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With Nike’s Help, WNBA Ready for a Breakout Season

Things are looking up for the 27-year-old WNBA — the Women’s National Basketball Association — which begins its season on Friday, May 19.

Last year, the league received a $75 million investment from Nike,  (NKE) – Get Free Report technology mogul Michael Dell and other luminaries. The league drew its largest TV audience in the 2022 playoffs since 2007.

The WNBA implemented a salary increase in 2020 that increased total compensation by 53%. Earlier this year, the Seattle Storm sold ownership stakes valuing it at a WNBA record $151 million, the team’s owners told The Wall Street Journal.

But the league still has a ways to go. In 2022, the average WNBA salary was $103,000, compared to more than $9 million for the NBA men’s league. The WNBA’s average attendance last year was 5,679, less than a third of the 18,077 for the NBA.

TheStreet recently spoke to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert about these issues and more. Here are her comments. What kind of progress has the WNBA made over the past few years?

Engelbert: Having a season in 2020 during the height of the pandemic was important. If we were away from the sports landscape for 20 months, we’re out of business. The ability to put on a season in the bubble saved the league.

In 2021 we were back, with fewer fans in most cities for the first half of the season. Then came the Olympics in the middle of our season, and after that we started to get fans back.

Last year, our first season back from the pandemic, was a success. We had good momentum coming off our $75 million capital raise. And now there’s huge momentum coming from the success of the women’s NCAA tournament this year. We’re creating household names for our players. Can you talk about your relationship with the NBA?

Engelbert: We’re a separate entity. We share some services [such as marketing and sponsorships], and that’s enormously helpful. They are significant investors in our league, with five of our 12 teams having NBA affiliation. We’re able to capitalize on the best the NBA has to offer.

We’re looking to increase our relation with the NBA. For example, you’re now seeing WNBA players in ads during the NBA playoffs.

And game recognizes game. NBA players will soon be able to invest in the seven WNBA teams that are independent [of NBA ownership]. We have seen interest from players. Already ex-NBA stars Baron Davis and Pau Gasol have invested in the league through last year’s $75 million investment.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and No. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston

NBA What’s the outlook for attendance and TV viewership?

Engelbert: Our preseason game in Canada Saturday drew almost 20,000 people. We’re the longest-tenured U.S. women’s sports league at 27 years, and we need to capitalize on TV and attendance.

This year, 205 of our 240 games are on a TV platform, and we’ve brought on ION network as a broadcaster. We’re also on ESPN and ABC. We’re looking for a double-digit increase in viewership.

Attendance averaged almost 9,000 per game last year in the playoffs. It’s all about marketing, including telling players’ stories. We need to do a better job on the storytelling. That leads people to watch. What’s going on with player salaries?

Engelbert: Our 2020 collective bargaining agreement tripled the pay of our top players. They can now make $750,000, including bonuses and other perks. We have a player marketing program for the off-season. Less than 1% of corporate sports sponsorship goes to women. If we got just a couple percentage points more of the total, we would be thrilled. Do you have plans for expansion?

Engelbert: Yes, we need more viewership and fans. We’re looking to add a couple teams by 2025. We’ve received interest from more than 10 cities, and we’re talking to potential ownership groups there.

The cities include Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Austin, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Denver, Nashville, and Toronto. Expansion would help increase the number of athletes who can play in the league, too. Do you think franchise values will continue to increase?

Engelbert: Yes, I think valuations will go up considerably. We’re being recognized as a sports entity. We’ll probably see another team or two valued around Seattle’s level of $150 million. That makes it time for expansion. Do you think you can translate the record ratings for the NCAA women’s tournament last month into interest for the WNBA?

Engelbert: Yes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Generational players are now coming into the WNBA from college. Future talent is how you build your sport. We’re fast-paced with high scoring levels. The quality of our game is better than ever. Now we need to figure out games of consequence with rivalries. Anything else you’d like to add?

Engelbert: I think the economic transformation of the league will make a good Harvard Business School study in three to four years. 

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