How to fix the WNBA.

The stadium scene.
Oct. 20 2009 7:53 PM

How To Fix the WNBA

Why the NBA's plan for selling women's basketball will never work—and what might.

Members of the Phoenix Mercury celebrate with the WNBA trophy. Click image to expand.
Members of the Phoenix Mercury celebrate with the WNBA trophy

Earlier this month, the New York Times' Karen Crouse argued that America was falling for women's hoops. After the Phoenix Mercury beat the Indiana Fever to win the WNBA title, Crouse wrote that the championship series "was pixie dust for the league —the women's equivalent of the NBA Finals in the 1980s between the Lakers and the Celtics." Kelli Anderson echoed that take in Sports Illustrated, citing higher television ratings, increased year-over-year attendance, and the courtside presence of male athletes like Peyton Manning and Larry Fitzgerald as "evidence that the WNBA is on a roll."

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

In reality, there's little evidence the WNBA is primed for mainstream success. The AP reported Monday that the Detroit Shock—winners of three WNBA titles since 2003—were moving to Tulsa after years of poor attendance in the Motor City. The Shock's relocation comes a year after the four-time champion Houston Comets were forced to suspend operations. And if this year's finals were pixie dust for the league, the dust didn't make it to the upper deck of Phoenix's US Airways Center: The WNBA champion Mercury handed out thousands on thousands of free tickets during the championship series in order to fill its arena.

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While Crouse and Anderson clearly go too far in heralding the league's rise to prominence, so too do the hecklers who rejoice in the WNBA's foibles. As the finals wound down, ESPN.com's most-popular writer, Bill Simmons, mocked his own network's coverage of women's hoops. "Tweets you won't see tonight," Simmons wrote. "Flip over to ESPN2, the 4th quarter of the climactic WNBA Finals game is on right now!" A few months earlier, Simmons encouraged one of his readers to go to a WNBA game wearing a T-shirt reading "EXPECT LAYUPS." And last month, the desperate-to-be-edgy Foxsports.com video series "Cubed" played host to a debate about which activity was more palatable, women's hoops or gay porn. (Fox Sports later cut that bit, explaining in a statement that it had been "experimental.")

Why does the WNBA inspire such outrage and disdain? All nascent sports leagues—the WNBA launched in 1997—have a problem with legitimacy. (Just ask the Continental League, the XFL, or the United Football League.) But the WNBA's detractors are also railing against perceived political correctness. In a 2005 polemic, Simmons argued that "the WNBA has been given countless chances, endless promotion, mainstream coverage and truckloads of capital. Has it helped? Absolutely not. … [T]he WNBA should accept its place in the Sports Fan Pecking Order alongside NFL Europe, indoor lacrosse, minor-league hockey, bowling, celebrity poker and every other niche sport that appeals to a specific audience. … None of those sports get preferential, wink-wink treatment from TV networks. Neither should the WNBA."

Look past the taunts and there's some truth to Simmons' argument. The World Series of Poker has averaged a 0.91 rating for ESPN in 2009; ESPN2's primetime coverage of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals received a 0.43 rating, or about 555,000 viewers. The NYT's Crouse and SI's Anderson fail to mention that number, which makes it seem like they're trying to fool their readers into thinking the WNBA is more popular than it really is.

It's also undeniable that the WNBA wouldn't exist today if not for the largesse of the NBA. The women's hoops league was launched and paid for by its men's counterpart, and the NBA still owns and subsidizes the majority of the WNBA's 13 franchises. [Clarification, Oct. 20: Upon reflection, the new WNBA franchise in Tulsa could be considered independent or league-owned. While the Tulsa team's principal owner Bill Cameron is also a part-owner of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, the WNBA's Tulsa franchise won't share a home city or home arena with an NBA team. If you do choose to count Tulsa as an independent team, that would mean the majority of the WNBA's franchises—seven of 13—are independently owned.] So far, the investment hasn't paid off. As of 2007, WNBA teams were losing an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million per year.

There was a women's pro basketball league in the United States before the NBA got into the game. By late 1995, the ABL had signed 9 of the 11 women on the U.S. Olympic team and had set up franchises in mid-size cities like Richmond, Va., and Columbus, Ohio. Before the ABL could play its first game, the NBA announced its venture. The WNBA would launch in eight NBA cities, had TV deals with NBC and ESPN, and was sponsored by Nike, Coke, and American Express. The ABL's demise was assured; it disbanded in 1998.

The better-marketed, better-sponsored WNBA won in the short term, but the ABL was a better model for a women's pro basketball league. The NBA's grand vision of a league for women that mirrored the league for men—just add a W!—was never realistic. The fundamental problem is that the sports world's primary spenders—adult men—have never shown much interest in watching women play basketball. For all the people like John Wooden who enthuse over the superior fundamentals of the women's game, there are thousands more who focus on what women can't do on the court. Dunking is not all there is to basketball—as your high school coach used to say, a slam is worth just as many points as a layup. But it's also true that nobody pays $1,000 for courtside seats to watch a layup line.

There are two ways to address the problem of male hoops fans' lack of interest. The first is to appease them. In 1991, a start-up called the Liberty Basketball Association changed the rules of basketball so female hoopsters would play more like men. The LBA shortened the length of the court and lowered the hoop to 9 feet 2 inches in an attempt to bring the women's game above the rim. The league's marketing strategy was made plain in the uniforms: skin-tight unitards that revealed the players' nipples.

The LBA never got a full test drive, as the league folded after a single game. (The spirit of its uniforms lives on in the Lingerie Football League.) It stands to reason, though, that you're more likely to succeed by marketing your product to people who already like it than by trying to win over people who don't. Which leads to the second way to address the male-hoops-fan problem: ignore them. The audience for the WNBA is, by various accounts, between 60 percent and 80 percent female. The league also has a major following in the gay and lesbian community, a community that some franchises court and others aggressively alienate. If the WNBA focuses primarily on these fans, they can still have a large enough customer base to survive and succeed.

The best case study here is women's pro soccer. The Women's United Soccer Association, which sprang up in the aftermath of the 1999 Women's World Cup, lost $100 million before folding in 2003. WUSA, which was owned by a consortium of cable companies and which had sponsorship deals with Coke and McDonald's, ultimately failed because it tried to grow too big too fast. Women's pro soccer has since been rebooted as … Women's Pro Soccer, a smaller, more grassroots-focused league that appears committed to sensible growth. Rather than a large corporation, it's bankrolled by local owners who are passionate about soccer. The WPS's biggest sponsor is Puma. According to the league's communications director, the WPS's core audience is 8-to-18-year-old girls who play soccer, their families, and "fitness-minded women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s."

The NBA would take a massive PR hit if it ever killed the WNBA—at this stage, the fate of women's pro basketball is less a straight-ahead business or entertainment proposition than a gender-equality issue. But the women's league won't ever have a chance if it continues using the wrong business model. The NBA makes money off massive TV deals, merchandising, and expensive tickets. Smaller leagues need to maximize a single revenue stream: ticket sales. The ticket giveaways in Indiana and Phoenix during this year's WNBA Finals could actually pay off in the long run by introducing skeptical fans to a good product. The Detroit Shock's move to Tulsa could also be a positive signal—a drift toward smaller markets that are more likely to come out and support a professional women's basketball team. It might just work. If the WNBA hadn't killed the ABL 10 years ago, we'd already know.