SBJ/September 12-18, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

WNBA metrics ‘pointing in the right direction’

The WNBA finishes its 2011 regular season with some of its strongest numbers in memory, with the league posting increases in television viewership and sponsorship revenue, but team profitability remains a challenge.

The gains could also translate at the gate. Through Sept. 6, heading into the last week of the regular season, the WNBA was averaging 7,804 fans a game. That was up 1.7 percent from the average through the same number of games played in 2010.

Last year’s season-ending average was 7,834 fans a game.

NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
Laurel Richie, in her first year as WNBA president, speaks to members of the Washington Mystics.
“All of our key metrics are pointing in the right direction, with league sponsorship revenue up 20 percent and team sponsorships expected to be up double digits,” said WNBA President Laurel Richie, who began her job in May. “I can only speak for this year, but there has been an incredible focus to drive the metrics.”

The NBA’s team marketing and business operations department this season upped its training support for WNBA teams, adding a four-part sponsorship seminar series held in Chicago, Phoenix, New York and San Antonio for team executives designed to help drive local revenue.

Richie would not disclose details on league finances but said that at least one WNBA team will make money this year.

“We are working to make [team profitability] a plural rather than a singular,” she said.

Through Sept. 6, the Washington Mystics led the WNBA in attendance with a per-game average of 10,449 fans. The Tulsa Shock was last with an average of 4,758. The Chicago Sky had seen the biggest increase at the gate heading into the season’s final games, up 29 percent to an average of 5,536. Still, the Sky had the second-lowest gate in the league.

“It’s a great increase, but one day I hope we can’t increase that much because of the number of people in our building,” said Sky President Adam Fox. “We still need general awareness.”

The New York Liberty, who this year played the first of three seasons scheduled at the Prudential Center in Newark while Madison Square Garden is renovated, saw the biggest decline at the gate, down 30 percent to 7,683 fans a game.

“There is no doubt that the change in venue has been a challenge,” Richie said. “The Liberty is working hard to cultivate a fan base in the Newark area.”

On ESPN2, the WNBA’s 12-game national TV schedule had a 5 percent increase in viewership, with an average of 270,000 viewers a game compared to an average of 258,000 over 18 games last season. The league’s 0.2 average cable rating this year was even with its mark on ESPN2 in 2010.

The league’s sponsorship portfolio was bolstered this year by the recent multiyear, eight-figure deal with Boost Mobile that puts the company’s logo on 10 of the WNBA’s 12 team jerseys. It is the biggest sponsorship agreement in the WNBA’s 15-year history and saw Boost Mobile join American Express and InterContinental Hotels Group as new leaguewide partners this year. American Express is also an NBA partner.

The league has 15 corporate marketing partners, two more than last year. “From a sponsorship standpoint, the Boost Mobile deal is a game-changer, and we have only just begun to activate it,” Richie said.

At the team level, jersey sponsorship deals are a key revenue driver, and five of 12 teams now have marquee-level jersey deals featured along with Boost’s presence. The Mystics became the latest this year, adding Inova Health System.

“This is our 15th season and it establishes us as the most continuous women’s professional sports league in the country,” Richie said. “Literally and figuratively, people have embraced it.”

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