Hanging On

The WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) is starting its 13th year in business, which makes it the longest-running women’s professional sports league (team-based subdivision) in America over the past 400 years, give or take. That’s actually true, by the way, and it’s depressing. But, quickly stepping over to the sunshiny side of the street, I count 13 WNBA franchises coming on to the court in 2009. How goes the WNBA?

Not so bad. First, they’re still here. Second, they’re signed with ESPN through 2016. ESPN is paying them real money, making this the first time since the Big Bang or the past 13 billion years, give or take, that any entity has ever paid an American professional women’s sports league for the rights to broadcast their games. WNBA is a land of firsts.

The sporting press finds it novel that the Phoenix Mercury and the Los Angeles Sparks have accepted money from LifeLock and Farmers Insurance in return for stitching their corporate logos on the front of team uniforms. LifeLock puts $1 million into the Phoenix Mercury’s pocket every year, which covers team payroll with 200K to spare.

The WNBA’s TV stats are not bad, niche-wise. According to Sports Business Journal, last year the WNBA averaged 413,000 viewers, good enough to beat hockey (NHL) by 100,000-plus viewers and soccer (MLS) by 150,000 viewers.

The WNBA was founded in 1996 and began play in 1997 with eight teams and a season running from June to September, playoffs into October. Each women’s team was matched with an NBA team, and both teams used the same arena. The NBA owned all the teams. The idea was to create year-round basketball to the benefit of the NBA brand. The arena part still holds true — the Connecticut Sun, Seattle Storm, and Chicago Sky are the only teams that don’t play in the same arena as an NBA team.

But, there are some cracks in the NBA-owning-everything side. You could say the WNBA has been such a money loser that the NBA okayed selling the franchise in the free world in order to give others the chance to experience their pain. Or, you could say that the NBA was doing the right thing because that’s how they roll. Either way, the Washington Mystics, Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, and Seattle Storm are now owned by civilians.

Some interesting NBA lifers have found their way into the WNBA. Paul Westhead coached the L.A. Lakers to an NBA championship in 1980 and coached the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA championship in 2007. Bill Laimbeer played in the NBA for 14 years; 12 with the Detroit Pistons and picked up two NBA championship rings while there. He’s coached the Detroit Shock since 2002 and won three WNBA championships so far.

A few bumps this year. Used to be a WNBA roster was 13 players wide, with two players inactive. This year the roster is reduced to 11 players, all active. And each team dropped an assistant coach. The league, unable to find a buyer, folded the Houston Comets, a founding franchise that won the WNBA championship four years in a row (1997–2000).

What else? During the regular season, each team plays 34 games: 17 at home, 17 away. Each team plays home and away games with every other team at least once every season. Teams play four ten-minute quarters. The rest of it is from the women’s tee but close enough to NBA rules.

Let’s talk about money.

The WNBA has team salary caps. The high is $803,000, and the low is $772,000. Okay, let’s say every team in the league maxes out at $803,000. Thus, the entire league’s salary is $10,439,000, which is $4 million less than Miami’s Dwyane Wade earned this season.

WNBA money is depressing. Here is a sample of their 2009 bonus list: WNBA Champion, $10,500 per player. Championship Runner-up, $5250 per player. Eliminated in semifinals, $2,625 per player. Eliminated in quarterfinals, $1050 per player. Most Valuable Player Award, $15,000. Defensive Player Award, $5000. Sportsmanship Award, $5000. All Star Game Participant, $2500. Chump change. Roller derby money.

The most money you can make in the WNBA is after six-plus years in the saddle. That gets you $99,000. This is school-district-administrator money. The low end, a rookie, gets $35,190. Glassdoor.com reports that a manager of Burger King earns $38,000 to $42,000 per year.

ABC and ESPN2 will televise 13 regular season games this season. The rest, or at least 200 of the rest, can be seen on WNBA.com (click on WNBA LIVEACCESS) pro bono.

They’re still here and they play very good basketball. Take a look.

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