SEATTLE — As the Storm have trampled through its opponents at KeyArena this summer, the crowd has, more than usual, made its presence known to its beloved team and whichever team has the misfortune of playing Seattle.
The fans cheer boisterously when Sue Bird drains a three; vehemently boo the refs when they don’t like a call on the floor; and thunderously chant ‘M-V-P’ whenever Breanna Stewart makes one of her spellbinding plays.
There’s always been a dedicated base of die-hard Storm fans who’ve stuck with the team through the ups of its two league titles and the downs of its six straight non-winning seasons. But even that core group isn’t large enough to fill up the lower bowl at the Key on a given night.
Over the last six weeks, however, that hasn’t been a problem for the Storm (26-8), who head into the WNBA playoffs as the No. 1 seed and with home-court advantage starting with Game 1 of the semifinals this Sunday. The Storm are averaging approximately 8,100 fans per game this season, the best number for the franchise since 2011, and could very well build on the franchise record it just set of five consecutive sellouts.
But what the Storm have experienced this season isn’t widespread throughout the league.
While the quality of play league-wide is the best it’s been in a while, and overall WNBA viewership is up, that hasn’t translated to increased attendance across the board.
“It’s a really empowered space,” Storm president and general manager Alisha Valavanis said. “I think it’s shifting. And I know the players feel it, we feel it as well in the front office, and I think the league feels the shift. So now we just have to double down on that take it to the next level.”
So, what’s the disconnect?
That’s the perplexing question.
The metrics seem to be trending in the right direction. The WNBA had its most-watched regular season since 2014 in combined viewership across ESPN networks and NBA TV (up 31 percent), and last month’s All-Star Game was the second-most watched since 2013, and the highest attended since 2007. Sales on WNBAStore.com so far this season saw the largest year-over-year increase since 2012. WNBA League Pass subscriptions are up nearly 40 percent.
Yet, average attendance across the league fell to approximately 6,770 fans per game, a 12 percent drop from last year. Seattle, Phoenix and Dallas were the only three franchises that saw attendance increase this year compared to last year. And this year’s roughly 1.37 million in attendance is still a far cry from the estimated two million per season the WNBA drew in the early 2000s, when the league was just getting started and interest was at an all-time high.
The Storm’s growth in crowd size comes after years of an attendance downturn. Bird and Valavanis attribute that to the team’s poor performance in recent years: After winning the franchise’s second title in 2010 and a 21-13 regular season in 2011, the team went 86-118 over the next five seasons.
But as Valavanis notes, while on-court success is certainly important in influencing fan interest, the Storm have also tried to come up with creative ways to draw fans to the arena.
“Winning matters but winning off the court is something that we’re really intentional about,” Valavanis said. “Whether there’s wins or losses on the court, we’re working with our community partners and doing some really cool programming … We are exposing the Seattle market to the Seattle Storm, and it’s been successful over the last four years.”
For instance, the Storm partner with the King and Pierce County Library Systems, providing game tickets to children to motivate them to read over the summer.
Maureen Kyin from Bothell brought her two young daughters to Sunday’s Storm-Wings game after receiving tickets through the program, the second year in a row she’s done so.
“It’s more of a fun, family gathering,” said Kyin, who added that she generally doesn’t follow the team all too closely. “It’s a good opportunity to show them (her kids) different things, in terms of having two girls and (women) being empowered.”
Anthony Dellino from Shoreline also took advantage of the partnership to bring his five boys to the game.
The Storm have also launched marketing and outreach efforts to reach a wider demographic of people.
“We have a really strong fan base that has been with us from the beginning,” Valavanis said. “(But) how do we continue to grow, deliver for those fans but also continue reaching out to families, continue reaching out to fans in their 20s who are just sports fans that want to come out to a game.”
Going forward, Valavanis says the Storm and the league should seek to expand their reach on the national level, specifically through increased media coverage.
“I think we are ready for ESPN, for the local markets, for the national markets, to actually back professional women’s sports and women’s sports in general,” Valavanis said. “What does that look like? Yes, coverage on the front page, comprehensive spreads leading up to playoffs, games on ESPN. I think we’re ready for that and that’s what we need to hit the next iteration of visibility and awareness for the next fan.”
To get that sort of national exposure, of course, franchises and the league itself know they’ll have to continue to appeal to new fans, and to convince people to give the women’s game a chance.
“Getting them to walk through the door and come into the arena and view the product in person — that’s a powerful thing,” Storm head coach Dan Hughes said.
It’s a different product than what the NBA offers, but it has its own appeal, players say.
“People have to be willing to watch the WNBA,” Stewart said. “It’s not the same as the NBA. We don’t do the same things. We don’t 360 windmill. But we play the game better. Our fundamentals are better than theirs and that’s what needs to be realized. It’s hard to compare the two sports. It’s the same game with an orange ball, but the way we play is different.”
Bird, who’s played for Seattle since the franchise drafted her in 2002, is optimistic that things are shifting in a promising direction.
“We’re trending upwards,” Bird said. “It’s in the numbers, it’s in the viewership, we need to get more people in the arenas, that’s for sure, that’s definitely a work in progress. But as long as your product is good, and it’s based off something that’s growing, I think those numbers can only continue to go up. And right now, the product on the court for every team throughout the league is great.”
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