Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Future of the WNBA

Many WNBA fans fall between two extremes. The first group of fans believes that everything is just swell, the other group believes the sky is falling. It's hard to predict the WNBA's future because predicting the future depends on what set of assumptions you care to hold.

I read from a political blog that futurists - those whose business it is to predict oncoming trends - create multiple scenarios based on a given situation. The first case considered is the most likely case. Then, the best case is considered, a case where "everything goes right". The outlier cases are considered next - these are low probability events that could spark high-level, disruptive changes. Finally, the worst case scenario is considered, where all negative trends come into play.

The futurist is therefore prepared for each of the outcomes, depending on which direction the winds of time blow. I decided to do each of the above with the WNBA:

(* * *)

The most likely case: This case automatically assumes that all current trends will continue. By "current trends" I would mean everything that has happened up to 2008. The most likely case for the WNBA would mean that it continues its eventual struggle towards franchise stability, the same as every other league during its history. There might be a franchise that collapses, but there will probably be some franchise additions. The most likely case is that at some point in the future, the WNBA stabilizes with somewhere between 12 to 16 familiar and stable teams. (I do not see the collapse of the Comets as a strong sign of a negative trend. If two franchises had gone under, it would be another story.)

The best case: There will be no more franchise suspensions or relocations. The WNBA has at least 14 teams, and maybe more teams than that. Revenue begins to climb across all franchises. The hostile press moves out of its "anger" phase and into its "bargaining" and "despair" phases. The WNBA gets routine coverage from its home newspapers, with one regular, non-intern beat writer per city. The WNBA can be seen routinely on ABC or ESPN during its regular season. Players begin to get real media name recognition, which might lead to salary creep.

High impact but low probability:

* A European league goes into direct competition with the WNBA. Suppose the Russians start a summer league?
* Another pro league starts up in the United States, drawing players away from the WNBA.
* The players decide to strike.

The worst case: The depression hits hard. The NBA, faced with preserving its own franchises or the WNBA, puts its money into its weaker franchises and drops its alliance with the WNBA, leaving it on its own. Some of the WNBA owners prove to be undercapitalized and their franchises fall into insolvency. Corporate sponsorship drops to a trickle.

The WNBA drops down to 10 teams or fewer, and enters a period of instability as long as the economic downturn lasts. The very worst case is that the ABC and ESPN drop their contracts with the WNBA, limiting the WNBA's visibility to NBA TV and local sports networks. This sparks a cascade effect that sends the entire league into insolvency, as one benchmark of a "successful" league is "do they have a TV contract with a major network?"

(* * *)

So where do I sit? The crucial lynchpin is in the TV contracts - as long as they exist, the WNBA is a viable league. Generally, a league isn't considered respectable if it can't get on TV. I don't see those contracts disappearing as long as the NBA can lend its influence.

One thing to look for is in the top leadership of the WNBA "jumping ship". If Donna Orender unexpectedly resigns, that's not a good sign. You'd expect the captain of the ship to know the most about the condition of the waters. Another sign is the number of foreign players in the WNBA. If foreign players see the WNBA as a stable and successful league, their numbers should increase even if the WNBA drops roster spaces. If, on the other hand, they see the WNBA as a league in trouble, they become more likely to stay home.

Just remember: there is always a worst case (to quote a fellow blogger). "Movements (and franchises) that endure are the ones who are always mindful of just how close or far away they are from ending up there."

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