Both on and off the court, 2019 was a momentous year for the WNBA. On it, the league’s brightest stars proved their transcendence over the course of an uber-competitive regular season and playoff schedule. Off it, major broadcast pacts came to fruition and, along with them, increased media exposure and sponsorship opportunities.
Economic challenges continue to face the league, though, especially in the run-up to a CBA negotiation fraught with concerns over unfair athlete compensation. But one of the W’s most popular and storied franchises scored what many consider a major victory in October, when it was announced that the New York Liberty will play their home games at the Barclays Center—home of the Brooklyn Nets during the NBA season—starting with the 2020 WNBA season which starts next summer. The move had been hinted at by Liberty (and Nets) owner Joe Tsai periodically since he purchased the franchise back in January.
“In my old world, we said as the New York office went, the whole firm went,” WNBA commissioner Cathly Engelbert said on the significance of the move. “I think the same thing here.”
For the Liberty, it couldn’t have come at a better time. After playing in Madison Square Garden for 20 years, the team—a founding WNBA franchise—was proverbially “banished” by their former ownership group to the Westchester County Center in White Plains two seasons ago—a decision that relegated one of the biggest in-person draws in the WNBA to an arena with a capacity of just over 2,000 fans. In the team’s last season playing at MSG (2017), they drew an average of 9,889 fans per contest (97.7% capacity), according to research conducted by Sports Business Journal.
Now, the organization will have 8,000 seats to work with in the Barclays Center’s lower bowl, with “opportunity to grow,” according to Liberty COO Keia Clarke.
“It’s a professional-caliber arena,” Clarke said of the advantages of Barclays. “And when you live in a city like New York and you have all of the boroughs and people, again, who have supported throughout the years, it just makes for an easier proposition for us to go to market with.”
Yet, in the midst of a multi-year period of league-wide arena flux, the Liberty are in some ways bucking a budding trend of franchises steering away from NBA timeshares, in favor of more intimate venues. Take the defending WNBA champion Washington Mystics, for example, who just last year moved out of Capital One Arena, home of the Washington Wizards, and into the 4,200-seat Entertainment & Sports Arena situated well outside of downtown Washington D.C.
The prevailing belief of league officials, players and impartial observers has been that the atmospheric advantages that come with this strategy are real, especially for a league so focused on growth and engagement.
“What we have seen in the WNBA in a few cases… [are] teams moving out of NBA-sized arenas into smaller venues,” Zach Spedden, Managing Editor of sports arena analysis and news site Arena Digest, said. “One of the things that was reported in the local [Washington D.C.] press was the players noticing [an] intense atmosphere on game day that comes to playing in a 5,000-seat arena as opposed to one that’s much larger.”
Engelbert pointed to a raucous WNBA Finals, in which the Mystics won three games on their homecourt, as evidence of a positive shift in fan experience.
At Barclays, the Liberty can have their cake and eat it, too. As Clarke said, it’s a professional-caliber arena, with a capacity that has the potential to re-ignite the team’s boroughs-based fans and shoot them back to near-the-top of the WNBA’s attendance hierarchy. As evidence of that potential: In August, the Liberty hosted the then-defending champion Seattle Storm for a regular season game and reportedly drew 7,715 fans—over three times as much as the maximum capacity of the Westchester County Center.
Barclays is also a new arena (construction was completed in 2012) that isn’t like to demand the type of consistent or untimely renovations that have pushed other WNBA teams out of their homes in the recent past. There are other advantages to that modernity, as well. “They’re a newer stadium, so they have the ability to expand [and] contract in a way that older stadiums might not necessarily have the ability to do,” Bob Lynch, former Senior VP of Global Partnerships for Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment (BSE), which manages and controls the Barclays Center said. “It’s a dark stadium, you don’t notice the gaps I think that you’d notice in other places…they do a really good job to kind of make it feel like there’s always a good crowd there.”
Lynch added that the Liberty will also have the advantage of playing their games during the summer months, the inverse of the Nets’ regular season schedule. “6-8,000 people, that makes a pretty good event in the summertime,” Lynch said.
But not every WNBA franchise is as fortunate to have all of these factors align in their favor. For other teams, and the league in general, the question of whether fan engagement and intimacy outweighs a potential decline in raw ticket sales—a natural byproduct of decreasing arena capacity—persists.
According to aforementioned SBJ research, total attendance league-wide has dropped the past two seasons, from 1.57 million total attendees in 2017, to 1.37 million in 2018, to 1.33 million in 2019 (the WNBA reported 1.3 million total attendees in 2019 but declined to comment on past seasons). Undeniable in that equation are the the Liberty losing over 100,000 in-person attendees between 2017 and 2018 as a result of their move to Westchester, and the Mystics dropping by 20,000-plus in their first year away from Capital One Arena.
Clarke and Engelbert each cited ancillary, favorable metrics that indicate the league is engaging and exciting its audience. But they recognize that they still have to put fans in the seats to maximize popularity.
“Experiencing the game in person creates more of a palate for our fans to buy more merch, to watch on television, to follow us on social media, so I think one kind of drives the other. But it really starts with that in-game experience,” Clarke said.
In that vein, the WNBA reported a 38% increase in merchandise sales from NBAStore.com, a 7% bump in viewership across Disney networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, etc.) and a 2.1% percent-capacity increase this season, as well as either marquee or patch-based jersey sponsorships for 11 of the league’s 12 teams. Independently, Lynch, who is now the founder and president of SponsorUnited, sports sponsorship research firm, said that he has noticed “an uptick in the number of brands that are aligning with the WNBA.”
Engelbert, though, acknowledged less-than-satisfactory viewership numbers during the 2019 playoffs. And even in markets propping up the most successful teams in the league, barriers to increased exposure persist. There is still much work to be done.
But the arena dynamics of the W—fluid as they may be—point to a league flush with teams willing to be creative in solving the problems facing the most sustainable women’s sports league that the United States has seen.
“We’re only in 12 markets,” Engelbert said. “But we sure do have a moment in women’s sports, whether it’s coming off the women’s soccer World Cup win or the momentum around the WNBA.”
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