Why 2024 will be the tipping point for the WNBA (2024)

  • Why 2024 will be the tipping point for the WNBA (1)

    Katie Barnes, ESPN.comMay 15, 2024, 07:08 AM ET


      Katie Barnes is a writer/reporter for ESPN.com. Follow them on Twitter at Katie_Barnes3.

DENA HEAD SAT on her couch in sweats, staring at a boxy TV while waiting for the phone to ring. It was Feb. 27, 1997, and Head was in Mirande, France, waiting for her name to be called in the elite player draft ahead of the inaugural WNBA season.

Head was 26 years old and playing her second season in France. She lived in a house owned by the neighbors, tucked away near a small body of water. Mirande is a small community in southwest France, nearly 500 miles from Paris, nestled between the Garonne River and Pyrenees mountains. The closest major city is Toulouse.

Since graduating from Tennessee in 1992, Head's only viable professional basketball opportunity was overseas, and she had made previous stops in Hungary and Italy. Alongside Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie, she had represented Team USA at the 1994 world championship in Australia. Now, the launch of the WNBA meant the opportunity to come home for good. The 5-foot-11 guard could play in front of her family and friends -- and see them and talk to them.

"You didn't call home every single day," Head, now 53, said this month from her home in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan. "You could, but it cost an arm, a leg, and a couple of toes."

This draft, the elite player draft, was the first of two drafts happening ahead of the inaugural WNBA season. A group of 16 players, which included Swoopes, Leslie, Cynthia Cooper and Rebecca Lobo, had been divided among the eight teams in January. The elite player draft, pulling from active players abroad not in the initial player pool, allowed teams to choose players for the first time for their rosters. Another draft, the college draft, was slated for April.

The phone rang. Head's wait didn't end up being very long at all. Head was drafted first overall by the Utah Starzz.

"There was just a lot of excitement around bringing a women's league to the States," said Head, who averaged 13.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals during her senior season at Tennessee in 1991-92. "Long time coming."

Since Head was drafted 27 years ago, the process has changed. Most years, the only draft is the college draft -- starting with Tina Thompson going first in 1997. But there will be an expansion draft before the 2025 season, and possibly 2026. In 2024, a record average of 2.45 million viewers tuned in to watch the 12 teams select their newest players, starting with Caitlin Clark, who was decked out in Prada on the orange carpet. With the surging popularity of women's basketball, led by the 2024 draft class, the WNBA is a league on the precipice. Exploding revenue, sellouts, skyrocketing ratings and hot-selling merch -- the WNBA hasn't seen this much optimism since its first few seasons.

"It's exciting," Head said. "We said that then, and it was exciting then. But I think now people are buying into it. Like, 'Man, women can really play.' They said we could play then, but they're saying that even more so now."

HEAD REMEMBERED WHAT it was like playing in front of rowdy home crowds. She played at Tennessee and won two championships while being coached by Pat Summitt. Tennessee led the country in attendance her senior season.

Overseas, the arena size and number of fans varied. That experience prepared Head for the WNBA.

"Crossing over into the WNBA, I really think it was about who you were playing and where you were," Head said.

According to WNBA stats site Across the Timeline, the Phoenix Mercury and New York Liberty led the eight-team league in attendance during the inaugural season, both averaging more than 13,000 fans. Head's Utah Starzz were at the bottom of the league at 7,543 fans per game. But even that number exceeds the 2023 league average of 6,615.

Average attendance in the WNBA peaked in Year 2, 1998, at 10,869 and declined steadily until turning toward an upward trajectory after COVID restrictions eased.

Attendance the past two seasons has been on an upswing. In 2022, league attendance averaged 5,646, and in 2023, average attendance improved to 6,615, beating attendance in the pre-COVID 2019 season. It was also the first year-over-year improvement in the metric since 2016 to 2017 (not counting COVID-impacted seasons).

Growing attendance across the league is complicated. The disparity in arena capacity in the WNBA is significant. Three teams -- Atlanta, Dallas and Washington -- play in arenas where the maximum capacity is less than the 2023 league average. (Dallas has plans to move to a larger arena in the Dallas convention center in 2026.) The Las Vegas Aces have more season-ticket holders than the capacity of those three arenas.

The 2024 season could mark a turning point. Interviews with representatives from 10 of the league's 12 teams describe skyrocketing ticket demand across the WNBA and growing revenues. The Minnesota Lynx's ticket sales are tracking to be up 50% from last year. Ticket revenue for the New York Liberty is tracking to be up 70%. Connecticut's average ticket price jumped 25% from 2023 to 2024. The Dallas Wings have seen their ticket revenue increase 178% from last season, which was already a record-setting season. LA Sparks season-ticket sales are up 30%. The Mercury have generated historic season-ticket sales revenue. Total WNBA ticket sales on StubHub have increased 93%.

"The WNBA business has probably never been healthier than it is right now," WNBA chief growth officer Colie Edison said. "We're seeing this confluence of positive elements that are feeding off of the success of last year, which was our most watched season ever in 21 years. For all of our key metrics, we broke records last season. We're anticipating breaking records for all those key metrics again in our upcoming 28th season."

"[The WNBA is] certainly at this hockey stick moment, from a growth standpoint this season," Washington Mystics chief business officer Alycen McAuley said. "But it's more than just one person, one game. It's really across that entire season."

Until 2019, the Mystics played their home games in Capital One Arena, where attendance averaged well under half the capacity, but they moved to the much smaller 4,200-seat Entertainment & Sports Arena to "reset the business," McAuley said. The Mystics' average ticket price has increased more than 50% the past five years.

"When you have smaller capacity, you can sell out," McAuley said. "We were the first WNBA market that truly had a secondary market, which is an important evolution in a business. When you have tons of tickets, you tend to artificially deflate the value of it. When there's a scarcity model in place, you can actually more appropriately price what the value of the product is."

This season, the Mystics moved both their June 6 game against the Chicago Sky (and Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso) and their June 7 game against the Fever (and Clark) from Entertainment & Sports Arena to Capital One Arena, which seats just over 20,000 fans for basketball. Face value for midcourt lower-bowl tickets for the Fever game is $300-$400. Upper-bowl resale tickets are listed at over $120.

In Seattle, the surge came in two different waves. The first was in the first week of February when the Storm announced that Skylar Diggins-Smith and Nneka Ogwumike had joined the team in free agency. The second wave began when Clark announced she was declaring for the WNBA draft. The assumption (and later confirmation) that she was heading to the Indiana Fever drove fans to those games. The Storm will open the upper levels of Climate Pledge Arena and expect to sell out.

To capitalize on the Clark fervor, the Storm sold a multigame package that included both Fever games, an Aces game, a Liberty game and an Atlanta game. That package sold out. The only way to see the Fever play at Climate Pledge Arena this summer is to purchase one of the few remaining season tickets, a 10-game season-ticket package or a single-game ticket on the secondary market.

But the Storm are seeing interest piquing around more than just the Fever. Los Angeles, with rookies Cameron Brink and Rickea Jackson, and Chicago have also sparked sales. The demand for those two teams in the Pacific Northwest outpaces demand for both the reigning champion Aces and the runner-up Liberty. According to chief sales officer Kyle Waters, the Storm sold more tickets and made more ticket revenue during the preseason than they did in the entire 2023 season.

The Storm aren't the only team seeing growth beyond the Indiana games. "We're up almost in every revenue metric," Wings president and CEO Greg Bibb said. "Our average gate for every game will be higher than ever before. And obviously, we don't play Caitlin Clark every game."

Dena Head's Utah Starzz franchise has evolved to become the Las Vegas Aces, who led the league in attendance in 2023. The Aces' 8,600 season-ticket holders outnumber the average attendance for Starzz games when Head played.

"This community has truly embraced us," Aces president Nikki Fargas said. "You're going to absolutely get a great game and be absolutely entertained while watching the WNBA and these players compete."

A SUCCESSFUL SPORTS league is not just about accessibility to the game itself, but also about the other doorways to becoming a fan. When Head played for the Utah Starzz, WNBA players weren't gracing the covers of NBA Jam. NBA 2K didn't exist yet. There was no WNBA fantasy game. Sports betting was still illegal across the country.

With sports betting becoming legal in more states, the ability to bet on the WNBA is expanding. The official sportsbook of the WNBA is FanDuel, which says the number of users betting on the WNBA on its platform doubled last season from two seasons ago. "And we expect similar trajectory into this season," FanDuel sportsbook general manager Karol Corcoran said. "It's being fueled by some of the really strong player narratives. That's a story we see play out in all sports. The superstars drive popularity and drive engagement to attract new people to the sport."

During the women's NCAA tournament, FanDuel handled more bets on Iowa in the Elite Eight, Final Four and national championship games than on any other event in any other sport on those days, Corcoran said. FanDuel is adding live-window betting and same-game parlays across WNBA games this season, something that has been available for men's professional sports.

ESPN BET launched in November 2023, so this WNBA season is the platform's first. "We've already seen a significant uptick in betting activity around the WNBA draft and in futures wagers," said Patrick Jay, ESPN BET senior vice president and head of sportsbook.

The interest is not just for Clark, who has garnered significant attention on the platform for both MVP and Rookie of the Year. The Aces are dominating championship futures on ESPN BET with 58% of the money bet and 30.3% of the total bets made.

DraftKings started taking bets on the WNBA in 2021 and added live betting and prepackaged same-game parlays to WNBA games last season. Director of race and sport operations Johnny Avello said the sportsbook plans to expand WNBA betting offerings to include user-selected parlays and player prop bets early in the 2024 season. From 2021 to 2022, DraftKings saw four times more money bet on WNBA games and eight times the number of bets placed. From 2022 to 2023, those numbers rose another 2.5 times and four times, respectively.

"We're getting into some pretty significant numbers now," Avello said. "As we grow in more jurisdictions, our handle also grows. One thing that is kind of fascinating about women's basketball is that the live part -- that's the in-game wagering part -- that's a substantial part of the money that's bet. So people love to watch the game and then bet on it as the game's taking place."

"It's going to bring in a more casual viewer and introduce them to the WNBA, which is great," Edison said. "I just want to reiterate that for us, while it's a strong area of opportunity, and -- an avenue for deeper fan engagement -- integrity of our game is first and foremost."

WNBA teams are seeing other avenues of growth as well, especially in sponsorships and merchandise. The Indiana Fever announced pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly as their jersey patch sponsor in May. Barclays signed on to be the Liberty's jersey patch sponsor. The Mercury have a new rotating patch partnership with Partake Foods and Cleveland Avenue. Ally Financial signed on as the jersey patch sponsor for the Aces.

"We're seeing those brands deciding to say, 'Look, we're going to join in on this fight,'" Fargas said. "That's huge. It can't just be one sponsor or one partner. It's got to be a multitude of people who see the significance in growing women's sports."

When it comes to merchandise, Head doesn't remember seeing her jersey much. The marquee players like Leslie and Swoopes were the ones whose jerseys were marketed in those days. "If we think about the difference between today and then, I would say that things are more readily available," Head said.

Fanatics, the official e-commerce partner of the WNBA, says jersey sales are up 750% from this point last year. Clark is driving much of that growth. Sales of her Fever jersey would put her fourth on a list of top-selling NBA jerseys since Jan. 1.

Players have long expressed concern over an imbalance of racial diversity in jersey and merchandise sales. According to the WNBA, the top-selling WNBA jerseys in 2023 were as follows: Sabrina Ionescu, A'ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Sue Bird, Arike Ogunbowale, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, Betnijah Laney, Breanna Stewart, Elena Delle Donne. In a league where 78% of the players are people of color, 40% of the top 10 jersey sales belonged to Black players.

And it's not just jerseys. At the start of this month, only three active WNBA players had signature shoe deals: Stewart, Ionescu and (reportedly) Clark. Two-time MVP and back-to-back champion Wilson was not in that group. But that changed on May 11, when she and Nike announced a signature shoe that will be released in 2025. The deal made Wilson the first Black WNBA player to release a signature sneaker since Candace Parker in 2011.

Beyond team merch, players have questioned who is marketed and why at the league level. Earlier this week, the WNBA announced an underwear campaign with partner Skims, featuring multiple players. Black and LGBTQIA+ players were included, but no players with more masculine gender expression were showcased even though Skims makes masculine underwear (and is a partner with the NBA).

"Not the papis of the league being forgotten again," Mercury guard Natasha Cloud posted on X about the campaign.

Still, expanding the merchandise business has been a focus of many teams. In Atlanta, when owner Larry Gottesdiener bought the Dream in 2021, there was almost no merchandise business to speak of. The team doubled its merchandise sales from 2022 to 2023. In 2024, Atlanta already has doubled its merchandise sales from last year prior to playing the first game of the season on May 15.

"We are doing so many different Atlanta-based collabs and really digging into kind of the trending lifestyle space, specifically around Atlanta and the sneaker culture around Atlanta," Dream president Morgan Shaw Parker said.

THERE'S MORE CHANGE on the horizon for the WNBA. In 2025, the league will add its 13th franchise, the Golden State Valkyries, expanding for the first time since adding the Atlanta Dream in 2008. In 2026, Toronto will reportedly become the league's 14th franchise. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said she wants the league to be at 16 teams by 2028. The WNBA had 16 teams in 2000, but that number dwindled to 12 by 2010.

The Valkyries are owned by the Warriors' ownership group and will begin play next season. The expansion fee for the club was reportedly a record $50 million. According to team president Jess Smith, Golden State has received more than 7,500 season-ticket deposits.

"We still plan to get a lot more," Smith said. "Other teams I've worked for, we were doing seven-figure gates, and I'd be lying if I said that's not a goal that we're thinking of as well."

On the back of climbing revenue, teams have seen their values begin to jump as well. Seattle reportedly did a capital raise at a $151 million valuation, and Chicago raised money around an $85 million valuation.

But with such extensive growth, sometimes supply hasn't kept up with demand. Not all of the WNBA preseason games were available to watch. In the 2022 season, none of the preseason games were available on WNBA League Pass. In 2023, the number of available games grew to two. In 2024, five games were broadcast on League Pass, including both Fever preseason games.

A fan streamed the Minnesota Lynx vs. Chicago Sky preseason game, and that was viewed on X more than 500,000 times. The Connecticut Sun tried to stream their preseason game against the Liberty on YouTube, but it was blocked. There are more fans than ever before clamoring to watch games, even ones that don't count, but those games are not readily available. None of the WNBA's national television partners broadcasts preseason games, not even the Fever's.

Additionally, on May 7, Engelbert confirmed that the league was close to providing private travel for all teams and would be doing so this season. Charter flights have been a point of contention for the past few years.

"I think that's kind of the big elephant in the room these days, is how much more money is going to be invested," Head said. "If the men can charter, why in the world shouldn't the women be chartering?"

Since the WNBA's inception, the bulk of travel -- all travel for many years -- happened through commercial flights. That's how Head traveled, how Leslie traveled, how Maya Moore traveled.

The details of the charter travel plan are scarce, though it will reportedly cost $25 million per year. Engelbert said to reporters that the program will launch "as soon as we can get planes in places." The Aces flew commercial to the White House to celebrate their 2023 championship and were delayed en route to their preseason game in Columbia, South Carolina. The WNBA's announcement of the program said that charter travel would be "phased in" this season.

The phasing in has been uneven. Both the Fever and the Lynx flew charter to their season-opening games in Connecticut and Seattle, respectively. But Breanna Stewart posted on X that the Liberty would be traveling by bus to their game against the Mystics.

"2 out of 5 WNBA teams traveling today are on WNBA charters -- and that's a win," Stewart posted on X. "It could be a bigger one if the W allowed teams who were not offered League charters to secure their own until a full 12 team solution is ready."

Historically, two reasons have been given for the lack of charter travel: cost and competitive balance. If some teams could pay for charters while others could not, then the teams with deep pockets would have an advantage on the court. The uneven rollout calls the commitment to competitive balance into question.

"It seemed as, if they were concerned about a competitive advantage, that they would have rolled it out differently," WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson said to ESPN.

Teams are also grappling with upgrading practice facilities and/or building new ones. When Head played in the league, all of the teams were owned by NBA ownership groups and had access to the NBA team practice facilities. "We weren't at Joe Schmo school playing or some community center," Head said. "We were right there with the guys."

As ownership groups have changed, practice conditions have as well. Those conditions are not equal across the league. Teams have started to address the disparity. The Storm just opened a new facility. The Aces opened theirs last season. The Mercury plan to open theirs in July, and the Liberty have a facility they share with the Brooklyn Nets. The Minnesota Lynx and the Washington Mystics also share a facility with their NBA counterparts. When the Dallas Wings move to downtown Dallas in 2026, the organization will also have access to a designated practice facility.

"[The practice facility] was vital," Bibb said. "When the city of Dallas reached out to us the better part of two years ago, we were starting to look at options around practice facilities, because it is becoming an essential part of the business for WNBA teams."

EARLIER THIS SPRING, for the first time since getting her right knee replaced, Head returned to the gym. She went to a local recreation center near her home to put up some shots. After undergoing two knee replacements, she couldn't jump like she used to, or run, but the ball still felt good in her hands.

Head dribbled out to the top of the key, the well-worn Spalding bouncing against the hardwood. She picked up the ball, bent her knees, and shot it toward the hoop.

"It bonked off the front of the rim," she said. "But I made the second one, though."

Head played three seasons in the WNBA. She last played in 2000, for the Mercury, retiring at 29. Now she works in human resources at Amazon after spending eight years in operations. When her colleagues discovered her basketball history, they found one of her old trading cards online and brought it in for her to sign.

"It was a big old surprise, and that's pretty meaningful," Head said. "For so many people, what we accomplish, or where we've been, and the experiences that we have, that's fascinating for the masses."

Head has a wall in her home that documents her basketball journey. Hanging in frames are her Tennessee, Utah and Phoenix jerseys. She has two WNBA basketballs in clear boxes, and her own copy of her trading card. Plus a book full of color photos from the first WNBA season.

Head still watches women's basketball but hasn't been to a game in years. There isn't a WNBA team in Michigan anymore. The Aces, the successor to the franchise that drafted her, reach out every year, but she hasn't made it to a game. This season that might change. She's thinking of going to the All-Star Game in Phoenix, partly for work and partly because of the opportunity to reconnect with the WNBA and some of the proudest moments of her life.

"For all of us that were afforded that opportunity to be a part of that inaugural season, I would definitely say that we all had a role in [the WNBA's growth]," Head said. "The Lynette Woodards of the world, the Teresa Edwards of the world, they have all set the tone for where we are today -- and never to be forgotten."

Why 2024 will be the tipping point for the WNBA (2024)


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