WNBA Hopes Stellar Rookie Class Boosts Regular Season Attendance

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The 2023 WNBA season achieved record-breaking TV viewership, boasting the most-watched regular season in 21 years, the most-watched Finals in 20 years, and the highest-rated All-Star Game in 16 years. Despite these successes, average game attendance lagged behind every season from 1997 to 2019. Initially, the league drew its largest crowds during its first three seasons but then experienced a steady decline over the next decade.
WNBA Hopes Stellar Rookie Class Boosts Regular Season Attendance
WNBA Hopes Stellar Rookie Class Boosts Regular Season Attendance

This trend contrasts sharply with the NWSL, which has seen consistent attendance growth over its 12 seasons. The WNBA initially surged in popularity, riding the momentum from the 1996 Olympics and benefiting from heavy marketing and public curiosity. “There was a lot of interest going into that first season,” said 1999 WNBA All-Star Rebecca Lobo. “People were eager to see what a professional women’s basketball league backed by David Stern would look like.” The iconic “We Got Next” campaign heavily promoted the league’s debut, and the first game between the New York Liberty and the Los Angeles Sparks drew over five million viewers on NBC, a record yet to be surpassed.

However, interest waned over the years, partly due to the loss of novelty and partly due to venue changes. For instance, the Atlanta Dream moved from Philips Arena to the smaller Gateway Center Arena, which holds fewer than 3,500 fans. Despite selling out most games, the reduced capacity means turning away eager fans. Similarly, the Dallas Wings now play in the 7,000-seat College Park Center, much smaller than the 17,000-seat BOK Center where they previously played.

The New York Liberty also moved from Madison Square Garden to a smaller venue in White Plains for two seasons. Overall, in 1997, the smallest arena hosted 17,000 fans, but by 2023, six out of twelve teams played in venues with fewer than 15,000 seats.

In response to the hype surrounding top draft pick Caitlin Clark, some teams are addressing these capacity issues. The Las Vegas Aces will play a game at the 18,000-seat T-Mobile Arena, and the Washington Mystics will host three games at the 20,000-seat Capital One Arena. Last season, the Aces drew 17,406 fans for their final regular-season game at T-Mobile Arena, showing the potential for higher attendance with larger venues.

The WNBA is poised to capitalize on the popularity of its star-studded rookie class, including Clark, Angel Reese, and Kamilla Cardoso. The league hopes to build on the increased interest in women’s college basketball, as evidenced by the WNBA Draft in April drawing the 11th largest TV audience on record. “I feel we’re now promoting the league as effectively as in the early days,” Lobo said. “I would be very surprised if this season’s ticket sales don’t rival the numbers from the league’s early years.”

 

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