Cathy Engelbert wants to focus on building local fan bases post-pandemic

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WNBA commissioner wants to build local fan bases post-pandemic originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON -- Once the coronavirus pandemic is over, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert wants to hit the ground running with the league's 12 teams with a focus on building up local fan bases and filling arenas every evening.  

Right now, exposure for the WNBA is continuously growing. As many professional sports leagues faced a down-tick in ratings throughout the pandemic, the WNBA has seen a ratings boost. Making more games accessible to its fans was a priority for Engelbert when she took over her role in 2019.

Over 50% of the WNBA's schedule (100 of 192 games) is on national television this season. That does not include games broadcast on Twitter, Amazon Prime, Facebook and other online platforms.

But in-person attendance remains a concern, as many sports have seen. This season, Washington is averaging 1,970 fans per game - under half of the Entertainment and Sports Arena's capacity. Early on in the year, there were capacity restrictions but those have been removed since June 17. Hesitation from the coronavirus is clearly a factor still, especially considering it is an indoor event.

The Mystics, though, have the second-smallest arena capacity in the league. Teams like Connecticut, Phoenix and Chicago are far outdrawing D.C. in terms of attendance numbers simply by having bigger arenas.

"What we really want to do is find ways to expand the fan base," Cathy Engelbert told a small group of reporters last week. "I think we're doing really good with corporate partnerships, media partnerships, but we need to do better with drawing fans, not just in-arena but fans broadly."

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Coming back from the Tokyo Olympics break, the first nationally televised game became the most viewed regular season contest since 2012. Earlier this season, ESPN announced its ratings were up 45% compared to 2019 and 74% compared to the coronavirus-affected 2020 season. 

The draw is there, but translating that interest into ticket sales has been an issue for many teams in the league throughout its history. This time Engelbert wants the WNBA to assist the local efforts of teams to fill up arenas.

She didn't lay out specifics. It's something that can't develop until they're in a post-COVID position, but it's not something Engelbert wants to wait on. 

"We all think we have a compelling product, or we know we do, but a lot of people don't know that there's a WNBA team in Washington D.C. or in Chicago or in Minnesota or Indiana," Engelbert said.

"We just have enormous opportunity to draw fans in and get them to come to games and work on that part of it."