NEW YORK — Sometimes bigger isn’t necessarily better, the WNBA is learning as far as arena sizes go.
There has been a move over the past few years to downsize venues that will save franchises money and provide a more intimate experience for the fans.
Next season, only four of the 12 teams will be playing in current NBA arenas — Los Angeles, Minnesota, Phoenix and Indiana. When the league first started 22 years ago all the franchises were in NBA venues.
“We started in NBA buildings because they were available,” WNBA President Lisa Borders told the AP in an interview. “NBA owners, with the infrastructure they had, it was easy to drop a team in.”
Now WNBA teams are scaling back where they play. It seems that the perfect-sized venue for the WNBA as far as economics and fan experience is roughly an 8,000-seat arena such as the Mohegan Sun where Connecticut plays.
“What I want to do is get the product in the right-sized buildings,” Borders said.
Borders said the league has hired an innovation and brand design consulting firm to come up with a wide-ranging five-year strategic plan and that everything is on the table, including looking at venues and venue size.
“We want to get it right,” she added.
The biggest move this offseason was in New York with the Liberty going from Madison Square Garden to the Westchester County Center. Washington is moving into a new building next year that will have a capacity of just 4,200.
The change of venue for New York saves millions of dollars in operating costs for the Liberty because the Garden costs nearly 20 times as much to play in. The Liberty will lose some revenue from sponsorships associated with playing at the Garden. The new arena is much smaller than the Garden, with maximum seating at nearly 4,500. The team configured the arena to seat 2,319 fans, a size that will be used for the immediate future.
While New York can’t even fill up the smaller arena, drawing around 1,700 fans on average at Westchester this season, it’s financially working out better. The Liberty are covering the cost of opening the arena with ticket revenue. Something that rarely happened at MSG.
The Liberty averaged 9,889 fans last season, the fourth highest of the league’s 12 teams. New York said that number was a combination of paid tickets and complimentary ones and that the paid attendance was fewer than 5,000 fans.
Teams around the league, as well as in other sports, tend to announce attendance as tickets out as opposed to actually fans in the building.
“Anytime you have a transition or a reset it will change your numbers,” Borders said of the expected attendance drop the league will see this year. “You will not be able to compare apples to apples. This season will have an asterisk beside it. That’s OK, it’s called an explanation in accounting. I’m OK with that.”
New York’s move to a smaller venue wasn’t popular with fans, players or opposing coaches. The location isn’t ideal for longtime fans who would either have to drive or take a commuter train to reach the new arena.
At the WCC, players have to climb a few flights of stairs to reach their locker rooms. The visiting teams are in a small locker room that feels more like one found in a high school as opposed to the pros.
“I’m not even going to comment on the facilities.” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said at the Liberty’s home opener. “It’s beyond everyone’s control. It’s like everything that women do. We’re resilient. Regardless of what we think of it, we’re going to do what we always do.”
Former Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer was more succinct about New York’s new facility.
“The back of the house is terrible,” Las Vegas’ coach said of the locker rooms, coaches area and other parts of the arena.
The Aces, who moved to Nevada from San Antonio this past winter, are playing in the Mandalay Bay Events Center, which is configured for just under 8,000 fans. Las Vegas has the option to play at one of MGMs bigger arenas if they’d like.
“They asked for that opportunity and privilege when we did the deal,” Borders said. “They are the only folks that have three venues.”
Washington is downsizing to give itself a better home-court feel to it as well as save money. The Mystics new home won’t be met with as much skepticism since it will be in a brand new building that will also house the Washington Wizards practice facility as well as the franchise’s G-league team.
“We need a home-court advantage,” Mystics coach and GM Mike Thibault said in a phone interview. “We want to feel that the crowd is with us every night. Our current arena is a great place to play in, but it’s 20,000 seats. It doesn’t feel like we have a home-court advantage.”