By the time the 2013 WNBA season concludes, possibly as soon as Thursday night in Atlanta, it may go down as the most successful campaign in the league’s tumultuous 17-year history. That may be shocking to some, given that the web site 247WallStreet.com called the league one of the 10 brands that was wouldn’t survive 2013.
That prediction was always foolish — NBA commissioner David Stern views the WNBA as an important part of his legacy and wasn’t going to let it fold on his watch — but it wasn’t rare: go to Google and type in “WNBA fail,” and you’ll see a list of sports bloggers calling the league a failure and telling sports fans to set aside their fantasies about a viable women’s basketball league and admit the same.
Those predictions, of course, came before the 2013 season.
In March, the WNBA signed a 10-year television rights contract with ESPN. It said in September that it averaged 231,000 viewers on its ESPN2 broadcasts this season, a 28 percent increase from 2012. Its first televised game of the season, between Phoenix and Chicago, drew 455,000 viewers, the most since 2004. The WNBA says its web site experienced double-digit growth and that WNBA LiveAccess, which allows fans to pay $10 to watch games online, grew 24 percent. Overall attendance was up about 1 percent from its record-low in 2012.
The league expanded its reach through new advertising and rebranding campaigns that focused on the 2013 draft’s top three picks: Baylor’s Brittney Griner, Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne, and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins. Through one season, it appears the “3 To See” campaign worked: Griner’s Phoenix Mercury saw a 9 percent attendance increase. Delle Donne led the league in All-Star voting, took the Chicago Sky to their first-ever playoff appearance, and sparked a 17 percent attendance growth. Diggins pieced together a solid rookie season, averaging 8.5 points and 3.6 assists a game. Not only is attendance up in their home cities, but they drew fans (like me) to games in other cities to see them play too.
At the same time, the league used Griner to embrace a more inclusive and progressive attitude on gender to cater to fans and bring new ones in too, and it has honed its message: yes, the league seems to admit, WNBA basketball is different from the NBA and the men’s game. And that’s OK. It’s not trying to compete with the men for your eyes, but offering a new product that is entertaining on its own.
That’s not to say the WNBA’s future is certain. It still isn’t financially independent of the NBA and it’s hard to imagine that happening any time soon. Stern, a fan and protector of the league, is retiring in February, and it isn’t clear whether his replacement, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, will make the league such a priority. It has made small and steady attendance gains before, only to see it fall off a cliff in a single year as it did in 2012. It doesn’t have one star as dynamic as Griner, Delle Donne, or Diggins coming out of the 2013 draft, much less three.
The WNBA certainly won’t challenge any of the four major men’s sporting leagues for their spot in the American sporting psyche any time soon, but that doesn’t mean it can’t grow and become its own viable entity, a niche sport that both serves its audience and slowly and steadily brings new fans to it by providing an entertaining product. Its new TV contract should help. So should its stars — not just the “3 To See” trio but those like Maya Moore, the 2011 top pick who on the cusp of winning her second title in three years in Minnesota. And no one is more important than Griner, who has the potential through endorsement deals with companies like Nike to change not just how we view women’s basketball but how we view female athletes as a whole. Griner is the type of crossover star the league has sought for years, someone who boasts not only an outsized game but a bold, outspoken personality to match. Griner has the potential to draw fans in a way no other WNBA star has before.
The fact that WNBA players like Delle Donne and Moore are playing really good basketball isn’t ever going to be enough, not in a country where sexism from both men and women and in the media makes it hard for women’s leagues to advance on merit alone. But the WNBA has shown us this year that it can embrace new ideas and drive growth in the game. That rebranding approach and new embrace of its product as something different shouldn’t just happen at the top level but on the local level too, and teams that share cities with NBA franchises should explore new ways to partner and market their teams. The WNBA is a great product, but its major problem is figuring out how to get people through the door or engaged on TV. It seems to have started figuring out that problem in 2013, but to keep growing, it will have to keep embracing new ideas and finding ways to build on the star power it now has. If it does that, 2013 may not be another blip on the radar, but the beginning of a period of sustainable growth for America’s biggest women’s sports league.