WNBA: lovable money loser
August 17, 2001: 10:51 a.m. ET

NBA's women's league still in the red despite five years of advantages
A Weekly Column by Staff Writer Chris Isidore
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - To criticize the Women's National Basketball Association is somewhat akin to attacking motherhood.

In fact mothers and their daughters make up a large percentage of the happy, respectable-sized crowds that the women's professional basketball league has drawn for its first five years in existence.

The league, which started its playoffs this week, is owned and financially backed by the National Basketball Association and has a television presence beyond the wildest dreams of most new sports leagues.

Staff writer Chris Isidore covers the business of sports for
That support has allowed the league to double in size since its 1997 inception and appears at first blush to make it the most successful new U.S. sports league in nearly 40 years.

But the title of most successful new sports league is somewhat akin to being the best pro basketball player under six feet tall. The expectations are naturally much, much lower when they are compared to the records of other upstart leagues, which normally have a lifespan significantly shorter than a player's career.

The WNBA is selling about 80 percent of its tickets, although the league only tries to sell roughly 60 percent of the capacity of the NBA arenas in which it plays. While this year's average regular-season attendance of 9,075 is flat compared to 2000, it's down from the high-water mark of 10,869 fans a game it drew during its second season, in 1998, when it was in only 10 markets rather than its current 16.

Minnesota Lynx forward Katie Smith shoots over Seattle Storm's Michelle Marciniak, left, and Semeka Randall
The league actually has a higher percentage of regular season games televised nationally than does Major League Baseball. But the number of total viewers makes baseball's generally disappointing ratings, or the much-mocked ratings of the short-lived XFL football league look like powerhouse figures.

The average rating for the first 9 of the 10 WNBA games NBC carried this season was only 1.1, compared to a 2.0 rating its first season. The XFL had an average of 3.0 rating on NBC, about the same as baseball has seen on its regular-season broadcasts on Fox.

But the XFL was shown on prime-time Saturdays during the heart of the television season, while the WNBA is only shown on NBC during summer Saturday and Sunday afternoons, a wasteland for almost any television programming.

"They're holding their own," said Barbara Zidovsky vice president for Nielsen Sports Marketing service. "You're not going to get blockbuster numbers during the summer. All sports other than NASCAR and golf have seen declines during this period."

NBC therefore hasn't minded airing the games, especially since it doesn't have to pay a rights fee. The NBA covers the production costs and sells the time to sponsors itself, and then splits the revenue with the network.

"The best way to say it, there's no concern here with the ratings," said Mark Sullivan, spokesman for NBC Sports. "We're patient, and it's the toughest time for anything to get ratings. It makes sense for us to carry the WNBA. Our relationship with the NBA is very important to us."

If it wasn't for the desire to please the NBA, it's doubtful that NBC would be willing to air the games even on such low-risk terms.

Phoenix Mercury guard Michele Timms waves the team banner in front of 14,000 fans after the team's last regular season game Tuesday.

The independent Women's United Soccer Association, which debuted this summer, has only been able to get its games aired on cable rather than any of the broadcast networks, even though the success of the U.S. women's World Cup team in 1999 gave the league arguably bigger stars than the WNBA has.

But the fact that the WNBA continues to lose money despite all its advantages and a very modest average player salary of $55,000 is a sign of just how difficult it is to turn any new sports league into a money maker, as well as the natural difficulty faced attracting an audience for women's sports.

Spokesmen for the WNBA and NBA both say they expect the league will eventually turn a profit, although they're not going to give a specific target date.

In the meantime the league is more of a feel-good public relations effort than a successful business, and one that the NBA may find it difficult ever to drop, even if the losses continue. graphic


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