The WNBA is riding a wave of momentum former All-Star Adrienne Goodson believes the league hasn’t seen since its early days.
WNBA viewership during the 2021 regular season was up 49 percent year over year. The playoffs were the most-watched since 2014. The champion Chicago Sky sold out both of their home games during the Finals and ticket prices soared. Players also signed a record number of endorsement deals. That included Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, who will be the first WNBA player to have her own signature shoe in a decade after inking a long-term partnership with Puma.
Goodson, who played for four WNBA teams during a 14-year professional career that started overseas and in the American Basketball League (ABL), sees those signs of progress as a call to action. Here, in her own words for Just Women’s Sports, Goodson reflects on her experience with growth in women’s basketball and shares her thoughts on how the WNBA can capitalize on the success of 2021.
The league can never be the same, with the increased viewership and the ticket prices rising for the playoffs this season. I mean, a ticket in Chi Town versus the Mercury sold for as much as $1,500. With that and the four Finals games on ESPN averaging 548,000 viewers compared to 440,000 in 2020 and 381,000 in 2019, that’s a huge jump for them. They’re coming along.
And even when I look back in the day, we had massive crowds. Washington had crazy crowds, New York had crazy crowds, Houston had crazy crowds. Utah was off the chain — we went from, like, 3,000 fans all the way up to a playoff game that I think touched 15,000. And we’re talking way back in the day. Then in 2003, the Detroit Shock versus the L.A. Sparks had 1.2 million viewers.
So there is a lot of potential for this league, and I just think that they can do a better job with television. That starts with not following the NBA as much because we have our own market. We’re the sister league and the NBA already had a model in place, so it was like, OK, we’ll just use that model because it’s proven. But we have totally different markets, so I think that the model has to change in the ways that the league is marketed.
And I’ll keep saying it: We need WNBA TV and we need affiliates out there that will also boost the games. So if you’re going to model it after something, model it after NBA TV because it’s television, it’s in-house and it pays the bills. That way, we can get sponsors on TV spots and things like that, and now we can speak to our own market. As much as they’re promoting the league, how we walk and how we talk and our fashion, my God, just imagine all the sponsors that can be unleashed if something like that were to happen.
It’s not a criticism because I love the WNBA app. However, I pay for it because I want to give back to the league. I want to make sure that whatever it is that they put out there, I support it in some kind of way. But trying to view the games on there is not always cool. I think I watched one game this season; all the rest of them were blacked out. So we have to have more options than that or Twitter or some of the channels that we are on like ESPN, where we sometimes get bumped around. We shouldn’t be bumped around.
And what about jerseys? I think it’s time that everybody’s jersey is available across the board, from current players to throwbacks. This is what people are requesting, so you’ve got to give the people what they want. They’re aware of it now.
It’s just time to really take a serious look at the league as a whole, starting all the way back in 1997 to the 25th anniversary. The 2002 collective bargaining agreement — that was fire. That was the beginning of a lot of action. We were fighting for maternity leave because, at that time, players were only getting 50 percent of their salary if they got pregnant. That was obviously not enough, to not work, get 50 percent and be expecting a child. And then we fought to raise the veterans’ minimum salary from something like $30,000 to $60,000, which we felt was really successful. But at that time, it kind of clashed with the league’s budget. We started to see veterans fade out because teams were choosing to pay two rookies versus one vet.
I think there’s a lot of change that’s in the air and in the background with things that come across my email. So I think this is a great time for us. You don’t want to praise the pandemic, but the pandemic was what catapulted us into the limelight because people were at home and they had to watch the league. We were confined to the house and, all of a sudden, people started to pay a little more attention to it. We had the social justice movements going on and the girls took that on, which is something that we’ve always done. We’ve always been a part of those types of movements.
I think it just needs to be a conversation where you get the people in the room who could make it happen. If you have a whole bunch of people sitting around, just hoping for the best, then nothing is going to get done. If you have only one or two people addressing it, that’s still not power. I think there are enough resources out there that will allow that to happen. If we just market the league the way that we need, and not just treat the product as a thing that stays afloat, it can actually make money. There’s potential now, so we can never be the same. And then that takes care of your pension problem and all of the issues that you’re dealing with under the table.
Our market is different and it needs to be tailored in a different way. You can go far, but you always have to tap into your ancestry, understand why you do things the way that you do. It’s not even just about basketball — it’s about elevating women’s sports. We’re all in this together because we all have to deal with that same glass ceiling.
Adrienne Goodson (“Goody”) is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She played 14 years of professional basketball, including seven in the WNBA. A three-time All-Star in the pros and an NCAA champion, she was inducted into the Old Dominion Hall of Fame in 1999. She is the host of the podcast “A WNBA State of Mind with Adrienne Goodson.” Follow her on Twitter @agoody15_wnba.