I’ll be honest — I forgot the WNBA existed until the Chicago Sky trade Elena Delle Donne to the Washington Mystics.
Delle Donne was the 2015 WNBA MVP and is one of the more known WNBA players outside of the small fanbase the league as accumulated in just over 20 years of operation.
It’s pretty easy to forget about the WNBA. The season is short and games are played at strange times or double-booked with other, more watched sports events. The WNBA Finals were played on Sundays and Thursdays in October — AKA NFL season. So the finals games – which were awesome, by the way – got relegated to ESPN2.
The WNBA saw an average of 7,578 fans at games across the league in 2014. The Phoenix Mercury had the highest average with 9,557 attendees. On the air, ESPN’s broadcasts of WNBA games averaged about 240,000 viewers in 2014.
The NBA averaged about 17,000 attendees in 2014.
Even NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was surprised the WNBA still hasn’t gained popularity.
“We thought we would have broken through by now,” he said at the Sports Business Journal’s Game Changers conference in 2015.
Silver also said a number of businesses could help the WNBA, but haven’t been interested.
While I applaud Silver’s candor and ability to admit things didn’t work out as planned, as a fan, I’m still disappointed. He stated there’s a problem, but what’s the plan of action? How will he be engaging this businesses? It’d be great to see an improvement plan in place, but I’m also skeptical that any big changes would help.
There’s just so many reasons WNBA isn’t popular.
To me, the biggest issue is history. The NBA was founded in 1946. The guys have 50 years of basketball history, viewership and traditions.
Combine that legacy with the lack of legacy surrounding women’s sports, and there’s no way the WNBA can compete with the NBA.
Title IX, the education amendment prohibiting gender discrimination at federally-funded schools, only passed in 1972. This law gave many women the opportunity to play sports for the first time.
By all accounts, women doing athletic things is still a relatively new phenomenon — which means that there’s still misogyny abound when it comes to women achieving at a high level. It’s outdated attitudes about women’s roles that lead to weird, Catch-22 situation around women’s athletics. People complain there isn’t as much excitement, crazy breakaways or dunks in women’s basketball, but if a player is big and athletic and dunks frequently, she could be looked down upon for being big and athletic. On some level, it still threatens some people that women can fight through screens, throw elbows — in other words, it bothers them women can be successful without being feminine.
Either the game is boring or the players are manly, there’s no winning for anyone in these situations. And when did dunks become the end-all, be-all for deciding what’s good basketball?
I love a good jam as much as anyone. But a quality dunk is just one tiny element of a basketball game.
If one more person tells me the WNBA is inferior because there aren’t as many dunks, I might lose my mind. Provide me a reason WNBA is boring with other, more meaningful stats, like assist-to-turnover ratios or shooting percentage – not the number of dunks per game. Flying to the rim earns a player two measly points, and if that’s what it takes to keeps fans interested, they’re probably not real fans.
As a female sports fan, the lack of success is a motivating factor in my dedication to following WNBA this season. If women aren’t into women’s basketball, then why should anyone else be?
The hardest problem in all of this, is the issues just send everyone around in circles. There’s no way to make these changes unless everyone involved makes the decision to invest and make the WNBA something desirable.
Maybe one day, as society continues to fight sexism and misogyny, the WNBA will rise in popularity. Maybe one day, everyone will be so sick of flashy NBA basketball, they will return to the classic game played in the WNBA.
Tess Fox can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tesstakesphotos