The WNBA is applying its effort to stupid things, while its environment is poised for financial breakthrough.
Television viewership for the 2021 WNBA championship series averaged 548,000 viewers per game, a 23% increase over 2020 (447,000 per game), and 42% over 2019 (386,000 per game). Viewership for the 2022 WNBA college draft rose 20% over the year before.
A simple timeline for this sea change: Think back to the first year of WNBA play, 1997. Seimone Augustus, and other players born around 1984, were entering high school with a view toward pro league play following college ball. Augustus’ LSU teams reached the final four three times, and when she entered the 2006 WNBA draft, it coincided with the league’s expansion into Chicago (home of the 2021 WNBA champion Sky).
Also in 1997, Maya Moore and other players around her age were 8 or so, playing organized ball for the first time, while the WNBA was premiering on television. Her graduating class included Courtney Vandersloot and Liz Cambage. The girls watching them are graduating now.
If you want to look a generation ahead, Stephen Curry’s eldest daughter is 9. The girls around her age are watching “small” players like Curry and Aari McDonald dominate on the floor, while Caitlin Clark just signed a $1 million NIL deal.
The quality of play and players in the WNBA has never been better. The call for expansion — either by number of teams in the league, or number of players on the rosters — has never been louder (or more deserved). The 2022 preseason saw lottery picks and recent rookies of the year fail to make the final cut. Television ratings have never been higher. Social media awareness has never been greater — Paige Bueckers has an exceptional following, but I thought it was because she could play. The Cavinder twins at Florida have 4 million TikTok fans, despite winning at no higher league than the Mountain West.
In short, the potential for NCAA women and WNBA prosperity is roughly where the NBA was when Magic and Bird built record TV viewership in 1979.
The WNBA is poised to make a lot of money, for the first time, against the odds that go with existing as a women’s league. You could launch any shitty minor sports league of men — the USFL again, are you kidding me!? — and men with money will support and promote it, unfailingly and blindly. The difference in support between women’s and men’s basketball was made starkly and abundantly clear by the relative quality in training facilities during the 2021 NCAA tournament (that made me ashamed to be a man like Republicans make me ashamed to be an American).
The time has nearly come for American women’s professional basketball to emerge from its boutique status. There should be enough money in store to give more players jobs, and to make them more comfortable in the process — whichever rule was invoked that prevented the Liberty owner from flying his team on a charter (“for the sake of parity”, no doubt) could be abolished. Better yet, American players might be dissuaded from playing overseas, which in turn would keep them from being detained at checkpoints.
In the meantime, however, the WNBA seems determined to squander its resources with a deaf ear toward what people actually want.
It still requires a custom order to acquire replicas of most players’ jerseys. Instead, the WNBA has begun generating player-imaged NFTs for the NBA Top Shot marketplace. If you attend a WNBA game, the league would rather you have a picture of your player on your phone than wear her jersey.
If the league put a team in San Francisco, they could probably count on me to buy tickets (considering I used to drive 105 miles one way to watch the Sacramento Monarchs). Instead, it settles for my $25 subscription to WNBA League Pass, which I don’t use for its unacceptable user experience.
The MLB At Bat app enables users to toggle Show/Hide Scores. The WNBA app does not, and even places the Watch links beneath the scores. On opening night, I could not manage the feat of squinting so as to find the Watch link while my avoiding spoilage of the score. Couple that with my dislike of announcers, and I can do without watching games. (It’s much easier to not watch a sports league when your region doesn’t have a horse in the race.)
The online experience for WNBA followers is bad in ways you wouldn’t expect, like looking at the league standings. In 1925, the box looked like this, and it hasn’t changed much because it’s not broken:
In the WNBA office, someone thought to devote a UI engineer’s time to presenting team standings like this:
That level of overdoneness is a group effort, a waste of team energy. If the WNBA can’t handle these small details properly, why should investors favor expansion.
I hardly need to mention the league’s climbing aboard the cryptocurrency pyramid by partnering in December with Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange. Coinbase, trading in the 140s a month ago, has rebounded like a dead cat to 65 following the crypto market crash.