Friday, November 20, 2009

Just A Slob Like One Of Us

Today comes word that the Sacramento Monarchs are "folding" because their owners the Maloofs wish to focus on their other business interests (read: those Lebanese boys are tired of seeing parentheses on their P&L statement), and the WNBA will apparently attempt to re-locate the team to the Bay Area. I do not fully understand the precise contracts and transactions required for this step; will the WNBA buy the team from the Maloofs for $1 and then "sell" the team to some new private owner, contingent on moving the team to San Fran? In any case, coupled with the recent announcement that the three-time WNBA champion Detroit Shock will move to Tulsa, this is dismaying news for the 12-year-old league.

Bad businesses usually suffer the worst in a bad economy, so the above should be no surprise. The average NBA team payroll is about $72 million, while the maximum allowed WNBA team payroll is $0.8 million. You read that right! Needless to say, fan demand for women's pro basketball in North America is orders of magnitude less momentous than demand for men's hoops. (But Bhel, you might plead. I though utility has no cardinal value... Perhaps rich corporate hotshots are bidding up NBA tickets... Sure, but the raw attendance numbers in the WNBA are about 8,000 per game, compared to about 17,000 per game for the men.)

Critics of the WNBA like to observe that the quality of play is poor compared to men's basketball. That may be true, though the women do pass the ball and space themselves on the floor well. What's more, a significant bite of the NBA's zest comes from its players' phenomenal swag: the insolent dunk, the brave shot in traffic, the rakishly fancy dribble to flee a defender. These men are aggressive, combative, and dominant. Men do not often respond positively to women displaying these behaviors. I, Bhel, have been known to covet the gals who show a bit of fire. However, a woman baller who literally gets in the face of a saucy foe is well, a bit of a turnoff. Dare I admit that while watching women in an athletic context, I might subtly be aware of their sexual appeal? Well, I just did. And I generally think of myself as a moderate feminist! (e.g., In contradistinction to most of my male friends, I think a woman's changing her name upon marriage to be a dumb idea.) So the very nature of basketball as a game makes it difficult for women to gain a following.

Anyway, why does the NBA continue to subsidize the WNBA's losses, on the order of about $10 million per year? A few possibilities:
1) Commissioner Stern and his fellow owners (the "Old Boys") genuinely believe that women deserve a legitimate professional basketball league that they can aspire to watch or participate in.
2) The Old Boys believe that maintaining the WNBA as a going concern is good publicity for their main business interest the NBA, just as Goldman Sachs recently decided that giving out half a billion dollars to small businesses is good PR for the firm's battered image.
3) The Old Boys believe that maintaining the WNBA is a good pre-emptive means of complying with existing or future gender rights legislation, and/or indirectly helping US universities (the NBA's farm system) comply with Title IX.
4) The Old Boys believe that nurturing female fans — future mothers — who might not otherwise follow hoops is a good way to grow the NBA's fan base, and worth the investment. (Similarly, a lot of pundits remain puzzled as to why the NHL insists on maintaining the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes franchise down in the desert and denying a third party's attempts to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario, where fans would lap up the hockey goodness. Apparently the league executives believe that fostering a love of hockey among the children of McCain voters is worth the short-term losses.)

What do you think?


EarlDaGoat said...

BA: some very interesting facts in this post.

I don't have any better explanations than the ones you propose, but at this stage I think the NBA might call it quits with the WNBA. At present, the market for professional women's basketball simply does not seem to be there.

H.O.S.S. said...

I agree with the Goat.

I think the NBA envisioned some untapped segment of the market when it founded the WNBA. And there is something appealing about the WNBA game: tickets are cheaper and there is a greater emphasis on fundamentals. If I were trying to teach my kid the proper way to ball basketball (i.e., coming to the ball, setting hard screens, don't leave your feet when making a pass, etc.) I would take them to a WNBA the same time, if I wanted entertainment, I would go to the NBA game.

Bhel Atlantic said...

I've actually never been to a WNBA game. But I think affordably-priced tickets in the lower bowl close to courtside would be fun. (I suppose ball of equal quality could be had if I went to attend a DePaul men's game here in Chicago. Guess I'm just lazy.)

In any case: If this were a high school debate, my opponent would raise a "topicality" objection: in other words, this is not a big deal worth worrying about. $12 million subsidy per year split among 30 NBA owners is $400K, which is one-third the annual salary of a Malik Allen. Figure the team corporate entities are LLCs and profits get taxed at the owner's personal income rate, which may near 40% including state taxes ... so the owners aren't losing all that much compared to the potential ROI.

EarlDaGoat said...

Does BA know anything about the television contract the WNBA gets and how this is counted against profits?

For instance, during the All-Star break there is heavy WNBA subsidization with the skillz drill. Is some of this TV revenue given back to the WNBA?

Bhel Atlantic said...

You think NBA All-Star Weekend ratings get juiced because of Dan Majerle and Tangela Smith?