The Question No One Is Asking About the NBA Lockout

As this NBA lockout drags on longer and longer, it’s perfectly natural to panic. Don’t worry, it’s not just you. If the players and owners don’t come to an agreement sometime in the next month or so, we are in serious jeopardy of losing the season. Sure, this would mean an end to tons of basketball games that fans might enjoy live or in person. NBA players and owners would lose all the revenue from a season (millions of dollars per person). Stadium cleaning crews, concessioneers and merchandise vendors would be out of a job. Media that rely on sports content to drive traffic would see huge losses in audience numbers and ad money. But there’s an elephant in the room. There’s a question no one is asking that SpreeGoogs will be forced to tackle in a very specific brand of purely speculative blogging. If the NBA season is canceled, what will happen to the WNBA?

The WNBA might find out the hard way that the those five-figure salaries don't pay themselves.

Unfortunately, the WNBA, an ever-flowing fount of punchlines, may just be another metaphorical damsel tied to the tracks in the path of the NBA lockout train of destruction. It turns out the WNBA has been around for about 15 years and still isn’t turning a profit, despite offering textbook passing, high-flying shot arcs, impressive layups and at least 1.5 quarters each night of borderline watchable pseudo-basketball.

The women’s Association still survives on NBA subsidies, and a lack of NBA revenue means no big brother paying for the league to operate and picking up a huge share of the stadium overhead costs on top of that. Maybe no one talks about this devastating ramification of a missed NBA season because it’s too scary to consider. More likely, no one remembered the WNBA existed on the NBA payroll until now. No matter why people aren’t talking about it, the reality is the same: the WNBA can’t pay for itself and with no men’s league, no one will pay for professional women’s basketball.

I did a little bit of investigative journalism on the topic and found out that a few stories like this one talk about how the WNBA players aren’t worried about the NBA lockout affecting their league. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if you are worried about it or not, the WNBA still can’t pay for itself.

In all seriousness, the NBA lockout might be a blip in the history of men’s professional sports, but it could also be the end of professional women’s basketball. Turns out it’s hard to draw interest when there’s a much better alternative readily available playing in the same gym, in some cases. The WNBA is bound by league rules not to exceed $100,000 in salary for a player in a season. They often benefit from NBA teams in the same city shouldering most of the arena costs load. I’m guessing they pay for their own travel. But still, 12 teams should be able to cover costs over a 34-game season by now.

If each team were to pay a full roster of players, plus 3 coaches that maximum salary, that would still only cost $1.5M. With 17 home games, and I’m guessing an average ticket price around $15, those teams don’t even need to draw 6,000 fans per contest to cover salaries. I’m not sure what other costs are, but the revenues from ads (see the fronts of their jerseys) could probably take care of that. I just can’t see a universe where the most basic interest in the league would generate at least a financial draw.

What’s worse than losing the WNBA? Looking back at the league’s 15-year existence and trying to figure out what good came out of the experiment. If the WNBA folds — and it’s definitely still an if at this point — there’s going to be a retroactive gasp that we let it fail for this long and didn’t notice. Followed by a lack of surprise that no one noticed something about the WNBA.