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WNBA turns 20, still trying to expand fan base

The Houston Comets celebrate after the WNBA championship

The Houston Comets celebrate after the WNBA championship game against the New York Liberty on August 30, 1997, at The Summit in Houston, Texas. The Comets won the game, 65-51. Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw / Allsport

There was no “Aha!” moment, no epiphany when David Stern realized he was setting out to alter the landscape of women’s sports drastically and make some kind of social statement.

Stern, the NBA’s commissioner for three decades before retiring in 2014, insists he wasn’t thinking about anything but making money when he put together a financial blueprint for a women’s professional basketball league in the early 1990s. Several NBA staff members, most vocally Val Ackerman, a former college basketball player at Virginia, had long been urging Stern to get into the women’s game.

Twenty years ago this April, months before the United States women’s team led by Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo won the first of what would become five consecutive gold medals in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Stern decided the time was right. So he walked into a ballroom at the St. Regis Hotel in New York and asked the league’s Board of Governors to get behind what would become the WNBA.

The NBA Board of Governors approved the creation of the WNBA on April 24, 1996. It began play the following summer, on June 21, 1997, when the Liberty and Sparks played at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles.

“It was surprisingly easy,” Stern said this week. “The owners had faith in us. It was a business decision.”

A business decision that created what has been the gold standard in women’s professional team sports, raising the bar on what a generation of young female athletes can aspire to.

Identity crisis

The WNBA opens its 20th season Saturday, and its fans have plenty to celebrate. The league has a television contract from ESPN through the 2022 season reportedly worth $12 million a year. It recently added big-name sponsors, including a marquee deal that will put Verizon’s name on the jerseys of 10 of the 12 teams. It has a crop of rising young stars such as Chicago’s Elena Delle Donne, Minnesota’s Maya Moore and Seattle’s Breanna Stewart.

At the same time, the WNBA is experiencing a rocky young adulthood and identity crisis as it enters its 20s.

It has not averaged more than 10,000 fans since 2009, and average attendance dropped to a low of 7,318 last year. In September, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who helped launch the league, admitted it hasn’t been as popular as he thought it would be.

The WNBA continues to struggle with the perception that it is a niche league, something akin to men’s rugby, and its maximum player salary of $111,500 is about 80 percent less than the NBA minimum of $525,093. Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi, whose 2014 WNBA salary was $107,000, sat out last season and was paid $1.5 million by Russian Premier League team UMMC Ekaterinburg, for which she plays during the winter.

“The quality of play in the WNBA is really at a zenith,” said Ackerman, who was WNBA president for its first eight years and is now the commissioner of the Big East Conference. “The irony is we started with a quality of play that was much lower but at a time when the attention was so high. Now, it’s reversed. The hope is that more fans can get dialed into this great product, because the players are exceptionally skilled. There’s a great game happening.”

Building with Borders

Lisa Borders is the person in charge of dialing in those fans. Two months after Silver made his comments, Laurel Richie stepped down after five years as commissioner and Borders was hired as her replacement in April. A former vice president of Coca-Cola and vice mayor of Atlanta, Borders was instrumental in bringing the Dream to the city. She also has a close, long-term friendship with Silver — both graduated from Duke and serve on the school’s board of trustees.

Borders said she would not have taken the job if she hadn’t thought that Silver and the NBA were committed.

The relationship between the NBA and WNBA is far from transparent, which is why it’s so hard to get a read on the health of the league. Half of the WNBA’s 12 teams still are owned by the NBA instead of by individual owners. The Dolan family owns controlling interests in Madison Square Garden, the Liberty and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday. In an interview with Newsday last week, Borders declined to say how many of the 12 teams were self-supporting or whether the WNBA, as a whole, was self-supporting.

What puzzles Borders is why some of the league’s biggest critics really haven’t taken the time to sample the product.

“I would encourage people to come to a game,” Borders said. “You wouldn’t form an opinion on a restaurant without going there and tasting the food. The experience of a WNBA game is no different. We are inviting fans to come experience a game in an arena. And if they don’t live in close proximity, I encourage them to watch the game on ESPN.”

Tricky marketing strategy

Yet even among those who already engage with the league, there is a divergence, which is why it is so tricky to market the product, Ackerman said. While games tend to attract women and families, its television audience is primarily male.

“That creates some really interesting decisions on who we market to . . . ” Ackerman said. “It made for some unsolvable questions because you are trying to reach a young guy, a kid, the women who are into Title IX.”

Two WNBA legends, Dawn Staley and Swoopes, said at this year’s WNBA draft that to continue to grow the game, the WNBA has to find a way to market itself to men similar to the way women’s tennis has.

“The men are more like us than they’re like NBA players,” said Staley, who coaches the University of South Carolina. “We need to play on that. The average man is not dunking the basketball. We need to cater to them.”

Borders does not like to group her fans by traditional demographics. Instead, she believes the WNBA has many options to try to target “casual and curious fans” who have yet to form an opinion on it. She is open to tinkering with the game, including possibly lowering the baskets, to help it evolve.

“In any business, if you take innovation off the table, you’re going to get behind the 8-ball and you’re done,” Borders said. “At the end of the day, the one thing I won’t take off the table is that we use a ball. But there’s no reason we can’t try and discuss things and see if they work or not. In business, we call that research and development.”

Stern, watching from afar, believes the league he helped start has a bright future.

“This is a 20-year-old league with a solid television contract, important sponsors and decent attendance,” he said. “People forget that 20 years in, the NBA was still in the pre-tape delay era playing in old barns. The WNBA is the premier women’s league in the world in any sport and we can feel proud of that.”

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