The W.N.B.A. Is Putting on Some of the Best Pro Basketball in America

As the W.N.B.A.’s ownership structure became more complicated so, too, did its narrative — especially because neither the N.B.A., nor the W.N.B.A., nor any of its teams will disclose complete financial information. The W.N.B.A.’s attendance peaked at almost 11,000 fans per game in 1998, its second season; its current average is 6,800, a drop of close to 40 percent. But all young leagues struggle to sell tickets. The N.B.A., founded in 1946, is 73 years old; when it was about the age of the W.N.B.A. now, Wilt Chamberlain played his legendary 100-point game in 1962 in front of roughly 4,000 spectators. And because the league is small, a single franchise’s decisions can make an outsize difference: Last season, the New York Liberty owner, James Dolan, moved the team from Madison Square Garden, where it averaged 9,000 fans per game, to the Westchester County Center, which holds 4,400, forcing at least a 50 percent drop in attendance. (The team has since been purchased by Joseph Tsai, a founder of Alibaba; Tsai recently took control of the Brooklyn Nets, in the N.B.A., but where the Liberty will play next season is unclear.)

Gate receipts, while critical, do not solely determine a franchise’s value. The fact that since 2009 W.N.B.A. teams have been sold but not shuttered hints that, at the very least, they aren’t incurring debt. They might well be attracting fans new to basketball who then go to N.B.A. games. They may also, through creative financial arrangements, like paying rental fees to facilities controlled by their owner (a common practice in men’s sports), claim tax-deductible losses while legally generating revenue elsewhere. In fact, in 2014, the W.N.B.A.’s president, Laurel Richie, told the Sports Business Journal that some of the franchises had begun to see profits. The first to do so, in 2011, was the Connecticut Sun, owned by the Mohegan Tribe, which attached its arena to its casino, in UConn country. By 2013, the N.B.A.-affiliated Minnesota Lynx (Timberwolves), Indiana Fever (Pacers) and Phoenix Mercury (Suns), were also in the black, as was the Seattle Storm, which the SuperSonics’ Oklahoma-based owners had sold to Force Ten Hoops, a partnership owned by several local businesswomen, just before moving their N.B.A. team to Oklahoma City and renaming them the Thunder, leaving the Storm as the only professional basketball ticket in town. Each market seemed to demand its own strategy, but the teams had in common that they were at least 10 years old, had owners with significant resources to spend on them, were in a basketball-hungry locale and had won or played for a championship. This season, the Storm is defending its third title.

Over all, thanks to the N.B.A.’s backing, the W.N.B.A. is by far the longest-running women’s professional sports league in America. However, a competing narrative — largely put forward by the N.B.A. itself — is that the league has always lost money. In the lead-up to the continuing collective-bargaining negotiations with the W.N.B.A. players’ union, Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s commissioner, told the A.P. that the league had lost more than $10 million in every year of its existence. Many questioned the wisdom of an executive sowing doubts about his own product. But the figure is probably accurate. “This isn’t a lie,” Rodney Fort, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan, told me. “The I.R.S. is listening. It’s just that that may not reflect the value to them of owning them.” Teams’ accounting tricks are part of the equation, and the W.N.B.A. most likely serves to improve the N.B.A.’s image among women. Even if the figure of the $10 million loss is a recurring and representative one, it’s worth keeping in mind that the N.B.A. takes in an estimated $8 billion a year. “This is silly,” David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University, says. “This is a tiny, little business. It’s irrelevant whether they’re making money or not.”

Silver countered such criticisms by telling me, “I think it’s easy for people to say we shouldn’t be talking about losing money when it’s not their money.”

Claiming financial losses to justify lower player salaries is a common tactic in labor negotiations with men’s teams, too. But a W.N.B.A. team’s salary cap is just under $1 million; the maximum salary for a player is $117,900, a figure that has changed little to account for star power or experience. (Sue Bird, a guard on the Storm and one of the league’s biggest names, says she has had a total of about a 1 percent raise over her 17-year career, less than the cost-of-living increase in Seattle.) Rookies, even former college superstars, make $54,000 at most. As a result, many players spend their off-seasons, from October till May, playing in Europe or Asia for teams funded by wealthy sports clubs or feuding oligarchs, who can pay them many times what they make in the W.N.B.A. There’s no recovery time between seasons; no chance to practice with teammates; no vacations or holidays with family and friends. And for the teams, there are eight months during which their best marketing assets, the athletes themselves, are out of town.

When Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the players’ union executive committee and a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks, announced in The Players’ Tribune that the union would be opting out of its collective-bargaining agreement, she was careful to make clear that they were not demanding “some LeBron money” ($35.65 million annually, or about three times the combined salaries of the W.N.B.A.’s 144 players). Neither the league nor the union will disclose the specifics of what’s being negotiated. Ogwumike said the players want improvements to their experience and health and safety. (The current agreement has minimal support for working mothers, for instance.) But, she said, first priority is player compensation and salary. Berri said he believes the league’s revenue is about $70 million, which would mean the players are getting less than 20 percent; N.B.A. players get 50 percent of their league’s revenue.