WNBA Hits 25; ABL Gets Some Credit; Yo Honored; Wilson Returns
Congrats to the WNBA on tipping off its 25th season. It seems hard to believe that it's been a quarter-century since we launched the ABL in 1996. The WNBA followed in '97 and the competition between the two leagues dominated the coverage of women's sports for the next three years.
We felt we had the better plan and the better players in the ABL, but couldn't overcome the WNBA's leverage with TV and sponsors. After our league folded, and many of our players and coaches were absorbed by the WNBA, the quality of play in the W improved dramatically.
Most ABL alums have rooted for the WNBA to survive, believing that it was—and is—important to have an ongoing professional women's league in this country. Unfortunately, players are still underpaid, forced to migrate overseas in the off-season for better paying jobs, and attendance and TV viewership are now a fraction of what they were in the 1997-99 timeframe, when the competition between the two leagues attracted daily media coverage throughout the year.
Consider that the WNBA's opening game in '97 drew 5 million TV viewers, and several other games during the first two seasons—when it was competing with the ABL—drew 2 or 3 million.
Now the WNBA averages 186,000 viewers. That's not a typo. They've gone from millions to less than 200,000. In fact, in 2019, their telecasts averaged 135,000. The W trumpeted a huge increase in 2020 from 135 to 186 thousand. But for those of you familiar with TV ratings, that translates to a 0.1 rating, meaning roughly one-tenth of one percent of all the households in the US are watching women's basketball.
Similarly, crowds are down. The WNBA averaged almost 11,000 fans in its inaugural season—again, when it was competing with the ABL—and now averages around 7,000.
If it were not for the support of the deep-pocketed NBA, the league would've gone away long ago. Fortunately, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and David Stern before him, have provided ongoing support to women's basketball. Stern once famously called the WNBA "a rounding error in the NBA's marketing budget."
What's lacking is a real commitment from the league's TV partners to promote the league and consistently highlight the league, its players and upcoming games in news programming, talk shows, and ads.
What's lacking is a real commitment from sponsors to do more than buy advertising on game telecasts. There hasn't been a Nike shoe for a woman since Sheryl Swoopes, and that was nearly 30 years ago.
And finally, what's lacking is an effort on the part of the league and its TV partners to promote stars like A'ja Wilson, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Nneke Ogwumike, and Sabrina Ionescu (above). The NBA struggled for decades—its games were usually tape delayed—until it began to focus on stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. The NBA is star-driven, and the WNBA must be as well.
If it ever wants to be more than an afterthought, the WNBA needs its TV partners, sponsors, and league marketers to make a real commitment. ABL Paved the Way: Speaking of the WNBA and the ABL, there was a wonderful story about the ABL in Sports Illustrated last week. Lots of quotes from former ABL players and coaches about their affection for the league and its important role in laying the foundation for women's basketball in the US. Here's the link:
Yo Makes the Hall: Congratulations to our colleague and old friend Yolanda Griffith for being named to the Naismith Hall of Fame yesterday. Yo was a seven time All-WNBA selection and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, but true fans of women's basketball know she got her start in the ABL. Our VP of Player Personnel Tracey Williams, one of the best judges of talent in the game, brought Yo back from overseas to play in the ABL, and she immediately won All-ABL and Defensive Player of the Year honors. When our league folded and she moved to the WNBA, all she did was win league MVP honors in '99 and lead the Sacramento Monarchs to the WNBA Championship in 2005. Class act. Great lady. Great player. Wilson Returns: And finally, Stanford's chances for a repeat NCAA Championship got a big boost last week when guard Anna Wilson announced she was returning for her sixth year. Wilson is not only the Pac-12's Co-Defensive Player of the Year, she's also a terrific ballhandler and three-point shooter.
How does one get a sixth year? Anna missed most of her freshman year with a serious concussion, so was awarded a fifth year. When the COVID pandemic played havoc with the spring 2020, fall 2020 and winter 2020-21 college sports schedules, the NCAA granted all athletes an extra year of eligibility. So Wilson can return for another season, despite the fact that Stanford played nearly its entire schedule and won the national championship.