The Las Vegas Aces are one of the best teams in pro women's sports
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MAY 20: Alysha Clark #7, A'ja Wilson #22, Kelsey Plum #10 Candace Parker #3, and Chelsea Gray #12 of the Las Vegas Aces react after a basket by Wilson during the second quarter against the Seattle Storm at Climate Pledge Arena on May 20, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The WNBA’s Future Can Be Seen in the NBA’s Past

Why this matters

As the WNBA nears its 30th season and new TV rights and collective bargaining negotiations, many lessons can be learned from the investment and growth that the NBA saw around the same point in its history.

Monthly Issue The Modern Sportswoman

No women’s professional sports league in United States history has lasted as long as the Women’s National Basketball Association. And the WNBA has done more than just persist; it has also become lucrative. According to a recent Bloomberg article, league revenues in 2019 were $100 million. This year – the WNBA’s 27th season – the league’s revenues could double from just five seasons ago.

Such growth in less than five years is impressive no matter how you look at it. However, when compared to the men’s National Basketball Association (which it often is in media coverage), the WNBA, even with its recent revenue spurt, still lags far behind.

During the 2022-23 season, the NBA set an attendance record. For the first time, average attendance per game surpassed 18,000. Average WNBA attendance went up 24% from last year’s first week but is still less than 8,000 per game. Not surprisingly, the WNBA’s revenues also lag far behind those of the NBA, which reportedly made more than $10 billion last season. And each NBA team reported more revenue than the entire WNBA hopes to have this season.

But the NBA is also 50 years older than the WNBA. Comparing these leagues today is not exactly fair. A better comparison is to look at where both leagues stood in their third decade. That comparison reveals that the WNBA is – relatively speaking – doing quite well, even in comparison to the now well-established men’s league.

Back in 1970-71 – or in the midst of the NBA’s third decade – average attendance (like the WNBA today) was less than 8,000 per game. The NBA also wasn’t a popular television draw. In fact, the 1970 NBA Finals was the first time in league history that all of the games in the championship series were broadcast nationally.

We also know – from Congressional testimony (and the work of economist Rod Fort) – that league revenue reflected a relative lack of interest in the league. In 1970-71, the NBA reported to Congress that its total revenue was only $32.3 million. That is only about $244 million in today’s dollars. According to Forbes, every NBA franchise earns more revenue today than the entire NBA earned in its 25th season.

Despite these numbers, the NBA had to feel pretty good about itself in its third decade. In its 10th season in 1955-56, the league generated only $1.8 million in revenue, according to financial documents it sent to Congress. That works out to $20 million today. The average team that season also drew fewer than 5,000 fans per contest. With so little revenue, it is not surprising that franchise failure was the norm throughout the league. Of the first 23 NBA franchises, 15 went out of business, and six of the eight teams that did survive eventually moved to a new city. In contrast, every NBA franchise that existed by 1971 is still with us today.

Given what the NBA looked like in the 1950s, the NBA in 1970-71 must have thought it was doing amazingly well. And whether we look at revenue or attendance, the NBA in its third decade doesn’t look immensely different from the WNBA today. Both leagues had every reason to be optimistic about the progress they had made.

What Worked for the NBA

We don’t know for sure where the WNBA will go from here. But if we look at the NBA, we might be able to form an idea. Over its next 25 years after the 1970-71 season, the NBA exploded on the national and global stage. By the NBA’s 50th season in 1995-96, per-game attendance had surpassed the 17,000 mark. League revenue had also surpassed $1.6 billion, or $3.2 billion in today’s dollars. In other words, league revenue had increased more than 1,200% in just 25 seasons. In the 25 years after 1996, league revenue increased “only” another 200%.

Obviously, a lot happened during the NBA’s second quarter century. We are going to focus on two specific events: the NBA’s merger with the American Basketball Association in 1976, and two years later when David Stern joined the NBA’s league office.

When the ABA was formed in February 1967, the NBA consisted of only 10 franchises, mostly located in the eastern United States. Whether we look at average attendance (just 6,600 fans per game) or number of teams, the NBA in 1967 was smaller than the WNBA today.

The game played by the NBA back then was also quite different from what we see today. There was no three-point shot, and dunking the basketball was discouraged (in fact, the legendary Oscar Robertson never dunked in an NBA game). The Boston Celtics had also won the NBA title eight consecutive times.

So, the NBA wasn’t particularly competitive before the ABA came into existence.

The ABA lasted only nine seasons before it merged with the NBA, which helped expand the league to 22 NBA franchises, four of which came directly from the ABA. The merger also introduced free agency to the NBA. Dunking and eventually the three-point shot (officially adopted in 1979) also became part of the NBA’s game thanks to the ABA’s influence.

Two years after the ABA and NBA merged, Stern began working for the league, and he was NBA commissioner by 1984. Stern is credited with creating both the NBA’s salary cap and draft lottery. He is also credited with changing the marketing of the league. Under Stern, the NBA negotiated far better television deals and turned its stars into household names around the world. As Sam Quinn of CBS Sports noted, “the NBA’s rise to global dominance was Stern’s vision from the start.”

Learning the Right Lessons

So what can the WNBA learn from the NBA’s expansion in the ’70s? Which factors matter, and which factors don’t?

Let’s start with what isn’t relevant to the WNBA. The ABA very much encouraged its players to dunk – and even invented the slam dunk contest. Certainly, fans react when players do this in the game. But does more dunking cause more fans to enter the arena?

Shaquille O’Neal – one of the NBA’s all-time leaders in dunks – certainly thought so. In March 2021, “Shaq” told WNBA star Candace Parker that the WNBA might do better if they lowered the rim so the players could dunk more. This comment prompted an academic study (which I co-authored) into the impact dunking had on demand in the NBA. That study indicated that NBA teams that dunk more don’t see more gate revenue. The same study also indicated that gate revenue isn’t correlated with the number of three-pointers taken in a game.

What about competitive balance? The NBA’s salary cap and the NBA draft are designed to restrict player salaries. Such restrictions are often justified in the name of competitive balance. The league likes to argue that if salaries are not constrained, the richest owners will buy all the best talent and win all the games. If the same teams start winning every year, fans will no longer buy tickets.

The same study that indicated dunks and three-point shooting don’t get fans to show up made the same conclusion about competitive balance. That finding is consistent with decades of research in sports economics. This research also showed that the NBA – relative to the other major North American men’s professional sports leagues – has never had competitive balance. And fans simply don’t care. In fact, when the Celtics were winning all those titles in the 1960s, average attendance kept rising.

Of course, no one needs study to show that a salary cap and a draft aren’t going to transform the WNBA into what the NBA was in the 1990s. The WNBA has had both structures in place from the league’s outset, and it still looks like the men’s league 50 years ago.

So, what can the WNBA learn from the NBA’s story? The best lesson that the women’s league can learn is how the NBA expanded its fanbase. And that means it needs to expand its market. More specifically, the WNBA should follow the NBA’s lead with respect to league expansion and global marketing.

Like the NBA in the mid-1960s, the WNBA is ignoring a number of markets in North America that look like they could support a franchise. For example, a preseason game in May at the Scotiabank Arena (capacity 19,800) in Toronto sold out. Not only is the WNBA ignoring Toronto, the league also doesn’t have a team in a number of markets that currently host teams in the NBA, National Football League, and Major League Baseball – a list that includes Boston, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. The WNBA has not added a new franchise since 2008, and there appear to be at least 10 markets that the WNBA should believe are capable of supporting a team.

Unfortunately, there is no ABA to force the WNBA to expand. There have been lots of rumblings about the WNBA adding more teams, but as many have noted, all that talk has been contradictory, and so far the WNBA’s statements haven’t led to any actual action.

The WNBA needs to do more than just expand across North America. Stern took the NBA to a global audience, and now data show only the Olympics and World Cup Soccer are more popular around the world than the NBA. How can the WNBA achieve the same?

WNBA players already play all over the world, but that isn’t helping the WNBA grow. Brittney Griner wasn’t in Russia because she liked the winter weather. As she explained, she was there because the WNBA doesn’t pay its players very well. NBA players receive 50% of the league’s “basketball-related income.”

WNBA players, though, are paid only about 10% of WNBA revenue. The WNBA followed the NBA’s lead and adopted a salary cap. But the league did not adopt Stern’s idea that the cap should be linked to revenue. Consequently, the rapid increase in WNBA revenue in the past five years hasn’t increased player pay.

As a result, WNBA players frequently supplement their incomes by playing in other leagues during the WNBA offseason. In addition, star players – like Diana Taurasi and Emma Meesseman – are often incentivized to skip entire WNBA seasons, despite being healthy enough to play, to stay rested for their better-paying clubs overseas. Imagine how successful the NBA would be if players like Nikola Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Luka Dončić simply refused to show up for an entire NBA season.

Growing Beyond the NBA (Literally)

The issues in the WNBA go beyond low pay. Here is a fun WNBA fact: Candace Parker joined the WNBA in 2008. In 2023, Parker joined the Las Vegas Aces, and she now – for the first time in her career – has her own locker. Before going to Vegas, Parker won a championship for the Chicago Sky. Despite winning a title in Chicago, the Sky practiced in a public recreation center. Chicagoans could work out at a rec center and see a championship professional basketball team scrimmaging next to them. The situation spoke volumes about how managing partner Michael Alter thought about his team.

After Parker left, Alter finally committed to building a practice facility. In announcing this commitment, Alter said, “Now is the right time.” USA Today columnist Nancy Armour staunchly disagreed with this statement, writing:

No, the right time was years ago, before the Sky and other franchises had to be shamed into treating their players like the professional athletes they are by WNBA owners who don’t consider women’s sports to be charity projects.

Armour captures the primary problem holding back the WNBA. There are owners who want to push the WNBA forward – who have come out in favor of expansion, higher pay, charter flights, and more. But there are other owners who simply don’t seem to share that vision. They see how small the revenues of the WNBA are relative to the NBA today and don’t have the imagination to see how it will ever change.

It is important to emphasize that the WNBA’s problem isn’t just a lack of vision from a few owners. Stern didn’t just transform the men’s NBA. He also created the WNBA. However, the women’s league he created is still, 27 years after it was launched, under the control of a men’s league.

As Atlanta Dream CEO Suzanne Abair told me:

“If the 12 WNBA owners say they want to do something and the NBA says no, the answer is no.”

Abair’s point is that although Stern’s NBA was instrumental in launching the WNBA, it might now be preventing the women’s league from achieving all the success it could.

The league Stern helped create in the 1990s is now in its third decade. The WNBA is now just as successful as the NBA was at the same point in its history. For the WNBA to take the next step, the league must adopt the same vision Stern had for the NBA. The WNBA should aim to be the preeminent league in women’s professional basketball. It should make sure players from all over the world are paid enough to focus solely on the WNBA. It should also seek to expand across North America and make sure its players are known around the world.

Stern did this for a relatively small basketball league in the last few decades of the 20th century. It shouldn’t be that difficult for the WNBA to repeat that same journey in this century.

Monthly Issue

The Modern Sportswoman

After a record-breaking March Madness in the United States and heading into what is sure to be a strong FIFA World Cup this summer, women throughout the world are using this growth to secure greater security and influence.

Explosive growth is exciting, but intentional growth could create the power, permanence, and protection that women’s sports deserves.

We explore what that growth could look like in our latest digital issue.