Why the WNBA isn’t working

I don't blog about sports much, but I came across this rather interesting article about the WNBA in Slate the other day. The basic problem with the WNBA is that it is trying to replicate the model of the NBA on a smaller scale, rather than just using a different and more appropriate model.  The only reason it is still going is because it is massively subsidized by the NBA. The crux of the issue:

There was a women's pro basketball league in the United States before the NBA got into the game. By late 1995, the ABL
had signed 9 of the 11 women on the U.S. Olympic team and had set up
franchises in mid-size cities like Richmond, Va., and Columbus, Ohio.
Before the ABL could play its first game, the NBA announced its
venture. The WNBA would launch in eight NBA cities, had TV deals with
NBC and ESPN, and was sponsored by Nike, Coke, and American Express.
The ABL's demise was assured; it disbanded in 1998.

better-marketed, better-sponsored WNBA won in the short term, but the
ABL was a better model for a women's pro basketball league. The NBA's
grand vision of a league for women that mirrored the league for
men—just add a W!—was never realistic. The fundamental problem is that
the sports world's primary spenders—adult men—have never shown much
interest in watching women play basketball. For all the people like
John Wooden who enthuse over the superior fundamentals of the women's game,
there are thousands more who focus on what women can't do on the court.
Dunking is not all there is to basketball—as your high school coach
used to say, a slam is worth just as many points as a layup. But it's
also true that nobody pays $1,000 for courtside seats to watch a layup

There are two ways to address the problem of male hoops
fans' lack of interest. The first is to appease them. In 1991, a
start-up called the Liberty Basketball Association changed the rules of basketball
so female hoopsters would play more like men. The LBA shortened the
length of the court and lowered the hoop to 9 feet 2 inches in an
attempt to bring the women's game above the rim. The league's marketing
strategy was made plain in the uniforms: skin-tight unitards that
revealed the players' nipples.

Which leads to the second way to address the
male-hoops-fan problem: ignore them. The audience for the WNBA is, by
various accounts, between 60 percent and 80 percent female. The league also has a major following in the gay and lesbian community, a community that some franchises court and others aggressively alienate. If the WNBA focuses primarily on these fans, they can still have a large enough customer base to survive and succeed.

I actually remember the ABL franchise in Columbus, which struck me as a good idea.  I don't see myself going to any pro women's basketball anytime soon, but it seems that a successful league would be much smarter to place teams in cities like Columbus, and Raleigh for that matter, than in LA, DC, etc.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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