Can the WNBA be Saved?


“Hey, can you turn on ESPN? I can’t miss the WNBA game tonight.”

That’s a phrase you’ve probably never heard anyone say without a hint of sarcasm in their voice or a smirk on their face. Let’s be honest, the last time you watched a WNBA game was most likely while scanning Buffalo Wild Wings to find your waitress and caught a glimpse of the Liberty vs. Mystics game out of the corner of your eye. Unfortunately, even though WNBA players put on a great athletic performance, they can’t seem to convince Americans to tune in and watch them play.

The Women’s National Basketball Association was originally founded about 20 years ago in April 1996 as the sister-league for the NBA. Since its inception, the organization has grown to a twelve-team league – the most notable of which include The New York Liberty, Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury. When the league was formed, executives were under the impression that the WNBA would have a much larger fan base and be a lot more popular than it has shown to be. NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, has frequently spoken out about how he expected viewership for the WNBA at this point in time to be at much higher levels than numbers presently show. At an industry press conference in September, he stated “We thought we would have broken through by now…we thought ratings and attendance would be higher.” [1] Unless changes are promptly enacted to increase viewership for games, it doesn’t look as if the WNBA will ever ‘break-through’ to the American public.

According to the SportsBusiness Journal, last season the WNBA struggled to draw in even a mere 200,000 viewers per game. Even the league’s most-anticipated playoff games brought in only 489,000 viewers over the three-game stretch. [2] To compare, this year’s 2015 Warriors-Cavs Playoffs had record-high ratings of nearly 20 million viewers across the six game series. [3] What’s the reason behind the vast viewership difference between the two leagues? Both organizations play the same game, with virtually the same rules – however, the WNBA falls short in matching the energy, enthusiasm and fan base present at NBA games.

A large and obvious part of this difference stems from the fact that female athletes simply don’t have as much raw strength, power and skill as their male counterparts. Male athletes are stronger, larger and have more endurance than females, and are therefore more interesting to watch. But another, less considered reason for this viewership gap is the fact that there are virtually no marketing efforts attempting to push viewership for WNBA games. Really, when was the last time you saw an ad prompting you to watch an WNBA game? There have been hundreds of TV spots, billboards and radio ads created for the NBA – but very few for the WNBA. Adam Silver realizes this, and has been making an active attempt to push marketing efforts for the NBA’s sister league.

The first big push comes as a minute-long TV spot titled “Watch Me” urging viewers to, well, watch the WNBA. The video highlights the ladies’ skills on the court as great basketball players, and also off the court as devoted mothers, wives and role models. The clip conveys an important message to viewers: that aside from the physical work and training these ladies devote their time and energy to, they also have families, children, and fans which take up a large part of their lives. Sure, these female players  don’t have the power or strength of men, but they should be admired for reasons other than just athletic ability. Women are expected to be the ones who deal with family, children, cooking, playdates, grocery shopping, housework, appointments, etc. so the fact that these ladies can manage a full-time career playing professional basketball on top of that is truly commendable.

If Silver really wants to hammer home the idea of WNBA players being ‘family-women’ athletes, he should seek out a network that’d be willing to give them a reality TV show so the public can really appreciate how much effort goes into balancing work/family life as a WNBA player. Plenty of successful shows like WAGS, Basketball Wives, and Football Wives film the daily lives of NBA and NFL players’ wives/girlfriends – so why not devote a show to WNBA players too? Take E!’s hit show, Total Divas, for example. The show follows the drama and events that unfold in the personal lives of WWE’s clique of female wrestlers, while focusing a great deal on their athletic careers as well. As a result of the show, more people than ever are talking about the WWE and its Diva Division. WWE reports that Total Divas, along with its other reality TV show, Tough Enough, have “ ..expanded WWE’s weekly television audience by nearly 5 million unique viewers.” [4]

Watching a reality show about the lives of WNBA players would personally make me a lot more inclined to watch them play in the league. Knowing a player’s backstory and personality makes it more interesting to root for (or against) her and her team. For example, I knew virtually nothing about the WWE before Total Divas aired, but after watching the show a few times I now know who/what the “Divas” are and even follow a couple of them on Instagram. Seeing as how well Total Divas led to an increase in brand awareness and total overall and unique viewership for the WWE, I would say that Adam Silver could expect to see a sharp rise in live-viewers and ticket sales for WNBA games if he gave the idea for a reality show some consideration.

Stephanie Khodzhayan

[1] Baysinger, Tim. “Here’s What the WNBA Is Doing to Get You to Watch Its Gams.” ADWEEK, 22 Sept. 2015. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

[2] Paulsen. “2014 WNBA Finals Hits Multi-Year Viewership High.” Sports Media Watch, 18 Apr. 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

[3] Rovell, Darren. “Finals Earn Highest Ratings since Michael Jordan’s Last Title in 1998.” ESPN, 18 June 2015. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

[4] “Financials.” WWE Corporate. WWE, 2015. Web. 13 Oct. 2015

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