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NBA History Suggests a Turning Point for the WNBA

Background of WNBA

The Women's National Basketball Association has exhibited an interesting measure of growth and progression since its conception in 1996. In its inaugural year, the league comprised only eight teams. Now, the WNBA boasts a total of twelve teams, each demonstrating an impressive depth of talent and competitiveness that continuously elevates the standard of play at every WNBA match. The quality of the game exhibited in the WNBA has also undergone a tremendous transformation through its preliminary years.

Over the years, WNBA games have become more competitive, more captivating, and way more strategic, in the same manner we have seen the NBA undergo. Players are constantly raising their skill levels, pushing boundaries, and changing the game in unimaginable ways. Moreover, college basketball has proven to be a crucial feeder system, with universities across the U.S. showcasing extremely talented and exciting prospects who’s subsequent step would be to elevate to a professional level. Not to mention the NCAA just experienced its highest viewership ratings for the Women’s Tournament in April of 2023. This influx of fresh and skilled talent ensures that the level of competition is always on an upward trajectory, which engages and intrigues fans.

However, the league has experienced some difficulties in its status as a multinational entertainment platform. A foundational pitfall of the WNBA is its inability to attract a large viewership. Despite featuring some of the greatest talents in women's basketball and offering an equivalently high level of contest, the league consistently trails not just its male counterpart in the NBA, but also a significant portion of other professional sports leagues in terms of viewer appeal. The factors contributing to the dearth of viewership are multi-faceted, ranging from marketing inadequacies to deep-seated gender biases in sports viewership. Nevertheless, inferior ratings translate into less advertising, resulting in a deficient revenue stream.

Yet another serious challenge is the wage disparity between the WNBA and the NBA. The average salary in the WNBA hovers around $100,000, which, while not insignificant in isolation, is humbling when juxtaposed with the multi-million dollar contracts common in the men's game. This pay gap can very blatantly be justified by comparing the respective leagues' revenues, as the WNBA’s total generated revenue is only a minute fraction in comparison to the NBA. This remains a discouraging factor for potential aspiring players impacting player morale and acts as a deterrent for younger athletes considering the sport as a career. Additionally, the lack of domestic and international depth in the talent pool pulls down the overall quality of play, making it less attractive for viewers. While the situation is improving, with more countries investing in women's basketball development, the league would benefit significantly from global talent infusion, the same as the NBA has witnessed within the last 30 years or so.

A Glimmer of Hope

All hope is most certainly not lost for the WNBA, as it is still very much so in its infancy. Studying the history of the NBA has invoked a rather interesting indication into the potential growth of the WNBA and a step towards major profitability.

The NBA as a league struggled immensely all through the late 1970s. There was some excitement around the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain rivalry that attracted an audience, but it had little lasting effect to carry into the later years of both players’ careers as well as Chamberlain moving teams. What revolutionized the NBA was the arrival and development of a heated rivalry between a Hick from French Lick dawning Celtic Green and a Magician from Lansing who brought his wizardry to Hollywood.

The legendary rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, two of NBA's most celebrated figures, had profound consequences for the league: significantly boosting its revenue and bringing widespread attention to the game. Bird and Johnson first faced off in the 1979 NCAA Championship game with Bird playing for Indiana State and Johnson representing Michigan State. This game set the stage for an enduring rivalry that would transcend their college careers. Michigan State won the championship, and this white-hot competition not only kindled a personal rivalry between Bird and Johnson but also caught the interest of the nation, setting an NCAA basketball viewership record that still stands today. Following their collegiate careers, the rivalry transitioned to the NBA, with the Boston Celtics drafting Larry Bird and the Los Angeles Lakers picking Magic Johnson. The two players, representing two of the most iconic teams in the league that were located on opposite coasts, became the faces of the NBA. This crosstown feud kindled a coast-to-coast interest in basketball, invigorating fan bases and the general public that very often saw the Celtics-Lakers matches as the clash of the East Coast versus the West Coast.

From a revenue standpoint, this was a watershed moment for the NBA. Before Bird and Johnson, the NBA was facing a decline in television ratings and public interest. However, the electric nature of this rivalry slowly turned the league's fortunes. Their spellbinding battles pulled in more viewers than ever before, subsequently leading to a more lucrative TV broadcasting deal for the NBA. Advertisers were drawn to the high-octane games played by these two superstars, resulting in even more revenue.

In addition, ticket sales soared as fans flocked to see the Bird-Johnson match-up. Merchandise sales rocketed as well, with fans eager to don their favorite player's jersey. The Bird-Johnson rivalry attained a life of its own, escalating NBA’s financial viability a notch higher. The annual revenue of the NBA, less than $200m in 1980, tripled by the end of the decade, demonstrating the enormous impact the rivalry had on the league's financials.

Furthermore, the rivalry revolutionized the way the league promoted its on-court product. Instead of focusing on teams, marketers realized the power of creating narratives around individual players. The NBA began to emphasize personal duels, pitting stars against each other, a strategy that has continued to this day. This shift in marketing strategy built a greater emotional connection with fans, intensifying the heated Bird-Johnson rivalry and catapulting the popularity of the NBA to new heights.

Furthermore, the rivalry revolutionized the way the league promoted its on-court product. Instead of focusing on teams, marketers realized the power of creating narratives around individual players. The NBA began to emphasize personal duels, pitting stars against each other, a strategy that has continued to this day. This shift in marketing strategy built a greater emotional connection with fans, intensifying the heated Bird-Johnson rivalry and catapulting the popularity of the NBA to new heights.

The WNBA may be on the brink of a similar opportunity to capitalize on at a similar point in its lifespan. In two prominent American cities, Las Vegas and New York have constructed two of the most talented rosters in WNBA history. The Las Vegas Aces captured the 2022 WNBA championship led by a core of forward Aj’a Wilson, guard Chelsea Gray, guard Kelsey Plum, and a breakout season from guard Jackie Young, as they annihilated the league and stampeded towards raising a trophy at season’s end. Then in the offseason, they decided to add one of the greatest WNBA players in its history with Candace Parker to fill out an elite starting lineup entering the 2023 season. On the opposite coast, the New York Liberty fielded a meddlesome roster who’s prominent bright spot was a superstar-in-the-making with guard Sabrina Ionescu. Committing to an improved 2023 campaign, the Liberty opted to trade for 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones, then went to the free agent market to sign All-Stars Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot to establish an essential ‘superteam’ of their own.

The league now features two super powered rosters on opposite coasts who on paper should be the favorites to contend for the title for the next few years to come, each with some young stars to build around. Aj’a Wilson has already made her mark on the league by winning two MVP awards along with a 2023 championship ring yet is only 27 years old this season. Sabrina Ionescu has made multiple all-star teams in her short career and set the basketball media ablaze after displaying one of the most impressive shooting displays ever in the WNBA’s 2023 three-point contest a few months ago. Players that are young, talented, and centerpieces of winning teams are very marketable and capable of embracing the same spotlight Larry and Magic were subjected to in the 1980s.

The WNBA’s marketing team must prioritize each and every Aces-Liberty matchup in an attempt to emulate the vicious Celtics-Lakers run that shaped the NBA into the successful and popularized business it is today. It was able to secure an influx of television deals, sponsorship partners, and fan interest on a global scale. WNBA fans will have to start picking sides, and with the guarantee of quality basketball we could see new fans join as they elect to support their coastal team and tune into the matchups. Or, when these teams come to their city, they may attend or watch to watch the mastery of the Aces or Liberty and may take affiliation with their hometown team as they hope to slay a giant.

On the concept of player promotion, the Bird-Magic rivalry typically were the Finals matchup come Summertime, but progressively as the years rolled on they were challenged by some talented younger players as the Celtics and Lakers aged. Players like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Isaiah Thomas caused problems for Larry and the Celtics in the East. On the Pacific coast, Magic and Showtime found themselves challenged by Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, and Clyde Drexler. Fans were presented with a bright future even in the midst of a dynastic run that created at least a sense of doubt the Celtics or Lakers would once again have a Finals rematch due to this young talent. The WNBA may be featuring some of the most impressive prospects to enter the league in the next coming years, most notably with UConn guard Paige Bueckers and Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, who may be eligible for the 2024 WNBA Draft or could pursue a 5th year of college and enter the 2025 class.

The talent of Bueckers, a versatile guard who’s recognized for her passing and clutch shot making, and Clark, a guard who can seemingly shoot from anywhere in the gym, is undeniable and has been showcased at the highest level with some major performances during the NCAA Women’s Tournament. The list goes on with 2024 prospects such as Cameron Brink (Stanford), Angel Reese (LSU), and Hailey Van Lith (LSU) indicating the future of the WNBA is in good hands. These are the types of players who can lead teams to challenge this coastal rivalry while WNBA fans live through the potential dynasties in the years to come. This can ultimately maintain excitement levels during the regular season as it leads to a climax of Aces-Liberty in the championship matchup.

The intense rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson during the 1980s not only captivated basketball fans but also helped transform the NBA into a thriving, lucrative, globalized business. Bird and Johnson’s success and attention on and off the court brought unprecedented attention to the league, leading to increased television ratings, merchandise sales, and a broader global fanbase, setting the stage for the NBA's future as a major sports and entertainment industry. The WNBA has been presented with a very similar opportunity at a comparable point in the league’s timeline. The elevated level of play, combined with the greater amounts of media availability in this modernized technological age, can empower the WNBA to grow insurmountably in the near future and finally provide women’s basketball with the attention it undoubtedly deserves.

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