In case you’ve never heard of her, Elena Delle Donne is a WNBA star. The current WNBA leader in career scoring average, Donne is a past league MVP winner who plays for the Washington Mystics, my hometown team. And I had never heard of her before today. During an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Donne complained that the reason I and many others aren’t familiar with her and her fellow WNBA players is that Adam Silver and the NBA do a poor job of promoting women’s basketball.
The interview was prompted by a tweet Donne sent to ESPN’s Michelle Beadle that said, “We continue to cover the negatives of the WNBA as a league and it’s exhausting. We … don’t get the support and coverage we deserve. We train hard, hone our craft, play our hearts out and are the best in the world. We absolutely do not get promoted as our counterparts do. Yes, I’m talking about the NBA. When you put millions of dollars into marketing athletes and allow fans to get to know the players they develop a connection.”
— Elena Delle Donne (@De11eDonne) April 21, 2018
Donne’s tweet was in response to statements NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made to Michelle Beadle about the lack of interest women have in women’s basketball. According to Silver, middle-aged men make up the largest demographic that watches the WNBA. With the tweet and during the “Outside the Lines'” interview, Donne shot back that the reason for the lack of interest in the WNBA is because the NBA doesn’t promote the women’s league.
I don’t blame Donne for her passion and conviction. But I also don’t believe that she’s correct in where she places the blame.
The total league revenue for the NBA is just below 7.4 billion dollars. The total league revenue for the WNBA is next to impossible to find, because as Vice Sports points out, “We do not have a website like Forbes.com that reports WNBA revenues.” That same article estimated that the WNBA league revenue for 2014 was around $35 million. Even if we were to be generous and round that number up to the not-plausible figure of $100 million, the WNBA is still around 7.3 billion dollars below the NBA in terms of league revenue.
In fact, for most of the 2000s, the NBA gifted the WNBA around $10 million a year just so the women’s league would stay afloat. It’s only recently that the majority of the WNBA teams became solvent. And they’re solvent because they keep their costs below their revenue. If the WNBA players were marketed like the NBA players, the league would fold due to insolvency. But (and sarcasm alert so nobody gets offended) we shouldn’t expect basketball players, male or female, to understand the intricacies of Economics 101.
However, I would like to briefly comment on Donne’s belief that women aren’t watching the WNBA because the league isn’t marketed properly. All of the women in my life are aware of the WNBA’s existence. None of them watch it because, well, like most women, they’re not really into sports. And when they do watch sports, basketball, for example, they watch the NBA because, in the words of my wife, “The basketball is so much better in the NBA than in the WNBA.”
Yes, making human connections with our sports heroes is important for professional leagues to foster in order to help maintain growth. But fans only care about those human connections because the achievements of our sports heroes seem superhuman to us. I’ve never watched a WNBA game and thought, “Wow! That was incredible.” It doesn’t matter to me how interesting a backstory the WNBA players have, I’m still not going to watch because I find WNBA games boring. And I’m not alone.
For the WNBA to grow and reach the financial and global recognition heights of the NBA, the product is going to have to improve. Unfortunately, biology is going to have something to say about that.