Game 2 of the WNBA finals is set for Wednesday night in Minneapolis, as the Minnesota Lynx face the Atlanta Dream. The Lynx lead the series after winning Game 1 on Sunday, where they played in front of a near-record crowd. But after 15 seasons, the WNBA is still having trouble attracting fans and making money.
A few days before Game 1 of the finals, reporters are encircling WNBA veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin outside the women's locker room at the Target Center. While the 40-year-old Lynx forward is in her 13th season with the league, she says it's only now that she gets shouts of encouragement when she walks down the street.
"This is my first WNBA city where I've had those kind of crazy, rabid fans, and I'm so excited for this game ... for them to come out," McWilliams-Franklin says. "And it's going to be packed and loud and exciting, and it's what the WNBA finals are supposed to be."
The Lynx's 27-7 season was the only respite for Minnesotans let down by a dismal year for other pro sports. Season ticket holder Karen Sylte is a die-hard Lynx fan. She says the women's game is great basketball — fun to watch and uncorrupted by multimillion-dollar egos.
"It's team ball. It's unselfish. A lot of NBA teams are about one-on-one basketball," Sylte says. "You don't see that very often in the WNBA, where a player will go one-on-one against another player."
Struggling To Attract Fans
But most WNBA teams — even the Lynx — still have trouble attracting fans like Sylte. Ticket giveaways are common, and average league attendance this year was below 8,000. Still, there are a few positive signs. The WNBA is reporting its best TV ratings in six years, and it just signed a reported eight-figure sponsorship deal with Boost Mobile. The cellphone carrier's logo appears on most WNBA uniforms — something rare outside NASCAR.
Lynx Chief Operating Officer Conrad Smith says this shows the league may be turning a corner. And while the team doesn't make its finances public, he says the Lynx could turn a profit this year for the first time in nearly a decade.
"The first couple of years we were profitable, but then we got away from it," Smith says. "But this year — and obviously the playoffs and how that all shakes out — we'll know at the very end how we did, which is great news for the league and our ownership group."
But if it takes a trip to the finals to turn a profit, how has the league survived for 15 seasons? The reason, says Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, is that NBA franchises continue to subsidize their co-owned women's teams. And that's something that may not last.
"Whenever you have a league where the average team is losing money, even if it's close to breaking even, it means some teams will be substantially below that," Zimbalist says. "I think that people have a limited amount of patience for yearly operating losses, particularly in a difficult economic environment."
In the NBA, the player lockout just began its fourth month. But Zimbalist says because the women's league plays in the summer, it can't take advantage of the situation. He points to professional tennis as proof that women's sports can make money.
Zimbalist says it'll take a creative business plan and aggressive marketing for the WNBA to capitalize on its potential and bring itself out of the shadow of the NBA.