Sports Business 101: What is the WNBA?

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Sports Business 101: What is the WNBA?
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The WNBA is a professional women’s basketball league, run by the NBA and most located with current NBA teams. It currently features 13 teams, but may be ready to expand to 14 teams for the 2010 season.

Since this league has been around for more than 12 years, ownership of WNBA franchises is starting to trickle outside of the NBA team owners with whom they share markets.

While the WNBA was not the first professional women’s basketball league, it does hold a few key milestones. It was the first Women’s league to sign a collective bargaining agreement between its club owners.

It was also the first Women’s sports league to play more than 10 consecutive seasons. It is also the only professional women's league to have a multi-million dollar TV broadcasting deal.

The NBA decided to launch the WNBA in 1996. Originally the NBA owned and operated not only the WNBA but all of its teams as well.

The league thought it had an ideal marketing tool, as the USA Women’s team had just finished up its Gold Medal run in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. However, the league debuted to little fanfare.

The WNBA played its first season with eight teams:

• Charlotte Sting
• Cleveland Rockers
• Houston Comets
• Los Angeles Sparks
• New York Liberty
• Phoenix Mercury
• Sacramento Monarchs
• Utah Starzz

The fact that three of these teams ultimately failed (Sting, Rockers, and Comets), and another (Starzz) were relocated to San Antonio, it was obvious to all that the WNBA business model needed to be adjusted.

While the new league failed to lure in large crowds, or gather much reaction from the mainstream sports press, the NBA decided to add two teams to the league following the 1997 season. These teams were the Detroit Shock and the Washington Mystics.

Over the next two seasons, the WNBA grew to 16 teams after two teams were added following the 1999 season; the Minnesota Lynx and the Orlando Miracle. In 2000, four teams were added to the league; the Indiana Fever, Seattle Storm, Miami Sol, and Portland Fire.

By 2002, the WNBA had became a small but viable league and the NBA decided to end its central ownership of the league and all of its teams. After the 2002 season, the WNBA tried to sell off all 16 franchises.

These teams were either sold to NBA owners in the same market or to interested third -party owners.

The teams that shared an NBA owner and facility came to be known as sister teams and were deemed crucial to WNBA success since these NBA owners had stadiums for the teams to play in and were able to pay payroll and market the league.

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