Think the WNBA is in Trouble? Let's Talk Some NBA History

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 2: The Los Angeles Sparks are seen before the game against the San Antonio Stars on June 2, 2016 at ST
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 2: The Los Angeles Sparks are seen before the game against the San Antonio Stars on June 2, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA is in the midst of its twentieth season. This is a landmark in women's professional team sports. For a league in women's team sports to exist this long with the same name and many of the same franchises is not common. In general, new leagues struggle and many fail. And that is true of men and women's sports. But the WNBA persists.

And one might suspect a lengthy story in The New York Times -- printed on page A1 -- might celebrate this accomplishment. But this story from Richard Sandomir (published on May 28) didn't take that approach. Instead Sandomir offered a familiar take when men discuss women's sports:

The women's league is not as good as the men's league!

Across 60 paragraphs (yes, this is a long article), Sandomir makes essentially three observations in his effort to argue the WNBA "struggles for relevance":

  • The WNBA attracts fewer fans than the NBA
  • Franchises in the WNBA have folded and relocate
  • The WNBA is losing money

All three observations would benefit tremendously from some understanding of NBA history specifically and the history of professional team sports in general.

Consider the issue of fan attraction.

Relative to the NBA, the WNBA attracts smaller crowds and smaller television audiences. Last year the WNBA averaged only 7,318 fans per game. In contrast, the NBA attracts more than 17,500 fans per game.

But this is very much the wrong comparison. The NBA -- which began as the Basketball Association of America in 1946 -- has existed for 70 years. The correct comparison -- which Sandomir finally makes (and then seems to dismiss) after more than 30 paragraphs go by in his story -- is to compare the WNBA today to what the NBA was in the 1960s. In other words, compare the WNBA after 20 years to the NBA after 20 years.

As noted back on May 13th at Vice Sports, the NBA averaged less than 5,000 fans per game in the 1950s. And when the league was 20 years old it was barely averaging 6,000 fans per game. Yes, relative to what we see today in the WNBA, the NBA was not nearly as successful after just two decades. Similar stories -- again as noted at Vice Sports a few weeks ago -- can be told about Major League Baseball and the National Football League.

Why are fans relatively scarce early in a league's history? There are three reasons:

  • It takes time for fans to become familiar with the teams and players.
  • History is a big part of the fan experience (i.e. we like comparing today's players to players from earlier time periods). Obviously history takes time.
  • And it helps to have other fans to talk to about your favorite sport. So a lack of fans actually diminishes the experience for existing fans.

As a sport grows, all these problems eventually get solved. But this takes time. And while we wait we are going to observe the issues that Sandomir noted. Teams are going to fold and relocate and owners are going to complain that they can't make money.

Once again this can be illustrated by looking at NBA history. Back in 1946-47 there were 11 teams competing in the Basketball Association of America. Of those 11, only the Warriors (who were originally in Philadelphia), Celtics, and Knicks survive to this day. The other eight teams went out of business.

That was not an uncommon story in the early history of the BAA and NBA (the BAA merged with the National Basketball League to form the NBA in 1949 -- BAA history is considered part of NBA history). 15 different franchises started and went out of business in the first 10 years of BAA/NBA history. Yes, 15 different teams!

And if the franchises weren't going out of business, they were re-locating. Relocation has been immensely common in NBA history. Of the current 30 franchises in operation in the NBA, only 15 are playing in their original home. Only two teams -- the Celtics and Knicks -- that existed in the first 20 years of NBA history still exist today, and never left their original home. That's it. Two teams!

And yet, the Sandomir thought it was important to note repeatedly the saga of the Dallas Wings. Three different times Sandomir reminded his readers that the Dallas Wings are a relocated franchise. That matches the number of homes the Wings have had!

One might expect that if Sandomir wrote a story about the Los Angeles Clippers, he would mention three times how the Clippers have had three homes. Or if he wrote about the Hawks, he would mention four times how the Hawks have had four homes. Or if he wrote about the Sacramento Kings, he would mention five times that, yes, the Kings have played in five different cities.

Once again, half of all NBA teams have relocated. And teams have relocated in Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Hockey League. This is not unusual.

So we can understand the issue of attendance and relocation. But aren't the financial problems of the WNBA troubling? After all, the owners most definitely claim this league is losing money.

Of course, NBA owners have also claimed the NBA is losing money. When did they make this claim? Just five years ago! Yes, back in 2011 the NBA insisted that the NBA was losing money. In fact, Adam Silver -- the NBA's commissioner -- claimed as recently as last year that some NBA teams today are still losing money.

Such a claim is hardly unusual in the NBA. In February of 1983, The New York Times stated the following in an article about the NBA's financial troubles:

Yesterday... Commissioner Larry O'Brien said publicly for the first time that the severity of the difficulties might cause some franchises to fold, be sold or be merged.

At this point the NBA had already existed for 37 years (or nearly twice as long as the WNBA has been around today).

And if we go back further in time, we see similar claims by owners in professional sports. In fact, sports owners have claimed their teams have been losing money since the 19th century.

Why do owners make such claims? The revenue that leagues generate are claimed by owners and players. Owners can claim more of that money if they argue that the amount of revenue they currently get is not enough to cover their expenses. In sum, owners have a huge incentive to claim losses.

Last summer I estimated that the WNBA only pays about 33 percent of its revenue to its players. In contrast, the NBA's split with its players is 50-50. As a consequence, WNBA players often supplement their income playing in European and Asian leagues when the WNBA season is over (leagues that often pay more than the WNBA).

Now it is possible that despite the relatively low wages the WNBA pays the league still isn't profitable. But since no one outside the WNAB seems to ever sees the league financial data, it is hard for us to know that. And since we know from the long history of professional sports that owners consistently claim losses, we might be a bit skeptical of the story the WNBA is telling. In other words, we shouldn't report these claims as the "truth".

So is the WNBA "struggling for relevance" as Sandomir and The New York Times claim? If you know a bit of history, none of the "struggles" we observe are surprising or unusual. In fact, relative to the history of the NBA -- a league its commissioner claims is still having financial problems in its seventh decade -- the WNBA seems to be doing quite well.

Of course, to know that you need to know something about sports and history. And you need to be just a little bit skeptical of the stories league owners decide to tell you.