WNBA, Connecticut Sun Continue to Thrive
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.
One of the league’s most successful franchises has been the Connecticut Sun, consistently a competitive team with a handful of former UConn stars, a wealthy supportive owner in the Mohegan Tribe and a loyal, knowledgeable fan base comprised largely of supporters who learned to understand the sport through their allegiance to the highly successful UConn women’s team.
“Connecticut is a fertile market for women’s basketball,” says Mitchell Etess, Chief Executive Officer for the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. “Clearly, UConn made it easier for us to build our own brand, but sooner or later we did have our own team.”
While the UConn women laid the foundation for the Sun’s existence, Etess contends that merely having a passionate women’s basketball fan base doesn’t guarantee success for a pro franchise. There are no WNBA teams, for instance, in Knoxville, Tenn., or Stanford, Calif,, home to the hugely successful college programs of Tennessee and Stanford, respectively.
Sun ticket sales, normally among the more robust in the league, sank to third worst in the league last season (111,320), primarily due to the team’s last-place finish (10-24 overall record) in the league’s Eastern Division. Etess attributes the decline to injuries (at the end of the season, the Sun could only put seven players on the floor) and the team adjusting to the style of new head coach Anne Donovan. “We never had time to be a real team,” he says, noting that the record was a significant departure from the past when former head coach Mike Thibault—fired in the fall of 2012—had led the team to eight playoff appearances and two finals.
Etess is more optimistic about this year’s team, which also includes the first overall pick in April’s WNBA draft Chiney Ogwumike.
A typical Sun game is attended by families with young children, older women and teenagers. The team has a kids Dance Team of girls and boys between ages 7 and 15 as well as a very popular Senior Sun Dance Team of women 50 and older. A professional dance team also performs at games, while Blaze, the team’s large red bear mascot roams the arena mingling with the fans. The games include tons of promotions, similar to those at a minor league baseball game.
The Sun, which has a contract with CPTV for most home games, opens the season on May 16 at the Mohegan Sun Arena against the regional rival New York Liberty. This year’s squad includes former UConn stars Kalana Greene (right), Kelly Farris and Renee Montgomery, who have become instant fan favorites.
Along those lines, the league will be aggressively marketing Breanna Stewart, UConn’s latest bona fide star, when she is ready for a pro career in May 2016.
Stewart, an all-America in each of her first two college seasons and who was 3 years old when the league was created, has grown up watching the WNBA.
“It was always exciting,” she says. “One of the things I remember is the players—not the teams so much—but looking up to players like Tina Thompson, Lisa Leslie and the whole wave of new players.”
Stewart, who is from Syracuse, N.Y., says she’s not thinking WNBA yet “but I knew if I came here, Coach [Geno] Auriemma and his staff would help make me the best player I can be and from there, there will be so many opportunities to play at the pro level,” including professional European leagues where the better American players can earn six-figure salaries, significantly more than playing in the States.
In the years since Rebecca Lobo played in the league—and which she now covers for ESPN—she says the difference in the quality of players “is night and day.” More WNBA players are honing their skills abroad in the off-season while some former NBA coaches are now coaching women. Many players also scout NBA practices and games to help improve their own skills.
Also, by the time they are ready to step into the WNBA, the athletes have simply had more opportunities to play. According to figures from the NCAA, female participation in basketball at the high school and college levels has increased steadily during the past decade, with a record 16,186 participants in 2012-2013.
No one knows what those figures will be in five years if Siobhan Rushin decides to step foot onto a high school basketball court. Right now, she’s happy to watch games with her mom and cheer for the team closest to home and always for UConn (“because she knows I played there,” Lobo says).
At this stage, what’s near is dear—but the future awaits.
WNBA, Connecticut Sun Continue to Thrive