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The WNBA is looking for an attendance boost with a talented rookie class

As the curtain closed on the 2023 WNBA season, the league had much to celebrate — record television ratings that included the most-watched regular season in 21 years.

It’s the most-watched Finals in 20 years and the most-watched All-Star Game in 16 years. These impressive numbers are a testament to the growing popularity and excitement in the area women’s professional basketball.

Despite the growing interest in television, however, the WNBA faced a stark contrast in terms of in-person attendance.

According to the data, the 2023 season saw a lower average attendance per game than any other season in league history between 1997 and 2019.

WNBA season

This trend is in striking contrast to the NWSL, the professional women’s soccer league, which has seen a steady increase in attendance over its 12 years of existence.

To understand this dichotomy, it is necessary to look back to the beginning of the WNBA in 1997.

Launched with the momentum of the 1996 Olympics and supported by the NBA David SternThe league benefited from the «curiosity factor» and heavy marketing efforts. Rebecca Lobo, a 1999 WNBA All-Star, recalls, “There was a lot of interest that first season.

People were eager to see what a professional women’s basketball league backed by David Stern and the league looked like.’

The iconic «We Got Next» advertising campaign, which promoted the league’s June 21, 1997 launch date, played a significant role in creating buzz and anticipation.

“You would turn on an NBA game, and playoff gameanytime in 1997, and there was advertising,” Lobo said, noting the extensive promotion behind the WNBA’s first season.

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The league’s first game between the New York Liberty and the Los Angeles Sparks drew a staggering 5 million viewers on NBC, a number that has never been surpassed.

However, as the novelty factor wore off and interest waxed and waned over the years, attendance numbers continued to decline.

One of the major factors contributing to the attendance challenge was the league’s venues. Many WNBA teams have downsized their home arenas or relocated to smaller venues, citing disagreements with NBA arena management or other logistical reasons.

For example, the Atlanta Dream now play in College Park’s Gateway Center Arena, which holds fewer than 3,500 fans compared to the larger Philips Arena they previously shared with the Atlanta Hawks.

Similarly, the Dallas Wings and New York Liberty have moved to smaller venues in recent years.

In 2023, six of the 12 WNBA franchises played home games in venues with fewer than 15,000 seats, a stark contrast to the league’s inaugural season, when the smallest arena was the 17,000-seat Compaq Center in Houston.

However, the league and its teams are actively addressing the issue, especially in light of the hype surrounding the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft, Caitlin Clark.

The Las Vegas Aces, whose regular home court capacity is 12,000, will play their May 25 game against the Indiana Fever at the 18,000-seat T-Mobile Arena.

WNBA season

The Washington Mystics will also host Indiana on June 7 at the 20,000-seat Capital One Arena, home of the NBA’s Wizards and the NHL’s Capitals.

Last season, the WNBA champion Aces played their final regular season game at T-Mobile Arena, drawing an impressive crowd of 17,406 fans – a testament to the potential of larger venues to attract more spectators.

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With the arrival of the most star-studded rookie class in WNBA history, including Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso, the league has an opportunity to capitalize on increased interest in women’s college hoops and reverse the attendance trend.

The 2023 WNBA Draft in April drew the 11th largest television audience in history, trailing only 10 games from the league’s early years between 1997 and 2000.

Rebecca Lobo, who has witnessed the development of the league firsthand, is optimistic about the future.

«I feel like we’re at a place now where the promotion is the same as it was in those early days,» she said, referring to ESPN’s prominent WNBA season ad during a recent Celtics game.

As the 2023 season unfolds, all eyes will be on the league’s attendance numbers. With larger venues, a star-studded rookie class and renewed promotional efforts, the WNBA has an opportunity to recapture the magic of its early years and continue to build on the record-breaking viewership numbers achieved in 2023.

As Lobo confidently predicts, «I’ll be shocked if ticket sales this season don’t approach the numbers we saw in the early days of the league.»

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