The WNBA is evolving into a successful league apart from its relationship with the NBA.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
MINNEAPOLIS — Walk into the Target Center for any Minnesota Lynx game, and it's not hard to see this is an NBA arena.
The upper bowl gives it away. So do the color scheme and the amenities, the locker rooms that are harder to find, up a small staircase from the main tunnel. But really, it's masked well. This is the
Timberwolves' home for the majority of the year, but when the Lynx claim it each summer, they make it their own.
Now walk into the Target Center and pretend you don't know there's an NBA team in town. Walk in, and look at the fans, many in their own homemade, customized shirts. Check out the ads on the Jumbotron, for things like low-calorie popcorn, and the designated children's play areas. There's no doubt this operation is catering to its own audience.
That recognition that a WNBA team can't just step into an NBA footprint has become a hallmark of the league in recent years. Owners have come to realize that catering to a WNBA audience is a distinct process and that two individual basketball audiences do indeed exist. With that realization has come not only more work but also success, and the key to that success lies in the evolution of league ownership in the past decade.
When the WNBA was founded in 1996, it was defined as the women's counterpart to the NBA. The league had eight teams, all owned by the owners of NBA teams. In fact, the first 16 teams to come into existence in the league were initially owned by NBA owners; only the Chicago Sky and Atlanta Dream, founded in 2006 and 2008, were not.
As the league evolved, that vision of being just a female partner of the NBA proved unstable. By 2002, two teams had folded, and both the Utah Starzz and the Orlando Miracle were poised to relocate. Peter Holt, the
Spurs' owner, purchased the Starzz, which moved to
San Antonio. The Miracle faced a much different fate though, one that would ultimately change the face of the league.
In December 2002, a group of businessmen affiliated with the Mohegan Tribe and their casino in Uncasville, Conn., began negotiations to purchase the Orlando team and move them to the 9,500-seat arena on the casino grounds. By early January, the team was theirs, and training camp for the newly minted Connecticut Sun began the next April. In a matter of months, the first independent owners had taken control in the league, and they provided a model of success by which other independent owners were able to enter the WNBA market.
Since the Sun began to play in 2003, five more teams have transitioned independent ownership: the Seattle Storm, Tulsa Shock, Chicago Sky, Atlanta Dream and Los Angeles Sparks. Seattle, Tulsa and Connecticut are the only three teams not to share a market with an NBA franchise, and Chicago is the only team that shares a market but not a stadium.
Connecticut may have set the precedent for independent ownership, but that's not to say it was easy those first few seasons. However, Sun chief executive officer Mitchell Estes said he believed that Connecticut and the Mohegan Tribe provided the right market for a team, one that the league would never have imagined had it continued to think only with in a model based on NBA partnerships.
"Independence really is just about the infrastructure that you have in place versus not having it in place," Estes said. "We had some infrastructure because we had a marketing company, an entertainment company."
Both Estes and general manager Chris Sienko said the biggest advantage of independent ownership is a singular focus. There are never decisions to make about where to allocate resources or which team takes preference, decisions that may have hindered some early WNBA teams. The only real disadvantages, Sienko said, came in the team's early years, when it had to forge its own path and create an independent business model.
In addition, the Sun is probably the only team in the league that plays in a venue truly suited to its product. Last season, no team in the WNBA averaged more than 10,449 fans per game, but the typical NBA arena holds upwards of 18,000 fans. Even the three other teams with non-NBA arenas play in venues that hold about 17,000 fans; Mohegan Sun Arena is just more than half that size.
"We play in the right sized arena for this league right now," Sienko said. "We are in a 9,500-seat arena for basketball. A lot of these other teams when they are playing in an NBA facility are very cavernous . . . It diminishes the product because people think there's a lot of empty seats when the reality is it's probably a great crowd if it was in our arena."
With the success of Connecticut and the other independently owned teams, the WNBA has become more open to different ownership structures in the past decade. However, independent ownership is nowhere near a mandate in the league, as many of its most successful teams are still in the hands of NBA owners.
When current WNBA president Laurel Richie took office in spring 2011, the league had six independent teams and six that were owned by NBA owners. That remains the state of affairs now, a year into her term, and Richie said she's pleased with the ownership climate she's experienced throughout her tenure.
"From a league perspective and a personal perspective, we don't see it as either or, or one is better than the other," Richie said. "We have seen success in both models, and at the end of the day, it is less about the model and more about the fundamental business proposition of having the really strong team, holding a really strong fan base, having committed and passionate owners."
Even Estes and Sienko, two of the pioneers of independent ownership, said that it's not necessarily right for every team. The six teams that remain under the control of NBA owners have withstood the push toward independence; they have owners with no interest in selling and are willing to make a commitment to acknowledging that they possess two different products.
Glen Taylor, who owns both the Timberwolves and Lynx, is one such owner, and Lynx executive vice president Roger Griffith said that above all else, it's Taylor's vision that's made the Lynx successful. Teams and staff can only go so far; it's the owner's duty to invest the resources and approve the vision that can ensure a team's success. At this point, there have been opportunities to sell across the league, to give way to independent owners. Some teams have taken the bait, and the owners who remain affiliated with both leagues aren't there by force. They want to be a part of the WNBA.
"They're still here, and they don't have to be, so they're passionate about it," Estes said.
For owners like Taylor and the people underneath them, the crossover between the NBA and WNBA can actually enhance the women's game. These owners are still in the WNBA because they know they have to make it a priority, and they're not ignoring it in favor of the men's game. Instead, they're partnering the two and using the diversity of product to their advantage.
Perhaps the biggest advantages for teams like the Lynx come in ticket sales and corporate sponsorship, Griffith said. In terms of ticket sales, the Lynx can rely on the Timberwolves' larger staff to help their own operations, and the same holds true with corporate sponsorship. Everyone in that department works with both teams, Griffith said, and when they're on the phone with a potential sponsor, they can market both products.
"You get one call accepted, and then you get the chance to pitch two different products, two different teams for year-round," Griffith said. "You get whatever fits the customer you're talking to at the given time."
"They're both encouraged and incentivized to sell both products. If they're on the phone with somebody, they can go either direction with the conversation depending on where it goes."
In the end, it all comes down to commitment. If an owner and his staff willing to give both teams equal footing and the resources they need, then it can work. If not, if a WNBA team becomes a burden, then independent ownership may be the way to go.
Perhaps the biggest change that independent ownership ushered into the league a decade ago was the idea that the WNBA is its own product. Independent ownership ripped the women's league from the men's for the first time, destroying the crumbling assumptions that the WNBA was somehow tied to the NBA. It was an idea that proved incorrect even from the early days of the women's league -- Griffith said that from the beginning, assumptions that a certain percentage of NBA season ticket holders would purchase WNBA packages was wildly off base -- and Connecticut's independence paved the way for the league to evolve into a stand-alone product.
"There is a W before NBA, and it's not exactly the same league," Estes said. "As a result, things probably should be done differently, and in fact, they are. That's been an evolution. Over time, owners realize that it's the WNBA, and things are done exactly the same way they're done in the NBA. It's got to be a little more grassroots."
In its 15-year existence, the WNBA has evolved from a brilliant new idea into something of a burden, as teams began to fold and owners began to neglect their teams in favor of NBA franchises. From there, though, the league has seen a definite resurgence in the past decade, as it's carved out an identity that's wholly its own. It might rely on appealing to children and summer camp groups, to ladies' nights out -- but that doesn't cheapen it. It simply marks the league as different.
Being different sells, though, along with a higher quality of basketball as the league evolves. In 2011, attendance was up 1.5 percent from the previous year, and television viewership was at its highest level since 2005. This is a league that's still young and growing into its eventual form. More changes will come, but for now, the league has found the proper balance when it comes to ownership. It's learned to be flexible, that there's no one right way to do things. In the end, it's a choice, and the owners in place in 2012 know that.
Involvement is the WNBA is no longer de facto or an obligation saddled onto the NBA. It's a real commitment, and it seems to be working.