Orender Sees Brighter WNBA Future
SEATTLE -- WNBA President Donna Orender is the eternal optimist about her league, which is clearly preferable to having Chicken Little running the show.
So it can't be much of a surprise that on Sunday, in her annual state-of-the-league speech one hour before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, Orender was all about the good news.
"In any way you want to measure it, we're a young, thriving business in very challenging times," Orender said.
Orender said that attendance is up for the fourth straight year -- the league reports a 1.4 percent increase in attendance over 2009 -- adding that "little-by-little we continue to grow our fan base."
She said that ESPN ratings and viewership are showing solid signs as well.
According to the league, the WNBA posted the second-highest regular-season viewership in its history on ESPN2 (258,000 viewers per game).
Regular-season viewership on ESPN2 is also up among men, an increase of 36 percent in the 18-to-24 demographic since 2007.
The league has struck new sponsorship deals with Jamba Juice, Electronic Arts and the Spanish bank BBVA, whose logo was on the uniforms of both the Storm and the Dream on Sunday.
"The Finals are not only a culmination of a great season of basketball, but a great season of doing great business," Orender said.
Orender also addressed a few topics of interest.
She said the league will start its season on June 4, 2011, which should allow players returning from their international commitments to have more rest before starting the WNBA season, something that has been a nagging issue for the league.
She was asked of the possibility of expanding rosters beyond the current 11. The roster limitations, which have been in place the last two seasons, have upgraded the quality of play in the league, without question. But it has also put pressure on teams with injured players who are unable to replace them on shortened rosters. In order to replace an injured player, you must release them to sign another. That left teams like Los Angeles and Minnesota in tough positions when standouts such as
Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins were injured and out for the season.
"There is nobody in our league who wouldn't support the fact that the last two years have been tremendously competitive," Orender said. "It's challenging, when you look and get into injuries, but we keep an eye on that and we are in constant contact with our teams."
Orender indicated it was unlikely that rosters would expand next season, but said the league will have a competition meeting in October and it will be discussed.
"I have to say, up until now, we don't think in any way that we've been compromised in that effort," Orender said.
On a related note, Orender addressed the issue of the league's salary structure. A new collective bargaining agreement is still three years away. But there is a feeling around the league that with a reduced salary cap this season, "middle-class" players are losing their spots on reduced rosters to younger, less-expensive talent.
"The league's position has been, we want to be able to create the best and most opportunities for the players," Orender said.
Orender also talked expansion and the possibility that the league could end up in the San Francisco area. The league worked to get a San Francisco ownership group together in time to take over the Sacramento Monarchs last fall, but were unable to work a deal.
Orender said that there is "quiet discussion" with potential Bay Area owners.
"I think we've made the decision to take it slow and let them kind of find their way," Orender said
New Golden State Warriors owner-to-be Joe Lacob is a big women's basketball supporter. He once operated the San Jose Lasers in the defunct American Basketball League and is a season-ticket holder for the Stanford women's program. Orender did not say whether she's spoken directly with Lacob yet.
"There is no doubt that Joe Lacob is known as a huge supporter of women's basketball," Orender said. "He appreciates the women's game and the men's game and to have somebody like that who is so knowledgeable and supportive, absolutely creates somebody who would be a positive force in that marketplace."