Why the WNBA may be entering thrive mode

DIANA TAURASI SPREAD her arms wide and turned toward the crowd. The WNBA superstar had just scored a playoff career-high 37 points while playing on a bum ankle. She was trending on social media. At 39 years old, Taurasi gifted the fans a vintage-style performance against the Las Vegas Aces. Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury were headed home, tied 1-1 in the semifinal series.

Problem was, the game wouldn’t take place at the Mercury’s home arena. “Disney On Ice” had been previously scheduled at the Footprint Center on the same night as the WNBA playoff game, so the Mercury were banished to a slightly smaller arena at Arizona State.

The juxtaposition — a thrilling sports moment followed by another perceived affront to the league and its fans — was a stark reminder of the WNBA’s fight to carve out space in the sports landscape 25 years after its founding. While some stars are household names and the league enjoys both a business partner in the NBA and media partners that provide it national and regular exposure, the challenges run deep. The WNBA has struggled to increase franchise values, attendance is lagging and media rights fees have not increased exponentially like in other leagues. Its issues go beyond the bottom line too; the vast majority of its players excel in relative anonymity after they leave college.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert isn’t shying away from any of it. Instead, she’s taking aim at what she calls a broken sports ecosystem that has historically and dramatically undervalued women’s sports.

“It’s a male model discounted by 80 to 90%,” she said.

In a 90-minute interview, Engelbert, the former CEO of Deloitte who accepted the WNBA’s top job as her “second act” in 2019, said she can fix it.

Instead of tinkering around the edges, Engelbert is focused on the fundamental question of equity.

She has a five-year plan that includes assembling a consortium of powerful stakeholders who want to persuade corporate America that the WNBA is more than the NBA’s “little sister.” They argue that it’s a growing business that found tremendous traction through its racial and social activism in 2020. Engelbert also has plans to prioritize marketing and merchandising, while looking hard at expansion, sports gambling and partnerships. And, she’s making the case for higher media rights fees.

“It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “I have a plan, and I’m already working on it.”

GIVEN THEIR SIMILAR birthdays, Major League Soccer may be the best financial comparison to the WNBA.

MLS debuted with 10 clubs in 1996, just one year before the WNBA launched in 1997 with eight teams tied to NBA franchises. Franchise fees for MLS teams averaged $5 million to $10 million until 2005. The Connecticut Sun became the first WNBA team to be sold to an independent owner in 2003. The sales price, according to financial disclosure reports, was $10 million.

MLS now has 27 teams and, in recent years, has experienced a roughly 20% increase in average attendance compared to when it debuted. MLS plays mostly in outdoor stadiums and has averaged more than 13,000 fans this season amid COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that have impacted attendance figures across all sports. In 2019, MLS averaged 21,000 fans.

The WNBA’s 12 teams, meanwhile, averaged about 6,500 fans during the regular season in 2019, down from a peak of nearly 11,000 in 1998. Attendance this year has averaged around 2,600, a number that is at least in part a result of strict COVID protocols placed on indoor venues.

The leagues’ TV ratings, however, are more closely aligned.

According to an ESPN spokesperson, MLS averaged 384,000 viewers per regular-season game this year, and 620,000 people tuned in for the soccer league’s most-watched game on May 9 between Portland and Seattle.

The WNBA averaged 306,000 television viewers during regular-season games in 2021, and spiked to 755,000 on Aug. 15, when Seattle played Chicago on ABC, according to figures provided by ESPN. (For perspective, the NBA averaged 1.3 million viewers during the 2020-21 regular season and the NFL averaged 15.4 million viewers in 2020.)

ESPN did not disclose how much it paid for its current MLS and WNBA deals, but media reports have estimated MLS receives about $90 million a year from ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision Deportes as part of a deal that also includes broadcast rights for the U.S. national teams. The WNBA, according to media estimates, receives at least $25 million a year in a rights deal split between ESPN and CBS.

“There is a huge fee gap between men’s and women’s sports,” Engelbert said. “Even to those men’s sports that we actually compete with quite well on viewership.”

WNBA teams have consistently sold for about $10 million to $15 million, according to public records, published reports and sports bankers. Franchise fees for MLS expansion teams, in contrast, have steadily increased, exploding to $200 million in 2019. MLS team valuations, or what investors believe teams would be worth if they were sold, range between $370 million and $860 million.

Bob Malandro of Whitecap Sports Group, an investment bank that specializes in sports ownership opportunities for investors, said the biggest differentiator between MLS and WNBA is investor expectations of future media rights deals.

“MLS signed their first real media rights deal in 2014,” he said. “That eight-year deal is up in 2022 and the values you’re seeing in MLS are likely being baked in anticipation of the next media rights deal.”

The national federation and MLS have announced that they will no longer bundle their media rights deals in the next contract, according to media reports. The WNBA deal runs through 2025.

Increasing WNBA franchise values is Engelbert’s No. 1 goal.

The WNBA now consists of a mix of seven independently owned teams and five that share an owner with an NBA team. Ownership of the league itself is split between the NBA and its WNBA franchise owners.

When the NBA announced it would no longer subsidize the WNBA in 2002, some NBA owners sold their teams. The Orlando franchise moved to the Mohegan Sun casino complex in eastern Connecticut after the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority purchased it in 2003. In addition to revealing the $10 million price tag, financial disclosure documents filed by the tribe show that, as of 2016, it owned a 4.2% stake in the league.

The sales of the Washington Mystics in 2005 and the Los Angeles Sparks in 2006 and the Houston Comets in 2007 also were reported at $10 million. Financial disclosure reports filed in 2020 by former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who co-owned the Atlanta Dream with Mary Brock at the time, showed her stake valued between $1 million and $5 million. In the filing, Loeffler stated she didn’t receive any income from the team that year.

“A lot of these leagues have their floor values,” Malandro said. “If someone said I want to get in, they would have to pay $10 million because that’s the fee to get in. They don’t want that fee to trade less than that. The league would have a hard time approving a sale at a reduced number.”

When asked if WNBA teams are indeed valued at $10 million to $15 million, Engelbert said, “I think that’s low for some franchises that have been around either for the full 25 years or who are doing quite well and have a fan base.” She emphasized the impact of media rights and sponsorship deals before adding, “You’re probably at the low end, I would say.”

Ginny Gilder is one of four businesswomen who purchased the Seattle Storm in 2008, three of whom still own the franchise. She declined to disclose how much they paid for the team, but said, “I think that estimate is way low. We wouldn’t sell our franchise for that amount.”

The WNBA negotiated a new streaming deal with Amazon this year and renewed a deal with Twitter last year. Gilder said she wants the price tag for the WNBA’s next television rights deal to increase.

“I think it’s got to, because it is a more competitive landscape and also because more people are watching,” Gilder said.

In a written statement, ESPN said it has had “a valued relationship with the WNBA for the league’s entire 25-year history and we look forward to continuing that for many years to come as part of our longstanding and industry-leading commitment to women’s sports.”

Engelbert said ESPN “has been a great partner since the beginning of the league.”

“But obviously we always want to drive to a higher level based on the interest and the momentum we’re seeing in this game right now,” she said.

Much of the momentum is coming from deep-pocketed sponsors who are sold on Engelbert’s vision.

ENGELBERT WAS SITTING courtside at a Golden State Warriors game when she won over one of the WNBA’s biggest — and most important — partners.

Shortly after being named commissioner, Engelbert appeared on a sports business panel with Olympic silver medalist Kate Johnson. The women then went to the NBA game, where Johnson remembers Engelbert plotting out her strategy to disrupt the business ecosystem in which women’s sports are valued.

“In my mind, she’s revolutionary,” Johnson said of Engelbert. “She’s revolutionizing women’s sports.”

Johnson became director of partnerships for content and sports media at Google in January and urged her new employer to sponsor the WNBA. After a series of brainstorming meetings between the WNBA, ESPN and Google, the league in May announced the tech giant as a “WNBA Changemaker” alongside publicizing a multiyear agreement with ESPN and the league.

The deal goes beyond Google simply writing a check in return for advertising. In addition to its own marketing efforts related to the WNBA, Johnson said Google underwrote an additional eight games to ensure that ESPN aired at least 25 regular-season games during the 25th anniversary season. ESPN has aired another 15 playoff games as of Friday morning. Google also paid to sponsor a weekly women’s sports highlights segment on SportsCenter and is a sponsor of the espnW Summit.

“Women’s sports continues to go unfunded not because of one thing,” Johnson said. “It’s a knock-on effect. If there isn’t enough content on TV, there’s not enough investment to come in to buy that advertising content. Which means then there’s not enough dollars coming into the league themselves. And so therefore they’re not able to invest in the way that actually would lend towards the growth model.”

Along with Google, Engelbert has recruited AT&T, Nike and Deloitte to be WNBA Changemakers. Engelbert presents topics to the group to discuss, and each company provides experts for their perspective.

“For example, let’s say a topic is diversity, equity and inclusion,” Johnson said. “We would make sure our expert comes to that Changemakers conversation. If it’s about media expertise, we would bring our media team. All of these companies have that varied expertise within their organizations.”

For her part, Engelbert said, “I’ll use all the expertise I can get. Especially when you’re trying to totally upend a model that’s been around for at least 25 years.”

“There’s a movement out there to support these women,” she said. “I mean, how else would we sign companies like Deloitte, AT&T and Google? They’re trying to build their brand as a supporter of diversity, equity and inclusion. So that’s what’s different, and that’s the momentum I see and why I’m so confident we’re going to turn this around.”

Eighty percent of players in the WNBA are people of color, and the league has a strong LGBTQ presence. Corporate America has embraced players who have been vocal about social justice.

Sue Bird began appearing in CarMax commercials this year, Chiney Ogwumike is the face of a DoorDash ad campaign and Candace Parker is one of the cover stars for NBA 2K22, making her the first woman to receive the coveted spot on the popular basketball video game featuring both NBA and WNBA players.

Parker, currently playing for Chicago in the WNBA Finals, said she learned a lot about trying to expand her personal brand and business portfolio during her 13 seasons in Los Angeles, where she had conversations with former NBA star Magic Johnson, who is part of the Sparks ownership group.

“I want to walk into rooms where corporate decisions are made and see people from women’s sports,” Parker said of hoping more female athletes get involved in business. “I think that we’re capable of having that, and I want to be a part of it.”

Engelbert said it’s no coincidence that companies are drawn to WNBA players.

“What’s different now is companies have their own diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives,” she said. “Companies are thirsting for our players as a microcosm of their employee base.”

In September, the league announced a partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods. Licensed WNBA merchandise will now be available for the first time in at least 100-120 of its stores, according to the chain’s marketing vice president, Melissa Christian.

“What we’re working with the W on is how to change visibility of the product,” Christian said. “And then more broadly raise visibility of the league and the games, because that drives interest.”

Christian said the sporting goods chain rarely partners with professional sports, preferring to focus on youth sports.

“We entered this partnership because she wanted to drive change,” Christian said of Engelbert. “We really want to use our resources to drive change and bring more visibility to women and girls in sports.”

With big business beginning to get on board, Engelbert hopes for (and needs) more buy-in from loyal and new fans alike.

WHEN LISA LESLIE and Kym Hampton lined up for the first jump ball in WNBA history on June 21, 1997, 14,284 fans were in Inglewood’s Great Western Forum to watch the L.A. Sparks and the New York Liberty launch a new professional women’s basketball league. Attendance peaked a year later, but the decline has been steady since.

Flipping this trend is a priority for Engelbert.

“When I go to each arena, I meet with the fans,” she said.

She’s struck by the quality of the fans — their knowledge about the game and their passion for it — but now she wants to focus on quantity.

“We’ve got to drive that fandom more broadly and bring in more fans,” she said.

In 2016, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he wanted to grow average WNBA attendance to more than 10,000 fans within five years. But five years later, that may no longer be possible. Some teams, including Washington (4,200) and Atlanta (3,500), have moved to smaller arenas.

Arena rent is one of the largest expenses for teams, according to sports bankers and WNBA owners.

“If you can mitigate it or eliminate it or at least make it palatable, you have a much better chance at success,” Malandro said.

When the Mohegan tribe signed its 2003 operating agreement with the WNBA, the owners of the Connecticut Sun agreed to provide the Mohegan Sun Arena rent-free to the team. In 2010, the team became the first in the league to turn a profit.

“You have to have the right building,” said one current owner who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s hard to make the math work if the size of the building is wrong. If the cost structure is wrong.”

A push for smaller arenas has become a growing trend not just in the WNBA but throughout collegiate and professional sports after the proliferation of high-definition televisions clobbered ticket sales.

“It’s a good choice, moving into a smaller venue,” said John Moag of Moag & Company, which provides financial advisory services for NFL, NBA and other professional team owners. “People don’t like watching sports in empty arenas. Your fans are tighter, they’re louder and it’s a much more exciting atmosphere.”

Val Ackerman, the first president of the WNBA who is now commissioner of the Big East Conference, said a full building is always preferable to empty seats: “Sponsors want to be where the fans are,” she said.

Engelbert puts the WNBA’s new “sweet spot” at an average of 6,000-10,000 fans. But having only 12 teams “is one of our impediments” to increasing attendance.

Expansion, she said, is coming to the WNBA.

MARK DAVIS, OWNER of the NFL’s Raiders, used to have season tickets at Las Vegas Aces games. He sat next to Bill Hornbuckle, president and CEO of MGM Resorts International, which at the time owned the team and still owns the arena where the Aces play.

“During the games, I would tell him, ‘You need to pay the players more,'” Davis recalled during a video call with reporters in February. “I kept giving him hints on how to make this league better. Finally, he turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you buy the team?'”

Davis became one of three new ownership groups — along with Atlanta and Minnesota — to enter the WNBA this year. The Lynx were sold along with the NBA’s Timberwolves for $1.5 billion to entrepreneur Marc Lore and retired baseball star Alex Rodriguez in the spring; they are paying in installments and are expected to take full control of both franchises in 2023.

Engelbert wants to introduce even more owners — through expansion — to the league within the next five years. She said the league is prospecting for new cities that would make a good fit.

“We’re doing all that data mining now,” she said. “I suspect by next summer or this time next year, in our 26th season, we’ll be talking about the number of teams and a list of where.”

Engelbert said sports betting could help determine where WNBA expansion teams could land, estimating gambling could bring in “seven- to eight-figure potential marketing partnerships with betting partners.”

The Mercury signed a reported $66 million deal in June with Bally’s Corporation to be its exclusive sports betting partner for the next 15 years. The team called it “the largest sponsorship deal in the history of women’s sports.”

Engelbert said sports gambling is also an opportunity to bring in a fan base that “we don’t necessarily have today watching our games.”

She added that cities the league is targeting for expansion are those with strong support for women’s sports and “the kind of social justice platform that these WNBA players stand for.”

Gilder, the co-owner of the Storm, said the social justice element has attracted potential owners.

“People have not invested or have been hesitant to invest in women’s pro sports,” she said. “But you have to consider the social context within which this league operates, which is different from any other league in the country. This is starting to change. That’s a big thing for the league. People are starting to want to own a WNBA franchise.”

TERRI JACKSON TOOK over as head of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association in 2016 and negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement with the league in 2020, soon after Engelbert became commissioner.

“We don’t have a perfect CBA, but we got a damn good one,” Jackson said. “Now, let’s talk about how we’re going to add value and keep building this thing together.”

The players’ union has successfully negotiated for revenue sharing at least as far back as 2008, when the league agreed to split gate revenues if average team ticket revenue during the regular season exceeded $2.5 million.

The current agreement, which runs through the 2027 season, provides for a 50-50 revenue split if the league achieves certain growth targets. The league declined to disclose those targets as well as its overall revenue.

“The way the revenue share is constructed, it’s dependent on the league doing well and not team businesses and ticket sales of the team,” Jackson said. “I think that kind of played to Cathy’s best interests, that we believe that she would grow the league.”

But to date, Jackson said, none of the revenue sharing agreements have been triggered because the league has not met any of the agreed-upon financial benchmarks.

Pointing to the corporate partners Engelbert has secured, Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the union’s executive committee, believes the league is on the brink of a breakthrough.

“We’re kind of like on the cusp of really revving things up when it comes to league investment,” she said. “Cathy is doing a great job of stirring that pot and really trying to get results.”

The league’s highest-paid players earned a salary of $221,450 for the 2021 season, and performance bonuses added to the most recent CBA meant players could earn cash compensations in excess of $500,000, more than triple what they could earn in the prior agreement. The minimum salary in 2021, according to the CBA, was $58,710.

“It’s important that we pay them fairly,” Engelbert said, “but you do need an economic model to support it.”

Engelbert said some of the repairs to the economic model can be achieved through marketing and merchandising. She’s also trying to crack a conundrum that has been stumping the league for years.

THREE DAYS AFTER suffering a one-point loss to Baylor in the NCAA championship game, Jackie Young officially traded her Notre Dame jersey for a Las Vegas Aces jersey when she became the No. 1 pick in the 2019 WNBA draft.

Nearly 3.7 million viewers had tuned in for the Baylor-Notre Dame classic, and seven players from that game made their transition to the WNBA that April night.

Six months later, the WNBA Finals between Connecticut and Washington drew an average of just 381,000 viewers over five games.

NCAA women’s championship games regularly pull in 3-4 million viewers, and Engelbert took note of the drop-off immediately. “This is a fixable issue,” she said, “to integrate more out of the college game.”

Capitalizing on the NCAA players’ popularity and the established collegiate rivalries is an obvious way to ensure more WNBA players are household names, Engelbert said.

“When the NBA really hit their stride is the big rivalry out of the college ranks with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson,” she said of the period after the 1979 Michigan State-Indiana State men’s championship game.

Engelbert hopes to link the NCAA to the WNBA not only through the draft but also through WNBA marketing during March Madness.

And the investment in marketing won’t stop there. Engelbert recently hired longtime Nike executive Phil Cook as the league’s first chief marketing officer.

“There’s a lot of people in cities who don’t even know they have a WNBA team in that city,” Engelbert said.

But far beyond the fans in the cities with teams, Engelbert believes there are untapped international markets in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia.

“I think we have an enormous opportunity to kind of follow the NBA in the way they have globalized their game,” Engelbert said. “Not only are we starting to get draft picks from outside the U.S., but also there’s a lot of interest in bringing the WNBA globally.”

Since the WNBA launched as a summer league, most players have played overseas during the winter to maximize their income. This week, the Athletes Unlimited organization announced the 2022 debut of a monthlong women’s league set in a single city from late January through February. It won’t compete salarywise with European leagues, but it gives players another option and fans another chance to see them.

Engelbert and Jackson believe the WNBA season is “where it needs to be” on the calendar for the foreseeable future, but keeping the league and its players more visible when not in season has been a perpetual challenge. So has merchandising.

For its 25th anniversary, the league added a variety of new uniforms for each team and an updated ball, which was available for the first time in nationwide chains like Walmart. The ball sold out, according to Engelbert, noting that she believes it to be the only ball on the shelves marketed to women that isn’t pink.

Another recent success story is the orange hoodie, which Engelbert said was a top-10 seller for the NBA’s online store and, according to reports, the No. 1 seller on Fanatics.com for two days in 2020 after NBA stars and other celebrities wore the sweatshirt and posted photos on social media. The initiative was a collaboration with ESPN.

Striking the right balance between having too much merchandise and not enough, though, is imperative, Engelbert said.

“We can’t just flood the market with it, and then people don’t buy it,” she said. “That hurts the league and that hurts the league brand.”

IN A SPECIAL ceremony prior to Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, Cathy Engelbert awarded Diana Taurasi a white basketball emblazoned with the letters “GOAT” after fans voted the 10-time All-Star the league’s greatest of all time.

Taurasi waved in appreciation to the fans at the Footprint Center. Following the “Disney on Ice” hullabaloo, the NBA has moved two of its preseason games that conflicted with WNBA playoff games to make sure the Mercury could play at home.

As Taurasi turned her head away while she waved, Engelbert pulled what looked like an orange T-shirt out of her pocket. But when she unfolded it and handed it to Taurasi, a baby onesie that read “FUTURE GOAT” appeared. The tiny orange outfit looked a lot like the league’s best-selling orange hoodie, replete with the rebranded logo woman silhouette.

Taurasi smiled as she accepted the gift, and then hugged Engelbert. Taurasi’s wife, retired Mercury forward Penny Taylor, had given birth to their second child the day before. It was a sweet moment … and a savvy marketing play that garnered plenty of media coverage for the WNBA.

Engelbert’s five-year plan has been put into motion.

“It’s absolutely doable,” Engelbert said. “I want to take the league from survive to thrive now.”

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