Maybe It Is Time The WNBA Told People It Is Successful
By David Berri
The WNBA has existed for 22 seasons. This past year the league average 6,774 fans per game. To put that in perspective, the NBA didn't do better than this until the league had existed for 24 years. Despite this relative success, not everyone associated with the WNBA thinks it is doing very well.
James Dolan -- owner of the New York Knicks and New York Liberty -- recently said he is puzzled by the Liberty's level of success.
"I don't know how to be successful with the Liberty. We've always tried to be helpful with the league, and I believe in the Liberty product. If you go to a Liberty game, they're fun basketball games to go to. But I'll be damned if I know how to get people to go to those games. ... We've pumped tons of marketing dollars, we've done everything we can to make the team successful, and people don't come."
Once again, the data says that people are coming to the WNBA in bigger numbers than the NBA saw at the same point in its history. The same story, though, can't be told about the Liberty. From 2017 to 2018, the Liberty's attendance declined from 9,889 per game to just 2,823 fans per contest. This decline was primarily because the Liberty voluntarily moved most of its home games from Madison Square Garden to the Westchester County Center. The latter is located in White Plains, New York and has a capacity of only 5,000 fans. So, the Liberty's struggles this past season were largely self-inflicted and not exactly a mystery. And had the Liberty not made the move to the Westchester County Center, the WNBA's overall attendance picture would be even better.
Of course, attendance isn't everything. There is also the issue of profits. On that subject, Dolan and other people in the WNBA have taken an interesting approach. Back in 2016, Dolan gave the following quote to the New York Times:
“It (the Liberty) hasn’t made money. Its prospects of making money, at that time and even today, are still slim.”
Imagine walking into a business and hearing the owner of the business make such a statement. Would you have much confidence in the business? Would you want to come back to that business again in the future?
It's even worse for a sports franchise because sports are a unique business. If you go to your favorite restaurant and it serves you a bad meal you may never go back again. But if your favorite sports team is a disaster -- well, as Dolan knows from owning the Knicks -- most fans don't go away.
Fans are loathe to leave bad teams because sports fans tend to form an intense emotional attachment to the product. When the Knicks win, their fans win. And when they lose -- which in recent years is the more common outcome -- the Knicks fans lose. These emotional attachments are very hard to break. But they also take time to develop. The early history the NBA was very difficult because initially those emotional attachments didn't exist.
But eventually the NBA did connect with their fans. And how did they do that? Well, it doesn't appear the NBA went out of their way to tell everyone they were struggling. In fact, there is evidence the NBA actually fudged their early attendance data to make it look better than it was. And that was a good move, since fans will not make an emotional commitment to you if you don't convince the fans that you will be around long enough to make that commitment worthwhile.
Dolan doesn't seem to be following the example put forward by the NBA in its early history. And Dolan is not alone. Over and over again the NBA and WNBA have gone out of their way to tell people the WNBA is struggling. For example,
· in September of 2015, Adam Silver gave an interview where he said: "We thought we would have broken through by now. We thought ratings and attendance would be higher."
· in May of 2016, the New York Times reported --presumably with information from a source in the WNBA and/or NBA -- that "half of WNBA's 12 teams lose money."
· in April of this year, Adam Silver stated: "...this is a business issue and we still have a number of teams losing money. … We haven’t figured out a winning formula, to be quite honest.”
· in September of this year, a WNBA spokesperson told the Huffington Post that the WNBA has lost significant money in every year of its existence.
· in October of this year, Mark Tatum -- the WNBA's interim president -- referred to the "incredible losses" across the WNBA's history. In addition, the WNBA claims that this last year the league lost $12 million.
All of these quotes tell a simply story. The WNBA -- and its NBA partner -- seem to want everyone to know that the WNBA is not making money. And then at the same time, people like Dolan and Silver wonder why the WNBA is not as successful as they would like.
Once again, one can argue that the WNBA today -- relative to the NBA at the same point in its history - is successful. Nevertheless, many critics of the WNBA constantly echo the story put forward by the people in the NBA. Many people are convinced the WNBA is suffering very large losses.
There is reason, though, to be suspicious of that story. Let's think about the argument the WNBA lost $12 million this past season. To understand that number we need some perspective. According to the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets lost $44.3 million in 2016-17. In addition, the NBA also argued the Detroit Pistons lost $45.1 million that same season. So, according to the NBA, two franchises in 2016-17 lost more than seven times more than what the entire WNBA reportedly lost last season. And that suggests WNBA losses weren't quite "incredible".
In addition -- and this is very important -- we currently lack any independent verification of the WNBA's and NBA's reports of its losses. So, should we believe the claim about "incredible losses"? As Sarah Spain and I recently observed, journalists seem to take this approach to such statements: If the journalist doesn't have evidence that what the league is saying is false, then these statements tend to regarded as true. The New York Times seemed to take this approach a couple of years ago when they were told half the WNBA teams were losing money.
Academics, though, take a different approach to evidence. When a person writes an academic paper, assertions are only treated as true if there is evidence that supports the assertion. When no evidence is offered, academics -- such as myself -- will argue the statement is simply an assertion. In other words, what the league is saying isn't necessarily true.
Currently, we don't have any independent evidence that the WNBA is losing money. In fact, Nneka Ogwumike -- the president of the WNBAPA -- made this observation in discussing why the union is opting out of the current CBA:
"In opting out of this CBA, our primary objective is full transparency. We just want information about where the league is as a business so that we can come together and make sound decisions for the future of the game."
"You probably don’t know this, but as players, we never get to see the numbers. We don’t know how the league is doing. As the kids say nowadays, we just want to see the receipts."
We also don't quite see all the receipts with respect to the NBA's reported losses. But we should note that Forbes reported that neither the Pistons or Nets lost money in 2016-17. All of this reminds one of a famous quote from former Toronto Blue Jays executive Paul Beeston (as told to economist Andrew Zimbalist):
"Anyone who quotes profits of a baseball club is missing the point. Under generally accepted accounting principles, I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and get every national accounting firm to agree with me."
Beeston's quote reminds us that profits and losses are not always clear. And once again, without evidence academics tend to be skeptical when leagues claim substantial losses.
So is the WNBA successful? If we look at the attendance data and compare it to where the NBA was at the same point in its history, the WNBA looks pretty good. Of course, it is possible the WNBA is also losing money. But at the moment, we can't know that for sure. What we should be sure about is that it doesn't really help the WNBA for people like James Dolan and Adam Silver to go out of their way to tell people that the league is losing money. Once again, if you want people to make an emotional commitment to you, you are going to need to convince people you aren't going anywhere.