Pro basketball: Rookie stars help WNBA cash in
NEW YORK -- Midway through their first WNBA season, Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins are already leaving their mark.
And not only on the court. They are helping the league boost viewership, attendance and merchandise sales.
“I think we’ve seen that they’ve had an impact on the game and the league,” WNBA President Laurel Richie said.
Television household ratings have doubled on ESPN2 as compared with last season. The three rookies were all featured in a Memorial Day doubleheader to start the season, and the game pitting Griner against Delle Donne drew the league’s highest regular-season ratings in nine years.
“A lot of people are tuning in and watching our games and coming to our games,” Griner said. “When I go into a sports bar some of the people I wouldn’t think would watch women’s basketball are there watching. ... There’s definitely more awareness.”
That awareness is carrying over to stores. There’s been a huge upswing in sales of merchandise this season, with Chicago, Phoenix and Tulsa leading the way. The Shock are No. 1 in the league in sales at the WNBA online store in no small part due to former South Bend Washington and Notre Dame star Diggins, despite not being able to buy her signature headbands there.
To no surprise, the three rookies are the league’s top selling jerseys, with Griner No. 1. The 6-foot-8 Phoenix Mercury star was used to seeing fans wear her No. 42 — in honor of Jackie Robinson — in college at Baylor. But, in keeping with NCAA rules, her name wasn’t on them. Now that she’s a pro, she looks in the stands and sees young girls wearing jerseys with her name on the back.
“That’s humbling,” Griner said. “Just to know I have so many fans out there buying my jersey means a lot. It means I’m doing something right.”
Despite not being able to play recently because of a sprained left knee, Griner is still making the rounds. She was at the ESPYs, winning for best college player, and appeared on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show.
“The Conan show was sweet. I loved that,” Griner said. “He was very funny and he’s really tall, too.”
While Griner hasn’t been able to help the Mercury much on the court lately, Delle Donne has been instrumental in guiding the Chicago Sky to first place in the Eastern Conference. She scored in double figures in her first 15 games and is trying to lead the Sky to their first playoff appearance since the franchise began in 2006. The Delaware star is averaging 18.6 points and shooting nearly 95 percent from the foul line.
She was honored as June’s rookie of the month and the Eastern Conference player of the week twice this season.
“One of my goals has always been to bring as much positive attention to the WNBA and the Chicago Sky as I can,” Delle Donne said. “The fact that a lot of people out there are wearing Chicago jerseys makes me very happy!”
More important to her, the team is winning. Chicago has just two fewer victories than all of last season, and fans are taking notice. The Sky are averaging nearly 2,000 more fans this season and are on pace for their best season at the gate. Many of those fans, as well as those on the road, are wearing Delle Donne’s jersey.
Griner and Delle Donne were voted last week to start in the All-Star game Saturday. The 6-foot-5 Delle Donne was the leading vote getter, the first time a rookie has done that.
“I definitely feel good that the WNBA is in great hands and where the league is headed,” said Sheryl Swoopes, one of the original stars of the league. “It does great things for the league to have Skylar, Elena and Brittney. They all bring something different to the game.”