Lisa Leslie had been waiting almost a year for the “next” game. But in the first game of the first Women’s NBA season, the league’s cover girl missed a dunk. The Los Angeles Sparks’ center missed a wide-open slam against the New York Liberty.
She wasn’t the only player suffering jitters and making mistakes.
After the first week of games, WNBA teams were averaging 65.1 points per game, shooting 38.6 percent from the field and 68.4 percent from the foul line, and turning the ball over 22.5 times a game. Two weeks ago, in a game between New York and Utah, the teams combined for a season-high 33 turnovers.
The 10-week WNBA season reached its midpoint Saturday with games drawing an average of 8,840 fans, according to the league. But even though scoring is up, turnovers are down and league officials believe that they have reached their target audience of families and youths, the WNBA is far from satisfied.
As the novelty wears off, the eight-team league knows it will need to work to keep interest up.
“This is going to be a process that there is going to be a time to build the league,” WNBA president Val Ackerman said. “We recognize that there is a curiosity factor. That was our job prior to the league (starting), to get people curious, interested and hoping they would like enough of what they saw to come back.
“We know that in order to be successful in the long term, we are going to have to win over new fans.”
The numbers that are up measure attendance. Western Conference-leading Phoenix is drawing a league-high 13,765, and Eastern Conference-leading New York is drawing 11,355. Utah, which is last in the Western Conference, is averaging 7,232, and Cleveland, which is third in the Eastern Conference, is drawing a league-low 7,101.
By contrast, the American Basketball League, the other professional women’s basketball league started since the 1996 Olympic Games, averaged 3,536 league-wide, and the New England Blizzard averaged the most fans at 5,008.
The WNBA has only four of the 12 players from the gold-medal-winning 1996 Olympic team, but the league created an identity through a crush of television commercials and has games carried on Lifetime, ESPN and NBC.
Through Sunday, some of the other league numbers have improved. Scoring improved to an average 74.4 points per game, shooting was at 43.9 percent from the field and 76.3 percent from the line. The turnovers average dipped to 17.4.
Ackerman expected that there would be an intrigue to her league, and to that end, the WNBA’s focus is still on building a fan base that will grow with the league.
“If you compare it to the NBA side, you’ve got teams that have been playing together for years… . You have to look at this more as an expansion team,” Ackerman said.
“From the very beginning, we have seen hard play, heart and tremendous intensity on the court. Now we’ve finally got basketball games here and they are terrific, and it’s not surprising what’s happened and I think the things that people have been attracted to is the heart and desire.”
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