By Ben Spar
On Oct. 4, I watched a former number-one overall draft pick and an all-star guard hit a winning shot in the last minute of the deciding game of the finals to give their team a championship. It was a thrilling series that captivated my attention and a rematch of the previous year’s finals, in which the other team won. Although with this description I could have been talking about viewing a rerun of the 2016 NBA Finals, I was in fact watching the 2017 WNBA Finals, where Maya Moore hit the shot to propel the Minnesota Lynx over the Los Angeles Sparks.
The WNBA has been around for 21 years and has not seen consistent growth in terms of attendance and television viewership, although the past season was one of the most successful in league history.
When talking about why the WNBA is so much less popular than the NBA, the first argument that comes up is that the NBA has a much higher quality of play because men are more athletic than women. I partially agree, as I find NBA basketball more interesting and exciting than WNBA basketball. However, there are many reasons to expect this to be true, and none of them are related to differences between men and women. The minimum salary for an NBA player is over five times the maximum salary for a WNBA. With an average league salary of $75,000 and a maximum league salary of $107,500, almost all WNBA players go to play for teams in Europe or Asia in the “off-season” to make a good living. A typical player can make double or triple her WNBA salary abroad, and top players can make 15 times their WNBA salary playing in Turkey, Russia or China.
Since they spend half the year across the world playing with different teammates, WNBA players have a hard time developing the same chemistry and innovative team styles as their male counterparts. Additionally, since they are playing year-round, WNBA players do not have a dedicated off-season to spend all day recuperating and working on improving specific basketball skills. Similarly, since WNBA teams have a fraction of the budget of NBA teams, WNBA teams do not have close to the same athletic trainer, assistant coach and analytics resources that allow for the fantastic quality men’s professional basketball.
Instead of comparing the WNBA to the modern day NBA, it may make sense to compare the league to the NBA and other major professional sports leagues (MLB, NFL) after 20 years of existence. At this point in those leagues’ history, players had to work second jobs to make a good living in the off-season, and attendance numbers were quite similar to the current WNBA. This isn’t a perfect comparison as the sports climate is very different now than it used to be, but it shows that the narrative that the WNBA has been unsuccessful are misleading at best and almost definitely false. It takes a long time and a lot of experimentation to build a good athletic product and loyal fan base.
What do I think is the best course of action for the WNBA? In basketball, more so than other major team sports, individual star players can make a night-to-night impact on the game and turn a bad team into a good one. Like the NBA, I think the WNBA should put an even bigger focus on marketing its star players, the ones that America knows from their college-playing days. The league product is good enough now to hopefully turn some of these women’s college basketball fans into WNBA fans (as opposed to a marketing strategy around converting NBA fans), and this will create a ripple effect that allows for more resources to improve the quality of play and attract even more fans.
Why do I care? Selfishly, as a basketball fan, I want there to be more high quality basketball for me to watch and follow, and the WNBA offers a great opportunity for that. More importantly, I think there is a need for more female non-college (adult) athletic superstars in this country, both as cultural/political figures (with the potential for Lebron James or Colin Kaepernick impact) and as role models for children and adults of all genders.
Contact Ben Spar at bspar ‘at’ stanford.edu.