After a strong launch 11 years ago, the WNBA has endured some tough times. Franchises folded, players dubbed the next big thing faltered, ratings plummeted and attendance declined.
This year the women’s basketball league finally seems to have stabilized, if it’s not quite thriving, thanks to a new star and greater exposure from the Summer Olympics.
With the WNBA finals between the Detroit Shock and San Antonio Silver Stars tipping off tonight on ESPN2, the league saw both ratings and attendance increase this year compared to last.
On ESPN2, games average a 0.22 Nielsen household rating, 16 percent better than a 0.19 last year. A handful of games on ABC averaged a 0.5, even to last year. At its peak, in its first season in 1997, the WNBA averaged a 2.0 rating on NBC.
Like ratings, attendance was also up this year, 2.21 percent, including a league-record 46 sellouts between the league’s 14 teams.
Perhaps most encouraging, merchandise sales were up 36 percent, including a 46 percent up tick for jerseys, according to the WNBA. In a year where consumers are cutting back their spending, that’s a promising sign, especially for a league that has endured so many ups and downs.
It launched with much hoopla in 1997, a year after the U.S. women’s basketball squad won a much-hyped gold medal at the Atlanta Games. After strong initial interest in the WNBA, ratings and attendance quickly flagged.
Cities like Charlotte discovered they did not have enough fan or financial support for both a men’s and women’s team, and exposure in mainstream media like ESPN’s “SportsCenter” dried up.
During that span, players like Tennessee’s Chamique Holdsclaw were championed as the WNBA’s answer to Michael Jordan, promises they ultimately did not fulfill.
This year, however, two things helped stabilize long-falling ratings and boost attendance. One was a legitimate heir to the Jordan throne, another Tennessee product, Candace Parker, who a few years ago became the first girl ever to win the McDonald’s All-American slam dunk contest.
Parker, who was drafted by the big-market Los Angeles Sparks, made an immediate impact, averaging 18.5 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per game, leading the league in the latter.
The WNBA was also helped by the greater exposure from the summer’s Olympic Games, where the U.S. captured its fourth straight gold medal and showcased young and older players like Lisa Leslie and Parker, who are also Sparks teammates.
The finals are played in a best-of-five format on ESPN2.
Source: MediaLife Magazine