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The state of the WNBA: 2013 edition

The year is almost over, and with people recovering from the Christmas holiday and looking forward to the resumption of the women's college basketball season, Swish Appeal takes its annual look at how the league is doing and how it might do next year.


The two most important days in WNBA history (so far) are March 20, 2002 and March 28, 2013.

The 2002 date was when a decision was handed down in a US Court of Appeals involving the single-entity structure of Major League Soccer, and the court concluded that a major league using single-entity as a shield to avoid a conspiracy/collusion lawsuit to hold down salaries would be held to a higher standard that Major League Soccer assumed. David Stern paid attention, and by the following year the structure of WNBA ownership was changed from Big Daddy to Every Owner for Him (or Her) Self.

The second date was when the league announced a six-year extension deal of its television contract with ESPN. According to Terry Lefton and John Ourand at Sports Business Daily, this deal is worth $12 million per year, which - if true - amounts to $1 million extra per team running all the way through the end of the 2022 season.

We have no information as to whether or not this deal is front-loaded - it could be that the money will not be distributed evenly across all years but more will be offered up front. But this deal - maybe more than any other thing - has the potential to change the WNBA greatly in the next decade.

This is why you see the following things happening:

* The Dream moving to a separate coach and GM, rather than combining both roles.
* The Dream hiring a Chief Revenue Officer as a separate position.
* The serious discussion in adding at least one extra roster spot in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

A rising tide lifts all boats. With this deal, we have the paradox of a team actually doing worse financially than they did last year - in terms of ticket income or sponsorship money or even local TV payments - but actually having a better net financial performance due to the ESPN money. A team can go from losing over two million a year to losing one million a year, maybe less. This injection of capital into the league - and each team gets its piece of the pie - affects the league in ways not yet predicted.

For example, this adds a stability factor to teams which are independently owned. (Those teams are Atlanta, Chicago, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Seattle and Tulsa.) Atlanta has had a lot of turnover in its ownership. Chicago brought in Margaret Stender as a co-owner in 2010. Los Angeles has had a shuffle of owners, with new people coming in and old people going out. A smaller loss per year means that people are more likely to hang around.

Another example is the coach/GM model that Atlanta has now adopted. Now that teams have the extra cash, we'll likely see the teams that can afford it go to separating the coach and GM responsibilities. Why split the roles? As Michael Cooper stated in an interview, splitting the roles avoids a conflict of interest between the coach (who wants to get more effort out of a player) and the GM (who wants to pay a player as little as possible). If a coach is also GM, if a player is unhappy with her role in the org, it's more likely to show up as unhappiness on court.

Just as the first date weakened the league significantly, the second date strengthened it. No matter what franchises do, they know that a guaranteed paycheck is coming once a year from ESPN. ESPN uses the money it receives from cable subscriptions - about $5 per cable customer, whether or not you watch a minute of ESPN - and subsidizes a bevy of sports. The NFL, NBA, and men's college sports are subsidized in such a matter by Joe and Jane Public...and now, the WNBA takes its share.

Given the above, we now look at the future of the league. As we've stated many times before, the best way to predict the future is to fit one's predictions into one of four categories.

1. The Most Likely Scenario. All current trends continue into the future.
2. The Best Case Scenario. "Everything goes right."
3. The Outliers. What low probability events could spark high-level disruptive changes?
4. The Worst Case Scenario

The Most Likely Scenario

There are three eras of the WNBA:

1. The foundation era (1997-2002). This marks the rapid expansion of the league under the previous centralized WNBA ownership model.
2. The restructuring era (2003-2009). This marks the fallout of the Fraser v. Major League Soccer case and the end of the single-entity structure of the WNBA. It was marked by the relocation of some franchise and the shuttering of many others.
3. The stability era (2010-present). This marks the current era, where the smoke has finally settled.

This graph represents the history of the WNBA by franchise. Note that very year from 2010 to 2014 looks exactly the same, and some have concluded that the WNBA is exactly where it wants to stay for a long time. Twelve franchises, preferably in the same locations.

There is speculation that some franchises aren't healthy, and Atlanta and Tulsa are usually where doomsayers center their predictions. Atlanta because of poor attendance and multiple ownership changes (even though the current owners have the longest tenure as owners) and Tulsa because of the poor on-the-court product and the fact that they have not named their coach for the 2014 season. Like any new league - less than 20 years is a new league compared to the Big Four - all of this could change tomorrow.

Rumor has it that California might be a future landing place for another WNBA team. It is more likely that we'd have a relocation of an existing team than having one fewer franchise.

The long term contract with ESPN leaves less pressure to produce great TV ratings immediately, although ratings will always be a concern as long as the sports departments of the major media are 99 percent male (and of course, will find reasons to cover male sports).

The European basketball leagues have proven a lesser threat - but the newest threat might come from China, which has a women's basketball league and is willing to spend money to bring the biggest stars overseas. However, the rule which allows Chinese teams to bring only one star per team and the fact that the Chinese leagues are very weak (note the astronomical statistics scored by WNBA players there) might make it a less attractive destination for a player than either going to Europe or just staying home.

Janel McCarville came back to the Minnesota Lynx. Cheryl Ford's return to the New York Liberty was aborted by injury. This leaves Deanna Nolan as the only major American star that does not play in the United States. The push for austerity by many European governments means less money to spend on women's basketball and smaller salaries - all to the WNBA's benefit.

The Best Case Scenario

It almost looks like the above is the best case. The year 2013 was a good year for the WNBA. What we need is "more of the same".

This means:

1. A solid 2014 WNBA Draft. No one is expecting a spectacular WNBA Draft. However, if Chiney Ogwumike and at least one other player prove to be "all that", then the WNBA has a chance to capitalize on the momentum of the previous draft.

2. Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, and Skylar Diggins all improve. These are the (sigh) "Three to See" or the "Big Three Rookies", so good seasons from all of the three will bring the occasional viewer to see what the fuss is about.

3. More jersey sponsorships. We can't have enough of those.

The Outlier Scenarios

The threat of a player strike or an owners' lockout looks unlikely to materialize. The league played without a CBA this year and even though everyone is taking their own sweet time, most likely the league will come up with something that everyone can live with (or will be forced by reality to accept). As stated above, it's likely that each team will get a 12th player on the roster.

There don't seem to be many outliers. Griner and Delle Donne look like they'll stick with the league.

The Worst Case Scenario

Atlanta or Tulsa (or both) fold their doors. It's unlikely that Chicago or Washington are going to join them. Washington has the money and Mike Thibault has brought new energy to DC. Chicago has an additional owner and has finally found on-court success with a marquee star.

It could be that with Adam Silver taking over as commissioner of the NBA on February 1, 2014 that he will not provide the logistical support to the W that David Stern has provided. One website (which no one had ever heard of before) predicted the demise of the WNBA by the end of 2014. But the WNBA could finance itself taking the bets on its own demise that press people who know better keep making. The status quo is unlikely to change, as Silver - like his predecessor - doesn't want any other basketball league (men's or women's) out there not directly under his control.

My predictions

  1. No expansion in 2014 - or 2015 for that matter.
  2. Jersey sponsorships will fluctuate.
  3. We will go to 12 players as soon as the CBA is signed, but there won't be a significant change in salaries.
  4. The 2014 Draft will be disappointing.
  5. Bill Laimbeer will continue to struggle in New York.
  6. Atlanta will be sticking around. Tulsa? Not so sure.
  7. Delle Donne will have a better season, believe it or not. So will Griner. But Diggins will keep struggling.
  8. We will never see Deanna Nolan in a WNBA uniform again.