Posted by: Ethan Johnson | May 26, 2010

WNBA: The BIS Dilemma

Hooray, another WNBA season is upon us, which means it’s time for more consternation about attendance.

(Note to random Googlers: The 2010 Attendance Report won’t be issued until after the regular season. Check back in a few months.)

Empty seats

As noted by the Women’s Hoops Blog, the Tulsa World ran a column in the wake of last night’s Phoenix/Tulsa game griping about the attendance, among other things.

In a high-scoring and mostly well-played clash of Phoenix (last year’s league champion) and Tulsa (the league’s newest entry), the Mercury prevailed 110-96 at the BOK Center.

Before Tuesday, no WNBA team had reached the 100-point mark this season.

From a common-sense standpoint, someone has dropped the ball.

The linked article goes on to ask why Tulsa plays at the barn that is the BOK Center, rather than say, a college gymnasium.

The knee-jerk reaction to this would be to flip out and consider this condescending woman-bashing, but actually, I agree with the crux of the article although it needed to be focused on either the game itself or the attendance, but not both.

I have said in the past that the WNBA would be wise to CASE* Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). And while it would be wonderful to have all of the WPS teams playing in soccer-specific stadia (like Pizza Hut Park, hem hem), the league is aware that it has to grow into larger venues rather than book a barn and pay lots of overhead for wasted space. (* Copy and Steal Everything)

I suspect in the case of the WNBA – and I must claim Pundit’s Privilege here as I am out of market for both leagues and will have to give my uneducated opinion about each – since the league has been around for well over a decade there is a sense that “big time” basketball must be played in “big time” venues. And there is some truth to that, as I have seen many people base their opinion on how legitimate a team or sport is based on the quality of their venue.

I can only think of two WPS teams that play in Major League Soccer stadia and they are the Chicago Fire and Philadelphia Independence. All other teams play in either a college facility or a venue that is not affiliated with MLS (Saint Louis and Washington). But despite this lack of “big time” venues, WPS is indeed “big time” soccer. Because the venue doesn’t define the team, the players do.

Last year, I made the claim that I would travel to Tulsa to see a WNBA game. Unfortunately, that is in doubt right now because their home game schedule doesn’t mesh well with my work schedule. It would be a slightly shorter drive for me than San Antonio so distance isn’t the issue. The tickets cost about the same in both cities so cost isn’t the issue either. In evaluating both venues, I have determined that the mitigating factor is value.

San Antonio plays at the AT&T Center, which is shared with the Spurs. (Note to the Tulsa World columnist linked above: This is often why the WNBA plays in “barns”: The association between the NBA and WNBA teams if a city has both.) If I spent say, $30 on a single ticket in San Antonio, I’d be very close to courtside under one of the baskets. If I spent that same amount in Tulsa, I’d have “goal line” seats if the BOK Center hosted indoor football. Which in so many words means that my concerns about the seating chart on paper were confirmed when I saw the interior of the BOK Center on national TV last night and saw how horrible the sight lines were in the $30-ish seats. No thanks. I want to see the stars of the WNBA, not the rear of the backboard all night.

As for the attendance concerns expressed in the article, I think we’ve all heard many stories about our depressed or recessed economy, and it doesn’t surprise me that attendance isn’t maxed out every day because all sports seem to be having attendance woes. I have seen many a baseball highlight where a home run ball landed in an ocean of empty seats. I have seen regular season NHL games where empty seats matched or outnumbered the fans. Closer to home, I am wondering if FC Dallas will resort to forcing everyone to sit on the east side of the stadium so it looks better on TV rather than a sea of empty red seats.

Moving every team to a smaller venue won’t solve the attendance crisis, it will move the goalposts and the argument will be that a WNBA team had 5,000 people turn out in an 8,000-seat venue which means “nobody” wants to support the league. I do think attendance gripes about the WNBA come off as sexist, however unintentionally, purely because I don’t see equivalent hand wringing about Major League Baseball not having sell out crowds. Or the NHL. Or MLS. Calling peoplem out for not attending a sporting event is just going to encourage a defensive posture where excuses will be made for not attending rather than looking forward to what game or games are within reach. Money is tight these days, and not everyone can “just” pop over to a sporting event, regardless of what it is or where. Attendence itself is not the issue, but it is the prize. How can the WNBA (and everyone else) make the case that they represent the best value for our entertainment dollars?

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