WNBA experiences more growth

NEW YORK -- WNBA attendance rose again this year and TV viewership is at its highest level since 2005 as the league's 15th season heads into the final stretch.

There's also good news on the business front with the recent announcement of a league-wide marquee deal with Boost Mobile that includes placement of the company's logo on the jerseys of most teams.

The WNBA reported attendance has increased by about 2 percent through last week compared to a corresponding point last season, marking the fifth straight year of improvement.

Also, ESPN said this week that the network's 12 regular-season broadcasts drew an average of 270,000 viewers -- an increase of 5 percent from last year and the highest figure since 2005. It's also the third straight year those numbers have gone up.

"All of our key metrics are pointing in the right direction," WNBA president Laurel Richie told The Associated Press. "The viewership is terrific. ... I think it is a result of how the game is being played, our coverage is improving and our viewership as a result is improving."

Last year's average attendance was slightly above 7,800, though the WNBA didn't count Tulsa -- which had relocated from Detroit after the 2009 season. Including the Shock would have brought that number up to nearly 8,100. This year's figures include comparisons to Tulsa's attendance last year.

The growth this season is being driven by big increases in Chicago (30.5 percent), Washington (14.5) and Minnesota (13.3), and the WNBA said six other teams also reported rising numbers. The improvement has occurred while the New York Liberty, who averaged a league-leading 11,069 at Madison Square Garden last year, have seen a 31 percent decrease in their first of three seasons at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., while the Garden undergoes renovations during the summers.

The WNBA didn't release terms of the Boost deal, but the Sports Business Journal reported its total value was in eight figures, helping solidify the league's future at a time critics have speculated the NBA's labor strife could hurt the women's league.

"My strategy with the naysayers or those who question us is to do the work in front of us and share the good news that we've got and sort of let that speak for itself," Richie said. "Boost coming on board with a relationship of this depth, breadth, and magnitude is absolutely a wonderful validation of what many of us on the inside know about the WNBA."

Phoenix and San Antonio are exempt from having the Boost logo on their jerseys because of their own mobile phone deals -- the Mercury with Verizon, and the Silver Stars with AT&T.

The league has several other new partnerships this season, including deals with American Express, InterContinental Hotels and Growums.

Richie said Boost will be the only league-wide sponsor to have a logo on jerseys, though five teams now have their own individual deals as Washington (Inova Health Systems) joined Phoenix (LifeLock), Los Angeles (Farmer's Insurance), Seattle (Bing) and New York (Foxwoods) this year. That's helped to increase team sponsorship revenue 12.9 percent this year, according to the WNBA.

"We're seeing on a team level many of the same kinds of strides and achievements that we're seeing on the league level," Richie said. "We have nine out of 12 teams that are up currently over 2010 in terms of gate. ... Each team is doing things that are unique to its team and to its market and to its current business plan, but we're seeing growth across the league and that is exciting and encouraging."

After losing three teams in the previous five years and seeing the Shock sold and moved before last season, the league returned 12 teams this year and Richie emphatically believes they will all be back next year.

As for the ongoing NBA lockout, Richie -- who took over shortly before the WNBA season started -- isn't worried about how it will affect her league.

"We're really focused on the 'W' and because so many of our metrics on a league level and team level are heading in the right direction, we're feeling really good about this season and where we'll end up at the end of the season," she said. "We wish (the NBA) well as they continue those discussions ... But what we're really focused on is growing our franchise and growing our business."

The regular season ends on Sept. 11, with the conference semifinals beginning four days later. The WNBA Finals are scheduled to start Oct. 2.