WNBA attendance declines in 2018: What does that mean for the league?
Throughout the 2018 WNBA season, player compensation has been a hot-button topic. Stars across the league including Liz Cambage, A’ja Wilson, Brittney Griner, and Kelsey Plum have spoken out about low player salaries in the WNBA, especially compared to NBA salaries. At the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game, league president Lisa Borders agreed that WNBA players are underpaid and said, “We are very much focused on that, growing the business, so the players can get more.”
Two main factors determine WNBA player salaries: overall revenue and the percentage of revenue that is shared with players. The latter is set in stone until the next collective bargaining agreement, but overall revenue is in constant flux. One vital source of revenue is ticket sales.
Using Across the Timeline’s WNBA Attendance Database, we can compare fan turnout this season with past regular seasons. Steadily increasing attendance might give the league the financial backing to boost salaries, while decreasing attendance could signal that the league is not yet financially ready to pay players a salary proportional to their talent.
Average per-game attendance decreased in 2018 and has declined since 2010
At the All-Star Game, Borders defended the WNBA’s financial health, asserting that “all the numbers are pointing in the right direction.” However, attendance seems to be an exception to that rule. Since 2010, when the WNBA shrunk to its current 12 teams, total attendance has hovered between 1.3 and 1.65 million fans per season, peaking in 2011. In 2018, average per-game attendance was 6,721 fans, down 13% from 2017.
However, roughly half of that per-game decline was due to the New York Liberty’s move from Madison Square Garden in downtown New York City to the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York, almost 30 miles north. Excluding the Liberty, average attendance declined by about 6%, or just under 500 fans, in 2018:
Whether or not you count New York, 2018 featured the steepest one-year decline in attendance since 2012, bringing attendance down to its lowest level in the 12-team era.
However, those numbers don’t mean that nobody is watching the WNBA. For games televised on ESPN, viewership increased by 35 percent from 2017 to 2018. ESPN’s 231,000 viewers in 2018 were the most since 2014, and a June game between Los Angeles and Seattle was the most-watched regular season game on ESPN since 2013.
Nine teams saw their average attendance decrease in 2018
Seattle, Phoenix, and Dallas all increased their average attendance from 2017 to 2018. Dallas led the way with nearly 1,000 more fans per game. The other nine teams all saw their attendance decrease. The New York Liberty had the largest decrease by far, losing about 7,000 fans per game in 2018. For comparison, in each of the previous five seasons (2013 through 2017), at least half of WNBA teams increased their average attendance from the year prior.
In 2018, this is how the 12 WNBA teams ranked in average attendance:
The top three teams were unchanged from 2017. New York plummeted from fourth in 2017 to last in 2018, quite the fall for a franchise that led the league in attendance as recently as 2010. Connecticut and Chicago each jumped three spots in 2018 after posting similar per-game attendance as in 2017.
Trends to watch
Amid these broader declines in attendance, there are a few more nuanced trends that fans and league officials alike should monitor in 2019 and beyond.
Every year, some WNBA teams draw larger crowds than others, based on factors including the capacity of their arenas, the size of their metropolitan areas, and other local entertainment options that compete for fans.
Since 2010, the difference in attendance between the team with the highest total attendance and the team with the lowest total attendance has followed a U-shaped curve. From 2010 through 2014, the attendance disparity steadily decreased to a low of just under 68,000 fans, but since 2015, it has crept back up again, peaking in 2017 at just over 127,000 fans. In 2018, the attendance disparity declined, but remained relatively high (roughly 123,000 if we count New York and 99,000 if we exclude it).
Because of the competitive advantage a strong home crowd can provide, not to mention the additional revenue generated by selling thousands more tickets, Borders and her leadership team may wish to study this trend in the coming years.
Imperfect correlation with winning
Besides geography and capacity, another reason one team might attract more fans than another is because the former is winning more games. We can evaluate whether this theory is plausible in the WNBA by looking at what statisticians refer to as the r-squared value of the relationship between attendance and winning percentage. This value ranges from 0 to 1 and tells us how much of the difference in teams’ attendance can be explained by their winning percentage. For the 2010–2018 WNBA seasons, winning percentage accounted for nearly ¼ (23.5%) of the attendance difference between teams.
This fact is potentially encouraging to anyone who watched the WNBA this season. 2018 was widely considered the best season in league history in terms of parity across the league. (Just look at last-place Indiana: two of its five wins were over Minnesota and Los Angeles, last year’s finalists.) Having a tight playoff race is exciting for fans and, assuming it continues in 2019, such similar winning percentages across the league could help close gaps in attendance between teams.
The elephant in the room when it comes to fan turnout is that WNBA teams are frequently moving arenas, which can disrupt attendance patterns. In addition to New York’s move to Westchester this season, the Chicago Sky changed arenas and the Las Vegas Aces made a new home out West after playing in San Antonio from 2003 through 2017. The Minnesota Lynx also returned to the Target Center in 2018 after renovations prompted a switch to the Xcel Energy Center for the 2017 season.
That’s one-third of WNBA teams playing in a different arena than where they played in 2017. In fact, 2015 was the last time no teams moved arenas from the year prior, and since then, only five of the 12 teams in the league have not moved. In 2019, two of those five holdouts will head to new arenas: Seattle will play at the University of Washington’s Alaska Airlines Arena while KeyArena undergoes renovations, and Washington will move permanently into a brand-new multi-purpose arena.
Washington’s Natasha Cloud expressed optimism about next year’s arena change after an August 17 win over the Los Angeles Sparks, telling me, “downscaling a little bit and going to a smaller arena where we can really have a fan interaction and a home advantage … I think it’s the best thing moving forward for this league.”
It will be interesting to see whether Cloud’s vision becomes reality in 2019. Will fans follow Seattle and Washington to new arenas? Will more Liberty fans head north for a second season in Westchester? Will Aces fans rally behind a young team that finished with both the ninth-best record and ninth-best attendance in the league? And, more broadly, will ticket sales boost revenue to a point where we can financially support paying players like the world-class athletes they are?