Maintaining their momentum

By The Associated Press
Updated: August 12, 2010

NEW YORK — Attendance is up slightly in the WNBA for the fourth straight year and ratings have improved again — positive signs as the league’s 14th season heads into the final stretch.

“What you’re seeing is the base of interest in the WNBA continuing to grow,” WNBA president Donna Orender told The Associated Press. “That was the goal we set out several years ago.”

After seeing the average attendance rise to 8,039 per game a year ago, the WNBA reported an increase of 1 percent through last week compared to a corresponding point last season.

Also, ratings on ESPN2 were up 14 percent with an increase in viewership of 23 percent through the first 14 broadcasts of the season.

Last year, the WNBA regular season on ESPN finished with an average of 269,000 viewers, up eight percent from 2008 — marking the second straight year of improvement.

“We know we have a tremendously entertaining product,” Orender said. “The quality of the athletes is fantastic, the quality of the entertainment experience. We just know if we get people in front of it, they’re going to love it. That’s what we’re starting to see happening.”

Throw in the league’s new marketing deals this season with Coca-Cola, Pirate’s Booty and Jamba Juice, and that four teams now have marquee sponsorship deals that include logo’s on team jerseys — Phoenix (Lifelock), Los Angeles (Farmer’s Insurance), Seattle (Bing) and New York (Foxwoods) — and Orender likes what she’s seeing.

“Clearly there are positive partnership validation messages everywhere you turn,” she said.

Orender was also thrilled to see President Barack Obama attended a game in Washington recently with his daughter Sasha, who was wearing a Mystics jersey.

“Put that on the list,” Orender said. “The first sitting President of the United States at one of our games. Fantastic. With his daughter, who happens to play basketball.”

Her message for doomsayers who have continued to predict the league’s demise since it began in 1997?

“There was no basis for that (before), there’s certainly no basis for it now,” Orender said. “We focus on continuing to grow this business, continuing to add value to our partnerships, to provide the great product that we have for our fans.”

Orender said several teams were “moving toward break-even and profitability,” without giving a specific breakdown of how many of the league’s franchises were or weren’t at that point.

After losing three teams — Charlotte, Houston and Sacramento — in the last four years, and having another sold and moved — the Shock, from Detroit to Tulsa — Orender said she was confident the 12 current teams would be back next year.

The regular season ends on Aug. 22, with the conference semifinals beginning three days later. The WNBA finals are scheduled to start Sept. 12.