When the Women's National Basketball Association was created in 1997, there were many pundits who maintained that America was not ready for an organization of professional women basketball players. Still today, there is a perception among many that this association suffers from poor sponsorship, small audiences, and low viewership on television. The league has certainly had its boom and bust cycles, and 2012 was one of its worst seasons ever in regards to attendance and viewership. The season was so poor, in fact, that 24/7 Wall St. predicted that the WNBA was destined to become one of the brands that would fail in 2013, according to the website ThinkProgress.
Then came 2013, which many who follow the WNBA see as a turning point in its history. Both viewership and attendance began to rise, and SportsBusiness Daily reports that an average WNBA game drew 231,000 viewers -- with 344,000 for finals. These numbers compare favorably with the U.S. Open series events and IndyCar's full-season average. The viewership, in short, was substantial.
And television coverage is growing -- 30 games this season will be broadcast on The Walt Disney Company's (NYSE:DIS) ABC and ESPN, according to WNBA President Laurel Richie. ESPN has now committed to covering games through the 2022 season. Another 40 games will be shown on WNBA TV, which is available in some 55 million homes throughout the United Stated. These numbers are attracting big-time sponsors, including Nike, General Mills, Yum! Brands' Taco Bell, American Express, and Coca-Cola.
Keys to success
How did this turnaround happen? There appear to be several means by which the WNBA pulled itself out of a nose dive and became the vibrant and viable franchise it is today:
- A strong campaign of advertising and rebranding of the association, not as a women's version of the NBA, but a unique and entertaining product on its own. This campaign promises to continue under Richie, who is coming from a senior marketing position with the Girl Scouts of America and has extensive experience in corporate branding and advertising, public relations, and consumer marketing.
- The WNBA's longevity, which finally seems to be paying off. Richie noted that the WNBA is the "longest-running women's professional sports league in the world." This is allowing the association to gain ground overseas, where it is now being watched in more than 100 countries.
- Three new draft picks that have expanded the association's fan base: Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, and Skylar Diggins. These three tremendous players were at the heart of the WNBA's "3 to See" campaign to generate interest in the association and attract new viewers.
- Savvy use of new media. The WNBA now streams its game online via Live Access, and views are up by 24%, the league reported. This year has also seen visits to the WNBA's YouTube and Facebook page both rise by double-digits.
- Expanded coverage from ESPN that has allowed fans to follow high-profile college athletes from their college teams to the pros. This includes athletes like Diana Taurasi, who was a popular student-athlete drafted by the Phoenix Mercury in 2004. Such coverage provides continuity and helps to generate a loyal fan base.
The WNBA's success is showing that professional women basketball players have a place on the national stage, and that people are willing to pay money to watch them. The success of this business model is bringing greater fame to stars like Griner, and it will be intriguing to see what continued influence the success of the WNBA may have on women in other professional sports.