With the first round of the playoffs underway, the WNBA is gaining more fan attention now than ever. Metrics show that the 2023 regular season was the most-watched in more than two decades, along with the highest average attendance since 2018.
Viewership climbed a significant 21% from last year across all national television partners – ABC, CBS, ESPN, and ESPN2. Not surprisingly, the WNBA also reached new highs in its digital platforms, social media engagement, and sports betting.
The bets and amounts wagered doubled from the previous year. There are various speculations as to what caused such an increase. However, one thing is for certain: the women’s league has grown exponentially since its humble beginning and shows no signs of stopping.
Emerging from the background
The Women’s National Basketball Association was created by the NBA Board of Governors and started with only eight teams. Subsequently, they had to be associated and located in the same city as an already established men’s team. The first WNBA season began on June 21, 1997, with the New York Liberty defeating the Los Angeles Sparks 67-57.
Quickly gaining traction, the league’s game attendance passed the milestone of one million fans only two months later. People were flocking to stadiums to see promising basketball stars, such as Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, and Lauren Jackson.
The NBA still held possession of the women’s teams until 2002, when it began allowing the sale of franchises to different ownership groups in cities that did not have a men’s team or groups that were unaffiliated with the NBA.
Throughout the early 2000s, the WNBA broadened to include 16 teams across the country. Unfortunately, it was not able to maintain this expansion due to the team folding and relocating. Since 2010, the WNBA has been composed of 12 teams with only 12 spots on each roster, allowing for a total of 144 players in the league.
Cathy Engelbert, commissioner of the WNBA, has achieved tremendous success in the last 4 years. She continues to be a driving force for positive change. Engelbert noticed the lack of household-name players who could bring in outside marketing opportunities for their teams. So, she has diligently applied her business background and collaborated with league sponsors; and consequently, more WNBA players have signed brand deals than ever before.
A-list individuals, such as Tom Brady and Dwyane Wade, have become investors in WNBA franchises and actively speak about supporting women in sports. Most recently, the league has extended to a 40-game schedule. This change has been monumental toward the success of the 2023 season.
However, everyone is still asking: when will the WNBA expand from its current 12 teams? As of May 2023, Engelbert has stated that she would like to see two more teams added to the league in the foreseeable future. Potential sites include the Bay Area, Toronto, Denver, Austin, Nashville, Charlotte, and Portland.
Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle continues to be funding. Not only do franchises need to consistently make money (or not lose too much), but it is essential that they accrue in value as well. Yet recent evidence demonstrates that times are changing.
Earlier this year, the Seattle Storm released information that shows a valuation of $151 million, 10x more than anyone has paid for a WNBA franchise in the past. With all the accomplishments in 2023, it is highly likely that league expansion and other growth opportunities will be pursued heavily in the off-season.