Sportsbiz Daily Roundtable on the WNBA
Earlier this week, Oscar Dixon of USA Today, Kelli Anderson of Sports Illustrated and Yours Truly (who was using a cell phone) participated in a roundtable hosted by Sports Business Daily on the WNBA at 10.
One of my colleagues in the office got me into the site, which posted the talk on Friday. Since many of you are not subscribed, here is the cut-and-paste transcript that was going to be sent this way, anyway, in the next couple of days.
Printwise in the Inky/Philly.com for Saturday is the 10th anniversary story after the trim. Sunday will be a look at the competition.
In other news, all parties continue to explore how to develop the Staley site after our launch of Dawn's final countdown on Thursday. So far, volunteer friends from Virginia, Temple, the WNBA, official Houston and a local who has media access to home games, and USA Basketball are all on board to creater content, especially when we get to the final games.
Here's the sportsbiz transcript.
-- Mel Greenberg
Roundtable Of WNBA Writers Seem Bullish On League
Philadelphia Inquirer writer Mel Greenberg, USA TODAY pro basketball editor Oscar Dixon and SI senior writer Kelli Anderson, each of whom has covered the WNBA since its inception, discussed the state of the league as it enters its tenth season with Senior Staff Writer Jon Show this week.
Q: How would you characterize the growth of the WNBA over the last ten years?
Greenberg: It’s been steady and forward over the last ten years. It’s been an interesting evolvement. You think back to when the so-called war that went on when the ABL was in existence and everybody talked about their style and better players per se. If you look at where the WNBA is this year with the four quarters and the rules and a couple other things, you’re starting the marketing and financial support.
Dixon: The play is better. The athleticism has improved. When the league launched in ‘97 there was a rival league in the ABL, and most of the toughest post players were in that league. So I would say definitely overall the caliber of play has gotten better as the athleticism of the women has caught up to their multi-skill sets.
Anderson: The growth of the league has been overall steady. I don’t think it has been continuous. It sort of exploded at the beginning and had a lot of interest initially. Over the years it’s hit a few bumps, but I think a lot of things have been ironed out. There’s no question the talent has gotten so much better than it was ten years ago, and I think a lot of that is the presence of the WNBA has given girls playing basketball something to shoot for. The talent in college has gotten better. Not only has the play gotten better but — despite whatever you hear about the attendance going down slightly — I find the crowds incredibly enthusiastic.
Dixon: When they first started marketing the league it was more personality than performance, and now they’re turning it more toward performance because that’s the only way they’re going to survive and be able to put a good product on the floor. Greenberg: Initially with the two leagues, you had basketball in the ABL and sort of NBA-style entertainment in the other. The NBA marketing was almost down your throat that we used to joke that between halftime entertainment you got some basketball. Now people are there for the basketball.
Q: What’s the number one challenge facing the league?
Greenberg: The continuing way to market itself to attract fans. I think there’s a big problem in big cities fighting for print space in newspapers. There’s so many other things going on. In some ways, people covering the league might take it a lot more serious than others do. There’s only a couple cases where somebody actually goes on the road with their teams. But to counterbalance that you have more TV, the revenues are going up, and the Internet came along at the same time as women’s pro basketball. So the alternative market is there.
Improved Level Of Play Yet To
Generate Attendance Increase
Dixon: Connecting the dots between the quality of play and fans. Internet traffic may be up, television ratings may be up — of course they had no where else to go — but the numbers of fans in the seats don’t necessarily represent that increase. I’m very big on performance and the game, which is why the women’s college game is so successful, exciting and entertaining. If the play is better and you may have lost some fans who came out early, you need to get those people back in the seats to show it is exciting, quality basketball.
Anderson: Expanding the game to a larger fan base. The average attendance across the board is about 8,000. And those are hard core fans that are going to be there. But in order to bring up the salaries, they need to bring in more fans, more marketing opportunities, more sponsorships. They seem to be trying something new every year, and attendance kind of stays about the same.
Q: Could the WNBA have existed for ten years without the help of the NBA?
Greenberg: Probably not. It did need that big support early and teams were able to focus on winning rather than the day-to-day getting people in the seats and keeping them entertained.
Dixon: Absolutely not, and I don’t think the WNBA should make any apologies for having big brother in their pocket. I don’t think many businesses that start off the ground make money, and if you look at professional sports, only really the NFL makes money right now. So you need some way to support it.
Anderson: They couldn’t have made it, but if you look at the evolution of the WNBA, some teams are doing quite well without the support of the NBA — the Connecticut Sun and we’ll see what happens with the Chicago Sky. They had to have that to begin with, but now they can branch out into other ways of doing business.
Q: Will the WNBA ever be able to function financially independent of the NBA?
Greenberg: They keep claiming they’re close to profitability, but that’s probably at the league level. It’s still a mixed bag. ... As long as you have committed owners to help the entire cause, as well as their own cause, then it’s got a shot.
Mystics' Johnson An Example
Of Non-NBA Ownership
Dixon: We have to wait and see. They talk about the new business model of having owners that are not affiliated with NBA teams and there are three — but those are three very distinct models. Chicago’s going to be a test. Connecticut is not affiliated with an NBA team, but there’s nothing else in their backyard. Sheila Johnson and the Mystics are not affiliated with the Wizards, but they play in the same arena. Chicago is operating under the same model but playing in a different arena as the Bulls. Now you have to convince fans you are still on par with the WNBA even though you aren’t playing in a first-class arena.
Anderson: It’s possible if you have a group of committed owners that are willing to invest in the franchise, that are good business people who know how to make money. If you have a group of people in 14, 16, 18 cities, then sure it can work. But I don’t know if it could happen right now.
Q: What type of fans should the WNBA be marketing to?
Greenberg: It’s pretty much where they’re at now. Women’s college fans. The young crowd is your growth. If they grow up being fans and looking at the rest of the league, that’s how you might have a major cultural change. Families. They’re not going to attract a lot of the male sports bar guys, but the more TV you get, you have a shot at some of that crowd.
Dixon: Any basketball fan that’s willing to pay. I don’t care about race, gender or sexual orientation. It’s not a concern.
Anderson: I think that it really is that simple. I don’t know if marketing to that broad a spectrum is that simple, but it seems like you can find fans of the WNBA everywhere. And I think it’s dangerous to pigeon hole your fans and say, ‘Our fans are retired people or lesbians.’ You can be very limiting in your potential if you go about it that way.
Q: If you were put in charge of the WNBA’s media strategy, what are some specific actions you would take to increase media coverage?
Greenberg: Sending out story ideas and increasing the amount of TV coverage. They probably need to visit a few sports departments and develop more relationships with editors.
Dixon: Sometimes you need to visit editors and producers. But it should be an emphasis on the game because I don’t think you can exist over an expanded period of time with gimmicks. ... You have to convince editors that there are great players, and that has been a problem. The league would often compare itself to women’s tennis. “You’re interested in Serena Williams’ catsuit.” We were only interested in Serena Williams’ catsuit when she was No. 1 and 2 in the world.
Anderson: Visiting editors is a great idea and sending story ideas as they come along to outlets that match a story idea you have. ... Women’s basketball is certainly not overexposed, and there’s a lot of good stories out there. It’s also surprising to me that the players aren’t more accessible. There’s plenty of players still who are not on board with that and aren’t easy to talk to. I think that some of the players haven’t bought into the idea that the media is part of the growth.
Dixon: I would add that some of those players are the star players.
Q: Has the league peaked as a property?
Dixon: No. This is a milestone at ten, but how they go from here and whether or not the business model will be successful and how they can continue to market great players. What is going to drive their product is the players. And there are a lot of great players coming up. College basketball continues to grow, and as long as they can capitalize on that momentum the future could be better.
Anderson: I agree totally. The college game continues to expand, and the WNBA is going to continue to reflect that. I don’t think they’ve peaked at all.
Greenberg: I don’t know if it has peaked in terms of it can’t get any higher. Maybe at times it has paused in its growth in a kind of stair-step way and possibly stagnated. Houston winning the first four WNBA titles began to create some problems of boredom, although the domination was as impressive as a hindrance. In many ways, Donna Orender brought a new personality jolt into the league, which is not to detract from the great work of Val Ackerman.