Tonight, the Detroit Shock shoot for its second consecutive WNBA title. The Phoenix Mercury hope to triumph on their home court and send the championship series back to the Motor City for a decisive fifth game on Sunday.
Either outcome will cap what has been a banner 11th season for the women’s pro hoop league both on and off the court, according to WNBA president Donna Orender.
“It’s been a great year for the WNBA. The action on the court is wonderful,” she said. “Attendance has increased. Regular-season ratings have held steady and they’re up in the playoffs. And we have a landmark TV deal.”
On the court, few will argue the obvious: the game, enriched by stronger players from the college ranks and the international community, is more athletic and faster-paced than ever.
Arminite Price, the Chicago Sky’s rookie of the year winner, the Los Angeles Sparks Sidney Spencer and the Minnesota Lynx’s Lindsey Harding joined second-year standouts like the Mercury’s Cappie Pondexter, the San Antonio Silver Star’s Sophia Young and the Lynx’s Seimone Augustus in building a strong crop of newcomers for the circuit.
The young talent combined with seasoned stalwarts like reigning WNBA MVP and defensive player of the year, Australia’s Lauren Jackson; her Seattle Storm teammate Sue Bird; the Shock’s Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith; the Mercury’s Diana Taurasi; the Indiana Fever’s Tamika Catchings; and the Houston Comets’ Tina Thompson; to showcase the league’s top collection of players around the 13 WNBA arenas this summer.
“The rookies, the new players over the past few seasons, and the veterans: All the way around, the quality of play has just been terrific,” said Ordender.
Evidently fans appreciated the talent uptick. After a four-year dip in overall attendance, the WNBA put more fannies in the seat this season. Average attendance improved 1.7% to 7,742, with nine clubs registering increases, according to league officials. Moreover, all 13 squads recorded gains in the second half of the 2007 campaign.
Orender noted that a 14th team could tip off in the 2008-09 season. Franchise interest has come from outside the NBA. Today, five clubs -- Chicago, the Connecticut Sun, Houston Comets, Los Angeles and Washington Mystics -- are owned and operated by groups independent of the NBA’s aegis, the circuit’s original business model.
The league also signed its first-ever national rights deal, inking an eight-year pact that Orender declared was worth “millions and millions” with ESPN. Announced July 15 during the All-Star game in Washington, D.C., the pact begins with the 2009 season and extends through 2016.
Under the contract, ABC, ESPN or ESPN2 will televise on an exclusive basis a minimum of 18 regular-season games, primarily on Mondays, Tuesdays and weekend afternoons. Each season’s opening game and the All-Star Game will air on the alphabet network. The three networks will combine to televise 11 postseason contests, including the exclusive telecast of the best-of-five finals. ESPN or ESPN2 will also have exclusive coverage of the first round of the league’s draft each season. Additionally, NBA TV, the league’s 24-hour network, will continue to televise games, up to 70 regular-season contests and nine playoff tilts.
Similar to the long-term deal ESPN and ABC reached with the NBA in June, the WNBA agreement affords Disney properties enhanced digital rights, including the ability to stream games on a live, delayed and on-demand basis, on outlets including ABC, ESPN, ESPN.com, broadband service ESPN360 and ESPN Mobile TV. ESPN Deportes also stays in the mix via live simulcasts of ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 games through 2016.
“The ESPN deal is a tremendous validation of our game and league. Long term, it keeps us growing with a great partner,” she said. “The WNBA has been with the ESPN since the beginning and at the end of this deal we’ll have been with them for 20 years.”
On the tube, the WNBA showed ratings stability, garnering a 0.2 average for 15 regular-season contests on ESPN2, matching the average for the same number of games during the 2006 season.
Moreover, there has been growth during the playoffs. Through seven games, including the first and third finals matchups, ESPN2 was up 22% to 392,000 viewers on average, according to Nielsen Media Research data. During the championship games, viewership was up 52% to a 586,000, including a 46% jump to 646,000 from Game 3 of the Shock/Sacramento Monarch series last year. The second game of the Shock/Mercury series on ESPN pulled in 555,000 (ESPN did not televise the finals last year.)
But challenges lie ahead. The WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement with its players union expires Sept. 16 With the ESPN rights fees, the players will want a bigger piece of the revenue pie.
“We’re engaged in discussions with the union,” said Ordender. “We’re confident we can reach an accord and help bridge the gap [with salaries].”
It certainly would seem beneficial for the WNBA to do so. Under the existing CBA, the players’ maximum salary is $93,000, a total the elite players can treble or quadruple by playing abroad. Published reports estimate that somewhere between 80% and 90% of WNBA players supplement their Stateside basketball income by hooping internationally.
And given the wear and tear on their bodies emanating from 10 months or more of annual action, there have been rumblings from a number of top players, Jackson, Taurasi and Thompson, among them, that the better economics abroad may one day force them to sit out a WNBA season and give their bodies a summer time rest.
Here, Orender is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“The WNBA has driven the global opportunities. When Lauren Jackson accepted the MVP award she said the WNBA is the best league in the world and the best destination for elite players,” Orender noted. “We respect the players’ participation and contributions to our league. Those would be big decisions to make, if they are to be made.”
The WNBA finals are being telecast in 203 countries and territories in 31 languages via 74 TV partners, compared to 198 countries and territories in 29 languages through 60 TV networks last season.
Next season will also come up against the 2008 Summer Olympics. The competition in Beijing at a minimum will disrupt the WNBA season and could keep stars like Jackson on the sidelines for the entire campaign as they prepare for their national teams.
The WNBA president, who takes a pragmatic view of the Olympic proceedings, said the league has not yet finalized its plans.
“It’s a quadrennial event and a lot of our players will be representing their Olympic national teams,” she said, noting that the league will again take some kind of break as it did in 2004. That would push the WNBA deep into September, or possibly October.
Although the Summer Olympics will disrupt the season’s flow and the extended schedule would have the league’s playoffs exchanging elbows for sports fans attention with the Major League Baseball’s playoff push and the teeth of college and pro football’s regular seasons, Orender sees positives. She says the Games gap should present opportunities for the WNBA in terms of furthering showcasing its players on the biggest global stage and on the local level.
“The break will allow our teams to integrate more into the markets, with [some of] players getting involved with clinics and camps,” she said.