented with figures touting an attendance "growth" that is based at least in part on the unused tickets they received in return for their partnership, may be lead to believe that they are receiving increasing bang for their bucks and may accordingly be inclined to continue -- or even increase -- their WNBA relationship.
If WNBA attendance announcements are to gain any semblance of credibility, the league must decide on a uniform definition of exactly what they are counting. If it is tickets-sold -- a metric that favors certain franchises, like the Los Angeles Sparks, where the "crowd count" includes entire sections of empty chairs in "Premium Seating," the packages for which are gobbled up by well-heeled fans in order to ensure themselves the ability to see the Lakers in action, though they rarely, if ever, use the accompany admission to Clippers, Kings and Sparks games, as well as preferential concert seating -- then tickets not sold but given away should not be counted. Currently, worst offenders in the attendance inflation game appear to be trying to have their cake and eat it, counting seats for which tickets have sold but that remain empty and seats that are occupied for which the ticket has been given away (or for which the ticket price has been discounted so steeply that they should rightly be viewed as having been given away). Alternatively, if it is the "gate" that is being measured, let's be sure that teams are actually counting only fans in the seats, as President Richie averred, and not, as one administrator who asked not to be named told Full Court "everyone in the building -- fans -- no matter how they got their tickets, hot dog vendors, janitors, security guards, everybody who is in the building at any time during the game."
Actual In-House Attendance Matters Less than You Think
Having said all that, actual in-house game attendance -- whether waxing or waning -- may matter less than one might think when it comes to gauging the health of individual teams or the league as a whole.
Take, for example, the Seattle Storm, a team that gives us a clear insight into how the economics of the league are working now. This franchise, which won the league championship in 2010 and has Bing as a uniform sponsor, has to be considered one of the best run in the league. Whether you watch a game online or have the privilege of actually experiencing the electric atmosphere of Key Arena first hand, you find a loud and enthusiastic crowd typically numbering more than 6,000 (8,322 average ticket sales in 2010 according to the team) in actual attendance. News of the Storm is all over the Seattle media. Yet the Storm ownership claims to have lost about $1 million on average over the last few years. If this group can't at least break even, how many of the other eleven WNBA franchises can be expected to finish in the black?
The tribe that owns the Connecticut Sun, which boasts the most honest attendance figures in the league, owns its own (Mohegan Sun) arena, giving it a lower overhead. The Sun are also the only ownership group to publicly claim to turned a profit in 2010. Most of the other 10 as yet unmentioned teams likely lost money again in 2011. Lets credit league champion Minnesota as the most likely of the rest to have escaped red ink this year.
For several years before its demise, the Detroit Shock front office routinely announced vastly inflated attendance figures. When questioned about losses, management did not deny the franchise was operating in the red but described the losses as "tolerable." But when owner Bill Davidson passed on, his widow, who took control, did not see things in the same positive light and the Shock were sent packing to Tulsa at the end of her first, and only season, in charge.
Had the corporate picture really gotten that much worse in the year since to Mr. Davidsons passing? Probably not. Unlike her deceased husband, however, the new owner was not going to tolerate a financial loss from an area in her domain in which she she had little personal interest.
What do these three examples indicate for the WNBA as a whole, as it closes the books on its 15th season? The only reason the league exists today is that 12 ownership groups have been willing, more often than not, to subsidize this sport. Except for a franchise here or there, the majority annually finish in the red.
If the NBA hierarchy were really playing "sugar daddy" behind the scenes, as some in the national media have repeatedly suggested, wouldn't we still have Detroit, Houston and Sacramento franchises in the WNBA? That kind of underwriting may have occurred when the league's original franchises were all linked to NBA "big brothers," but it just isnt happening anymore and hasnt for quite a few years. The truth is that not only isn't the league being subsidized by the NBA, but there has also been little more than a small annual trickle down from WNBA HQ until the Boost Mobile sponsorship deal announced this year. Each franchise is essentially on its own when it comes to paying the bills.
If and when the number of ownership groups willing to tolerate financial losses drops below eight (the absolute minimum needed to survive), the league will disappear. Hopefully, that will not happen any time soon. For one thing, sports team ownerships are often driven more by a quest for status, elan and perhaps a legal tax shelter than by the single-minded pursuit of the bottom line.
Nonetheless, all WNBA fans need to thank their franchise owners, regardless of their motives, simply for carrying on in a sea of red ink. One might expect that a league just finishing its 15th season of operation would have already passed the worst of its financial crises but this one hasnt and may never operate on much more than a year-to-year basis.
The good news, in that light, is that it looks like the WNBA will be back for the 2012 season. Asked whether any franchises were in jeopardy of moves or closure, Richie hedged her bets, while forecasting a positive outlook.
"At this point in time, and I have spoken with all of our owners across 12 teams, my knowledge as of right now today, all of those teams will be back with us again next year and back with us in the cities that they are currently in, which I think is great news for the league," she stated.
Of course, the Detroit move and the Sacramento collapse came suddenly, and well after the end of the preceding seasons. And Richie is discounting the effect a prolonged NBA labor dispute may have on the WNBA.
"As I've said before, I am solely focused on the WNBA," Richie told reporters. "There's nothing that I've heard from my NBA partners that causes me to have any questions about impact on the WNBA."
Despite that somewhat predictable public stance, the ongoing NBA lockout should be a concern to WNBA fans, as half of the "W" franchises are still owned by NBA teams. What is troubling to the NBA could spill over into "little sisters" domain if the lockout becomes long term. Only time will tell how that will unfold.
Still, while several franchises owners may be becoming tired of seeing those red bottom lines, the safe money is, as Richie indicated, on the return of all 12 existing franchises for the 2012 season. That season already has a rocky road ahead of it, however. With both the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and the Olympics scheduled for next summer, many of the best international players may forgo the WNBA season, opting to stay home to prepare with their national teams. The Olympic break will inevitably disrupt fan attendance patterns; may mean an early start or a shortened training camp, likely increasing the rate of player injuries and decreasing the overall quality of play; and will push the playoffs later into the fall where they will be forced to compete with football and even preseason NBA play, as well as with school schedules for weeknight games.
Barring more corporate sponsorship at the franchise level or a seismic increase in paid ticket sales, a few franchises appear unlikely to last past the 2013 season, but let us leave that discussion to a later day.
Road Blocks to Growth of the Fan Base Remain
Sadly, the demise of the WNBA would bring little more than a shrug from the silent majority of womens basketball coaches and players below the pro level. Europe would likely rejoice as a summer hiatus would give more of their American stars a chance to rest (something a few strong American players are now already doing in order to maximize a few more of those better-paying European contracts in the latter half of their playing careers).
Even in the U.S., many avid fans of women's college ball have never transferred that passion to the women's professional game. As one joked, when the WNBA finally ceases, the draft should still be held as that marks the end of the womens college basketball season. One major factor that has continued to hurt the chances for growth of the WNBA fan base is the apathy of teenage females, particularly female athletes, toward the league. They moan and groan how people prefer to attend mens/boys basketball games and not their own, but when they act as fans themselves, many choose more often than not to watch the men, not the women, play. Yes, a lot of pre-teen girls love the WNBA, but once they hit puberty, its "bye bye."
Rather than continuing to pursue a resistant group of teenagers as has been the case for years, the league should be targeting those 50 and older. If you look at the crowds at most womens basketball games, you will notice the demographic tends to be age-40 and up (mostly older). So why not go with the flow?
The true trend in WNBA attendance over the last five years has been downward -- particularly as the most recent five-year span is compared to the prior 10. Yes, we can blame the economy for some of it. However, if frugality were the main issue, we should have seen a concomitant downward swing in NBA attendance. Quite simply, attending a WNBA game costs a lot less than does similar seating for its NBA counterpart.
And it's not just the temporary move to New Jersey that has numbers down for the New York Liberty, although that took a toll from which it can only be hoped that this cornerstone franchise will be able to recover. The reality of crowds at Madison Square Garden has been more closer to 6,000 than to 8,000 for the last few years.
It wasnt that many years ago that crowds of over 10,000 really did regularly watch WNBA games in Houston, New York and Washington DC. The Comets of Houston have been history for several years now and were allowed to die to the great dismay of many dedicated fans.
Yes, the WNBA television ratings have been reported as up and let us grant the accuracy of those figures. ESPN has every reason to check them out, and nobody else has much way to measure them. But if upticks in TV and digital viewership reflect increased fan interest in the league, the WNBA still faces the challenge of translating that nascent interest into increased revenue for its franchises.
Sponsorships, Not Attendance, Will Finance the Future of the League
At the end of the day, the teams in the best shape appear to be those that have entered into lucrative sponsorship deals, and we can expect that trend to continue. What true hope the league may have for long term survival appears to lie with the corporate world. Three cheers for every franchise uniform sponsor! Fan support alone just isnt cutting the WNBA financial mustard! And a big boost for Boost Mobile!
This season the WNBA entered into a long-term deal with Boost Mobile, a brand of wireless prepay service run by Sprint Nextel, the cellular phone provider. More than any before, this deal directly affects the bottom line of each participating franchise, which includes all but Phoenix and San Antonio who not involved due to prior contractual agreements.
According to a number of individuals (who wished not to be identified) associated with WNBA franchises, the deal should provide something close to a couple of hundred thousand dollars per year during the life of the deal to each franchise with "Boost" displayed on the team jersey and figuring prominently elsewhere in the arena as well as on the internet. A few more deals like this and WNBA fans need not worry about the existence of the league!
Attendance matters less because ticket sales fill a team's coffers than because strong numbers are a proxy for consumer interest which can be used to procure additional sponsorships. Fans of the game should be saying "Thank you for supporting womens basketball" to these corporate sponsors, purchase their products or services, and letting them know, when we do, that their decision to sponsor the sport entered into our decisions of where and what to buy.
Unfortunately, we must remember that our beloved WNBA is very much a niche sport even within the womens basketball world. As much as we cherish it, the vast majority of sporting America could care less. How long it will be around is largely out of our hands. The best we can do, as a fellow basketball writer told me, is to enjoy the league for while it is still around.