Oct 09, 2023, 06:28AM

The Lackluster WNBA Heads For Its Finals

The women's basketball league needs a reality check.

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I just noticed that, soon, the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty will face off for the 2023 WNBA championship series in what ESPN called a "battle of superteams," although almost nobody's heard of either team. Last year, when the WNBA's Chicago Sky, after winning the league championship, held a victory parade there were more people in the team's open-air buses than fans in the streets. It had to be depressing for the players who'd worked so hard to win, but it couldn't have told any of them that they deserve to make more money.

The meager turnout stands in stark contrast to the uproarious victory parades of the Chicago Bulls back in their heyday, but at least the Sky didn't spark what happened in the aftermath of the Bulls' 1992 championship, when riots erupted throughout city, leading to 200 civilian and 95 police officer injuries, 61 police vehicles damaged, over 1000 arrests, and 347 store lootings.

The WNBA doesn't inspire mindless, drunken violence, but the league doesn't inspire much of anything. It's only well-known player, Brittney Griner, got famous by trying to smuggle drugs into Russia. The WNBA isn't relevant. Why? Because nobody watches it. ESPN, its main broadcaster, hypes it like the league's on par with the NBA or NFL, but when those segments come on, I'm pretty sure most viewers switch channels.

One narrative hawked by the media is that WNBA players don't make as much money as they should. It must be sexism. But the numbers aren't sexist. WNBA ratings are anemic in comparison to major men's sports. The NFL averages 17 million viewers per telecast, NASCAR 2.2 million, MLB 1.4 million and the NBA 1.6 million. The WNBA, founded in 1996, averages only 321,00, with an average attendance of 6615 per game, compared to the NBA's 18,000.

When Brittney Griner returned to the court after her imprisonment, LA's Crypto.com Stadium, with a capacity of 19,000, was only half full, despite the attendance of—or perhaps because of it, due to the prospect of having to hear her speak—VP Kamala Harris. In her postgame press conference, Griner's coach, Vanessa Nygaard, expressed her disbelief at the crowd size: "I mean, it was great. But like honestly, come on now LA. We didn’t sell out the arena for BG? But how was it not a sellout? How was it not a sellout?"

The delusion surrounding—and within—the WNBA, which receives an annual subsidy of $12 million from the NBA, runs deep. Griner playing pro ball abroad in Russia dovetails with the story that WNBA players can't earn enough at home, with an average salary of $147,000, to make a living. But how does a league that's never turned a profit in its 27-year lifetime—it loses $10 million per year—pay its players more? With greater NBA subsidies?

WNBA teams play 40 games per year, compared with the NBA's 82, leaving its players with plenty of time to work abroad. Is the WNBA a charity case? When LeBron James interviewed the former WNBA star Lisa Leslie, she suggested that NBA players could chip in to subsidize the league's salaries. Where's the feminism in such blatant begging for money from men? "Maybe one night," she said, "y'all don't go to the casino." The sense of entitlement is strong.

Leslie claimed that NBA players have failed to support WNBA players. Maybe there's a reason for that. When Miami Heat player Andre Iguadola tweeted, "Number 23 from the Mystics is nice!!!," Aerial Powers, peeved that he didn't mention her name, responded on Twitter with, "Put some respect on my name, or keep this tweet to yourself!!!" As if that wasn't heavy-handed enough, Powers went on to tweet a link to a TMZ article about Iguadola's dispute with his ex about child support.

ESPN’s at the forefront of the media charge for higher WNBA salaries. An example is a segment one of its hosts, Katie Nolan did on the topic. Nolan claimed it was hard to get at the pay disparity issue because it's difficult to find the league's financial information. In fact, the WNBA did share the data with the WNBA player's association, which kept it to itself, most likely because the numbers are bad. Nolan pointed out that NBA commissioner Adam Silver had said one reason WNBA salaries aren't higher was because some of the teams aren't profitable, and then went on to point out that one-third of the 30 NBA teams are in the red, after which she mugged for the camera, rolling her eyes, and sticking her tongue in her cheek. "So a number of NBA teams are losing money," she continued, “for sure, and a number of WNBA teams are losing money, we think, and yet only one of those is readily accepted and talked about all the time." No, we don't "think" WNBA teams are losing money, and what Nolan failed to mention was that the 30 NBA teams generated $10 billion in revenue in the 2021-2022 season, compared to the WNBA's $60 million.

Why the WNBA creates so little buzz is captured in a single video of Brittney Griner attempting to dunk in a solo shoot set up by the media. She's 6' 10", but missed on her first two attempts. By comparison, Spud Webb—5' 7"—won the NBA dunk championship in 1986.

In high school games, players regularly dunk. The WNBA lacks both entertainment value and star power, crippling its marketing efforts. There's also a bunch of badly missed shots (many of them are nearly layups) in the league's games that you don't see in either the NBA or D1 college basketball.

Defending the WNBA, former NBA superstar Charles Barkley said, "American companies should put y'all in commercials, they should partner with y'all, so I'm asking these American companies to step up so y'all don't have to go play in these other countries. They really need to do their part." Do their part? They're in the business of selling their products, not supporting an ailing business model, and there are no stars in the WNBA to sell their products. 

An interview from Newsy of a WNBA player encapsulates the naivete and delusion of the arguments for better WNBA pay. The interviewer asked the player how she'd sum up her case for a raise, and got this answer: "If you take women out of the equation, where are we? And if you ask yourself and think about it, that's all that really needs to be said. That itself explains why we need to be paid, because what do we do for the world? We do quite a lot."

  • The early days of the NBA saw half-filled arenas, anemic fan support and players that made so little money they had to find off-season jobs. The WNBA has only been around since 1997. I attended an LA Sparks games with a friend and his 8-year old daughter. She was euphoric from the experience. Who cares if Britney Griner can dunk? The league is an inspiration for young girls who love sports. My friend coaches the men's basketball team at Cal State Northridge. He brings his players to WNBA games to focus on fundamentals. The league is not about entitlement, poor attendance and lack of profits. This completely misses the point. If you're a basketball fan, the WNBA is fantastic.

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  • Who cares if Brittney Griner, and other players, can't dunk? Apparently, potential fans. If the raison d'etre of the WNBA is to be an inspiration to young girls and to help college coaches teach fundamentals, then the lack of dunks probably isn't important. But dunks do bring paying customers out. The dunkless, below-the-rim WNBA product just isn't all that entertaining for most basketball fans, as the numbers indicate. You say the league is "not about attendance and profits," but profits are what would generate higher salaries, and that is the topic I (but not you) are addressing. Since the WNBA needs an annual $12 million subsidy from the NBA so it can pursue the aspirational societal goals you value, the reality is that those salaries aren't going up—Business 101. I think we're discussing two separate matters. You say I missed "the point," but I think you mean I missed "your point," which I wasn't responding to. In fact, you miss my point. You say the league has "only" been around since 1997 (1996 is correct), which means it's been 26 years now without any profits. Amazon went many years without turning a profit, but the WNBA is no Amazon. How many businesses continue for so long while remaining unprofitable? You say, "If you're a basketball fan, the WNBA is fantastic," which reminds me of Joe Biden telling black people "you ain't black" if they didn't vote for him. In fact, I am a lifetime basketball fan at every level, and the WNBA is not "fantastic" to me, because I happen to prefer a different brand of basketball. Nor is it fantastic to most of the millions of basketball fans out there. Otherwise, they'd go to, or tune in to, the games. And they'd be able to name one WNBA player besides Brittney Griner.

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  • I'd love to go to an WNBA game with you in person. Perhaps you'd see the sport in a different light.

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  • Thanks, Loren.

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