The league has seen an increase in viewership, yet fails to garner attendance
In 2018, the WNBA had an average game attendance of 6,768 during the regular season. This marked the first time in the league’s 22-year history that attendance dipped below 7,400 fans per game. With WNBA stars clamoring for higher salaries in the league, it’s time to evaluate a league that has struggled to get people into the seats.
Until 2018, the WNBA had a stable attendance base, maintaining between 7,000-8,000 fans per game since 2010. But in 2018, then-owner of the New York Liberty, James Dolan, moved the team from Madison Square Garden, an arena with a capacity of roughly 20,000, to the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York.
The new arena, located 35 minutes north of New York City, has a seating configuration of 2,300 that is expandable to 5,000.
Dolan, who has since sold the team, said that the move came due to low attendance. While in the Garden, the Liberty averaged less than 10,000 fans a game, and Dolan says that roughly half of those tickets had been given away.
Playing in Westchester, the Liberty’s attendance came to about 2,800 fans per game. But they were filling the new arena and accomplished the goal of creating a more intimate fan experience.
The Liberty are not the only team to be downsizing in the WNBA. The Chicago Sky and the Washington Mystics moved into new, smaller arenas last season.
The Liberty’s move to Westchester accounts for roughly half of the decrease in attendance, and the other main factor in decline can be attributed to the constant moving of teams in the league.
Take the Chicago Sky for example. Until 2010, the Sky played at the UIC Pavillion. Then, heading into 2010, they moved to the Allstate Arena. Now they have moved to the Wintrust Arena. This constant moving of arenas can act as a prohibitor from building up one’s fan base.
An analogous example in a different sport would be the New York Islanders in the NHL. The Islanders, who used to play at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, moved the team to Brooklyn in order to play at the Barclays Center. While the Barclays Center is a better arena, the Islanders moved away from their fan base, and attendance for their games cratered to last in the NHL.
It also doesn’t help that WNBA teams also have had trouble staying in one city. Out of the 12 teams that took part in the 1999 season, only five remain in their original market. The other seven have either folded or moved.
However, other things are looking up for the WNBA. For starters, while attendance has gone down, TV viewership has gone up. Games on ESPN2 averaged nearly 250,000 viewers, which is a 38 percent increase from 2017.
Also, there is increasing parity in a league that has been dominated by the Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx. The Lynx, who have four WNBA titles, lost in the first round in 2018, while the Seattle Storm won the WNBA title.
For the WNBA to succeed, it will need to have a future with fewer teams changing cities, less moving between arenas, and more focus on building fan bases. If they can execute on that plan, it can act as a catalyst for league growth and higher player salaries. However, as we know, there is a big difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it.
Feature photo courtesy of the Associated Press.