WNBA showing progress amid tough economic times
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK (AP) – Roster sizes have been reduced and teams lost an assistant coach. Also, one of the marquee franchises has folded.
Just don’t tell WNBA president Donna Orender that her league is doomed for extinction in a tough economy.
Orender points to recent increases in attendance, TV ratings, jersey and merchandise sales, and Web traffic as a sign the league, which begins its 13th season this weekend, is healthy.
“I have a great degree of confidence where the WNBA is,” Orender said. “This is a league that is growing.”
NBA commissioner David Stern believes the struggling economy can actually benefit the WNBA because of its affordability.
“Ticket prices are so relatively modest that you have a family of four go see a great entertainment experience at a very modest cost,” Stern said. “But of course, we all know there’s less disposable income out there in a difficult economy. That’s a challenge for every sports league, including the WNBA.”
In New York, tickets start at $10 for Liberty games at Madison Square Garden, with the most expensive at courtside reaching $225 per game as part of a season-ticket package, and $260 individually. The same seat for a Knicks game last season was priced at about $1,900.
“Our league is still young enough where our fans and the prices of tickets and things like that are still family friendly when as you’re trying to go to a baseball game, an NBA game … tickets are pretty high right now,” Mercury star Diana Taurasi said. “I think it hits that crowd a little bit more than the average fan that goes to the WNBA and watches women’s sports.”
There’s more good news, economically. A landmark eight-year contract with ESPN/ABC that pays the league rights fees for the first time kicks in this season, and earlier this week, the Phoenix Mercury became the first team to announce a deal to put a sponsor’s name across the front of their jerseys.
The league also reached a deal recently with Starwood Hotels to make the chain the official hotel of the WNBA. “That’s going to result in greater service at lesser cost,” Orender said.
As part of an effort to reduce league-wide costs, coaching staffs were cut by one full-time assistant for all teams, and the WNBA draft returned to the NBA Entertainment headquarters in Secaucus, N.J., instead of tying its location to the NCAA women’s Final Four as it did the previous three years.
The most tangible change on the court is rosters being limited to just 11 active players. In recent years, teams were allowed to have up to 13, with two designated as inactive before each game. Although the team salary caps and minimums – set at $803,000 and $772,000, respectively – didn’t change, having fewer players will result in other savings.
“It’s not insignificant,” Orender said. “You have to house that player, feed that player, travel that player. All those things add up.”
Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings, also the president of the players’ union, believes the change will allow the league stay healthy. “We want to stay around for a while,” she said.
The league lost one of its original teams in the offseason when the Houston Comets, who won the first four championships from 1997 to 2000, folded. Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, the original owner of the Comets, sold the team to Houston businessman Hilton Koch before the 2007 season. The WNBA took over the franchise last year and shut it down in December when new owners couldn’t be found.
After expanding to a high of 16 teams for a three-year stretch between 2000-02, the count was down to 13 by 2004. That’s where it is again this year after league added two clubs – Chicago for 2006 and Atlanta in 2008 – and lost two – besides Houston, Charlotte folded after the 2006 season.
Orender is not worried about the viability of the remaining teams, saying there is continued interest from groups in various markets looking to join the league.
“Over a period of time we will probably move teams and add teams,” she said, “and we will continue to find the great markets with the great management that’s going to provide stable franchises.”
When the league began in 1997, all the teams were affiliated with NBA teams in their cities. The rules were changed over the years to allow independent ownership, and now nearly half the teams – Atlanta, Chicago, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington – have non-NBA owners.
Stern said the success of the WNBA is important to the men’s league because it capitalizes on “the enthusiasm that is growing among young women who play the game in high school, play in AAU, play in college. … That gives us the opportunity together with our NBA development league to literally be playing basketball in many markets in a year-round basis. That’s great for the NBA.”