WNBA, Connecticut Sun Continue to Thrive
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Sometimes she says she wants to be a writer. Other times, it’s an actress, and occasionally, it’s a basketball player.
At 9 years old, Siobhan Rushin, the eldest child of former UConn basketball great and current ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo and sports writer Steve Rushin, is — like others her age —into a million different activities.
But she’s tall for her age and plays on a basketball team coached by her mom, so it’s entirely possible that in 15 years or so, she’ll follow in her mother’s considerable footsteps and carve out a career for herself in the WNBA, maybe even playing for the hometown Connecticut Sun.
It’s a dream that has been far from guaranteed at times, given the obstacles the league faced early on in its history—including competition from another professional women’s league, questions about the quality of play, concerns that it couldn’t survive without the NBA connection and issues surrounding its television and box office appeal.
Entering its 17th season — which tips off later this month and runs through mid-August— the WNBA is now in “terrific shape,” according to league president Laurel J. Richie. She points out that the 12-team league is coming off a 2013 season in which it held its own in ticket sales (overall, 1.53 million people attended games) and increased viewership on NBA TV (up 19 percent) and ESPN (up 28 percent). Last March, the WNBA extended its contract with ESPN and its affiliated networks through 2022, including at least 30 games a season to be televised, essentially guaranteeing long-term viability.
Part of the WNBA’s success last season came from the presence of three former outstanding college players: highly touted rookies Brittney Griner (now on the Phoenix Mercury), Elena Delle Donne (Chicago Sky) and Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock). The league marketed them aggressively through blogs, public appearances, online personal diaries and other methods.
|The Sun features former UConn stars like Renee Montgomery, seen here celebrating with second-year head coach Anne Donovan.|
“The three brought great visibility and attention and an increase in individual ticket sales,” says Richie. “Fans who went to see this new trio also got to see Candace [Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks], Diana [Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury] and Maya [Moore, Minnesota Lynx], and this exposure paid off in greater support.”
Richie also points out that the league has also attracted and kept a considerable gay audience, which has been critical to its success. “From the beginning we have had a strong following with the lesbian community and that’s continuing to grow,” she adds.
The biggest boost, however, to league stability occurred in January when the Los Angeles Sparks, one of the original WNBA franchises, was purchased by NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and Mark Walter, the controlling partners of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Despite leading the league in attendance (167,773) in 2013, former owner Paula Madison had lost more than $12 million in the six years she owned the team.
“I feel we can cut the losses,” Johnson said in a news conference at the time of purchase. “We have the best player in the league in [MVP] Candace Parker,” he added, promising a championship will return to the southern California franchise that won titles in 2001 and 2002 and made it to the playoffs in five of the past six seasons.
Los Angeles is one of the six franchises, including the Connecticut Sun, independently owned; the others are affiliated with NBA teams, but Richie says there’s no correlation between their viability and that ownership. Financial success is—like with other professional sports—a matter of wins on the court and strong marketing.