Published on March 9, 2016 by Paul Richardson  

Since its inception in 1997, the WNBA has never a solid revenue footing. During the 2000s, the National Basketball Association (NBA) spent more than 10 million dollars per year, hoping to keep the WNBA afloat, while WNBA teams continued to lose money.

Leaking Money

In 2007, different franchises were estimated to be losing between 1.5 and 2 million dollars a year. For so long, the NBA has run the WNBA, but it seems that as of late that the metaphorical ball has been dropped. Of the 12 teams in the WNBA, NBA teams own seven and ten share an arena with their respective NBA team. The difference in the two independent teams (Connecticut and Chicago) is that they can completely focus on one team instead of splitting time with a successful NBA team and a less successful WNBA team (Steeg, 2007).

Without the NBA’s support, though, success in the WNBA will be very challenging. In 2002, David Stern announced that the NBA would no longer subsidize its WNBA counterparts. Upon that announcement, WNBA owners in Orlando, Miami, Portland, Utah, and Cleveland eventually dropped out of ownership and the teams withered away.

The main reason for the struggle comes not from the lack of support of the NBA, but from the booming success of the NBA in such a competitive market. Below are two charts with the first representing fan interaction from 2012 to 2014 in the WNBA and the second representing fan interaction from 2012 to 2014 in the NBA.

WNBA Fan Interaction, 2012-2014
WNBA Fans 2012 2013 2014
Total Number of Fans Age 13+ (View and/or Attended–add 000) 22,425 19,752 19,527
Total Number Attending Games (add 000) 1,092 1,789 1,393
% Attending More Than 1/yr. 12.1% 42.5% 45.2%
Total Number Viewing on TV (add 000) 21,521 18,156 17,585
% Viewing More Than 1/yr. 73.3% 73.7% 69.3%
NBA Fan Interaction, 2012-2014
NBA Fans 2012 2013 2014
Total Number of Fans Age 13+ (View and/or Attend-add 000) 85,556 74,187 76,026
Total Number Attending Games (add 000) 11,386 12,662 13,229
% of Attendees who Attended More Than 1/yr. 46.3 42.4 51.5
% of Attendees who Attended 4+ Times/yr. 12.5 15.5 17.7
Total Number Viewing on TV (add 000) 80,967 68,451 70,029

As seen, comparatively, the WNBA is on a steady downfall while the NBA’s fan attendance is on the rise. Without fan attendance, there will never be enough revenue. In 2015, the WNBA average attendance per game was 7,318 fans per game (Rebilas, 2015). This low fan attendance hurts the revenue and it is being seen first hand specifically in players’ salaries.

Salary Cap

In 2013 for the WNBA, the salary cap for an individual team was $900,000 with the minimum salary for rookies being $35,190 and for six year deals the minimum being $101,500. In 2015, Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury actually sat out the entire season because the Russian club team she plays for would pay her more to miss the entire season than she would be making with the Mercury (Garland, 2012). Comparatively, the salary cap of an NBA team is $58 million per team. The minimum salary of an NBA player is $490,180 as of 2015-2016 and the highest paid player this year will be Kobe Bryant making $25,000,000 on salary alone (Garland, 2012).

Obviously the decline, in the WNBA, comes down to revenue, which is rooted in fan attendance and fan interaction. The solution is not easy in an ever-growing and ever changing market. Realistically, the end seems very near for the WNBA.

This blog post was written by Samford University student Paul Richardson, Sophomore Sport Administration major and Sport Ministry minor.