WNBA Hopes Stellar Rookie Class Revives Regular Season Attendance

The 2023 WNBA season delivered record-breaking TV viewership numbers, including the most-watched regular season in 21 years, the most-watched Finals in 20 years and the most-watched All-Star Game in 16 years.

And yet, average attendance per game was lower than every season in league history between 1997 and 2019. Similar to TV ratings, the league drew its biggest crowds in its first three seasons—1997, 1998 and 1999—and there was a steady decline in the decade that followed.

That trend is starkly different from the NWSL, now in its 12th season, for which attendance has increased consistently over time.

Launching with the momentum of the 1996 Olympics, the WNBA benefited from a curiosity factor in its first season, as well as heavy marketing. “There was a lot of interest going into that first season,” 1999 WNBA All-Star Rebecca Lobo said. “People were eager to see, what does a professional women’s basketball look like? What does a league backed by David Stern and the league look like?”

The WNBA launched an iconic advertising campaign with the tagline “We Got Next” publicizing its start date of June 21, 1997. “You would turn on an NBA game, a playoff game, at any point in 1997 and there was a commercial,” Lobo said. “Huge, huge promotion behind that WNBA season.”

The first game in WNBA history, between the New York Liberty and the Los Angeles Sparks, drew more than five million viewers on NBC, a number that has yet to be surpassed.

Waning interest and the loss of the novelty factor are two reasons for the steady decline in attendance over the W’s first 25 seasons, but the venues themselves have impacted the numbers.

The Atlanta Dream, for instance, used to share Philips Arena with the Atlanta Hawks, but the team now plays at the Gateway Center Arena at College Park, citing disagreements with the Hawks’ management. The new venue is nearly 10 miles from downtown Atlanta and fits fewer than 3,500 fans.

The Dream sold out the majority of their home games last season, according to Across the Timeline. “There’s a line outside of people and there’s a demand, but they’re not able to get in,” ESPN basketball analyst LaChina Robinson said.

Some franchises that relocated have downsized their home arenas in the process. The Dallas Wings play at the College Park Center (capacity of 7,000), which is much smaller than the BOK Center (capacity of >17,000) where they played between 2010 and 2015 when they were the Tulsa Shock. The Wings are planning a move to downtown Dallas in the near future.

The New York Liberty played 2018 and 2019 in White Plains, New York, after 21 seasons at Madison Square Garden, because MSG had announced plans to sell the team. Other teams have moved temporarily over the years for a variety of reasons, including renovations to NBA arenas.

All in all, back in 1997, the smallest arena of the eight WNBA teams was the Compaq Center, which hosted the Houston Comets and sat roughly 17,000. In 2023, six of the 12 franchises played home games in venues with fewer than 15,000 seats.

This upcoming season, teams are addressing the capacity issue in direct response to the hype surrounding No. 1 overall draft pick Caitlin Clark. The Aces will play their May 25 game against the Indiana Fever at the 18,000-seat T-Mobile Arena, and the Washington Mystics will host Indiana on June 7 at Capital One Arena with room for more than 20,000.

The Mystics will play two other games at Capital One this season—they’ll host the Chicago Sky on June 6 and the Phoenix Mercury on July 16 at the home to the NBA’s Wizards and NHL’s Capitals.

If you build it, they will come. Last season, the WNBA champion Aces, whose regular home court, the Michelob Ultra Arena, seats 12,000, played their final regular season game at T-Mobile Arena, drawing 17,406 fans.

With the most star-studded rookie class in WNBA history, including Clark, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso, the league has an opportunity to build off the increased interest in women’s college hoops and turn its attendance graph around. The WNBA Draft in April drew the 11th largest WNBA TV audience on record, trailing just 10 games, all of which took place between 1997 and 2000.

“I do feel we’re at a place now where the promotion is equal to what it was in those early days,“ Lobo said. “The other night there was a Celtics game and the signage on the scorer’s table was an ESPN ad [for the] WNBA season [to] tune in to watch the Indiana Fever at the Connecticut Sun.

“I will be shocked if this season’s ticket sales don’t come close to those numbers that we saw in the early days of the league.”

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