Darren Learns About the WNBA

This weekend we were in Seattle. I watched a little American TV in the hotel room, and caught some of ESPN’s Sports Center. Among the other highlights, I saw footage from Women’s National Basketball Association or WNBA.

While I like hockey and soccer, I’m not much of a basketball fan. I could name a half-dozen current NBA players, but couldn’t tell you who the top five teams are. I know even less–well, nothing–about the WNBA. I don’t think that’s a gender bias–I watch women’s international soccer, for example. It’s more just a symptom of the leagues’ relative visibility.

Watching the WNBA highlights, I started wondering about a bunch of things: how many teams are there? How much do the players get paid? Is the league on solid financial footing? Who are the league’s superstars? Does the WNBA have a television contract?

Join me then, on my little tour of discovery regarding the WNBA. Most of this information comes from the WNBA’s website and Wikipedia entry.

When did the league start?

The first game was 12 years ago, on June 21, 1997. The Los Angeles Sparks beat the New York Liberty, 67-57. It wasn’t the first women’s basketball league. That distinction belongs to the short-lived WBL. The league launched with eight teams. The Eastern conference had the Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets and New York Liberty while the Western Conference was comprised of the Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs and Utah Starzz. The ‘Starzz’ may be the worst team name in the history of sports.

How many teams are there today?

Thirteen. Eight teams have folded or moved over the years, including four of the originals: Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston and Utah (cursed, no doubt, by their awful name). New teams have emerged, and there’s the possibility of future teams in Tulsa, Toronto, Baltimore and Nashville.

How many players are on a roster?

Eleven, and all are active. This means, I gather, that they can all play in a given game. The NBA has a 12-man active roster, and teams can keep three players on the inactive list.

How much do players earn in the WNBA?

The 2009 salary cap is $803,000. If you divide it evenly among the thirteen players–though it’s probably weighted toward four to six starters–you get about $60,000 a year. The average rookie salary is reportedly $36,500, and the maximum salary is $95,000. That’s obviously minor-league money, and reasonably similar to what the average CFL player makes (though the quarterbacks and other star players make a lot more). That said, the season only runs from training camps in May to the finals in late September. Apparently a lot of women spend the winter playing in Europe.

How many people attend an average game?

Average attendance is about 8000 people a game, with the Los Angeles Sparks and the (ahem) Washington Mystics being the most well-attended franchises. I couldn’t find any really reliable information about fan demographics, but this page reports that the audience is 78% female. According to this site (which features the phrase “I call on all my Sapphic sisters”) and USA Today, gay women are, statistically, over-represented. This Flickr search seems to reinforce the fact of a predominantly female audience.

Who is the WNBA’s star player?

It looks like that’s probably Tina Thompson, who’s the second all-time leading scorer behind Lisa Leslie, who just retired. Apparently an alliterative name is important to WNBA success.

This might be the first in an infrequent series of “Darren learns about” stuff. What do you think?


  1. This is all stuff I didn’t know until now. I call on all my Sapphic sisters.

    I liked the commentary; this was like wikipedia except more entertaining.

  2. I like it, but you should use “comprise” (or “compose”) correctly. (Editorial pedant mode activated. Sorry.)

    Think of “comprise” as a rough synonym to “embrace” (that’s essentially what it means). So, you wrote:

    “…the Western Conference was comprised of…”

    It should be either:

    “…the Western Conference comprised…”


    “…the Western Conference was composed of…”

    “Was comprised of” is just as incorrect as “was embraced of,” which sounds weird, and is how I keep the comprise/compose difference straight in my head.

    Okay, I’ll shut up now.

    1. Interesting, I’ll take note. I think it’s quite a common misuse of the term, isn’t it?

  3. I learned a lot – I just assumed that because they were playing in huge arenas, huge pay cheques would follow.

    I wonder what the most any player is paid, because basketball is one of those sports where 1 star can make a huge difference in a team’s performance (vs. say, the NFL)

  4. The economics of professional sports mystifies me. I don’t understand where the New York Yankees, Formula 1 racing, or some football teams get enough money to pay tens of millions of dollars to multiple players each year, while the CFL or the WNBA pay smaller salaries than a lot of relatively mundane jobs.

    And yes, Darren, misuse of “comprise” is a common stylistic error in English, so it especially bugs editors. Not as much as “its/it’s” confusion, though.

    1. This is a pat answer, but it’s simply supply and demand. That’s why the top NHL hockey player gets $8 million a year and the top NBA player makes $23 million. Bigger market = more dollars.

  5. I’m in favour of a “Darren Learns About…” series. I always appreciate the chance to “change up my brain”, by introducing it to a topic outside my go-to areas of interest.

  6. Thank you for this detailed post on how the WNBA has developed and become recognized by fans and advertising agencies alike. Thirteen teams is a good number in order to allow for competitions.

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