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After Two Decades, WNBA Still Faces Challenging Future

WNBAWhile women’s professional sports are by and large on the rise in the United States, attendance at Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) games has plateaued, and organizers search for a way to expand interest as the circuit enter a third decade.

Attendance has settled around the 7,300 fans per game mark, and TV ratings on ESPN have remained level as well. Some teams — Phoenix Mercury, Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty — exceed 10,000 fans a game and put on a great show, while others struggle to reach the league average. The level of play is very high, and you’d think that the combo of the game on the hard court and the show for the fans would do the trick.

But women’s pro sports has traditionally been a hard sell, though there are signs of that changing: interest in a women’s pro soccer league is at an all-time high, high-profile athletes like Serena and Venus Williams do draw crowds, and college women’s basketball continues to grow in popularity. So where does this leave the WNBA? From The New York Times:

Half of the W.N.B.A.’s 12 teams lose money, and they benefit from revenue generated by the N.B.A.’s national television and sponsorship deals. This season, the $25 million the W.N.B.A. is getting from its primary broadcaster, ESPN, is a tiny fraction of the N.B.A.’s average $930 million payment from ESPN and TNT, which will rise to about $2.6 billion next season.

In a rare and candid moment last year, James L. Dolan, who owns the W.N.B.A.’s Liberty and the N.B.A.’s Knicks, told HBO’s “Real Sports” that he came close to handing the franchise back to the league in 2015.

“It hasn’t made money,” he said. “Its prospects of making money, at that time and even today, are still slim.”

Dolan has held on to the Liberty, though, and there seems to be little doubt of the N.B.A.’s continued support of the W.N.B.A. as a legacy investment in women’s basketball.

Part of the issue, which seems to be ignored by most of the media: the WNBA season isn’t scheduled for the traditional basketball season — winter, basically — but rather during the summer, when most folks want to be outdoors. Choosing the WNBA season as a summer venture may reduce scheduling conflicts during the NBA and NHL seasons (after all, there are just so many lucrative weekend dates to go around), but it also goes against the natural rhythm of the sports seasons.