The Indiana Fever have reversed a fouryear attendance slide at a time when most WNBA teams are sliding backward.
The team, owned by Pacers Sports & Entertainment, has seen average per-game attendance grow from 7,589 last year to 7,926 this year. With the Fever in the playoff hunt in second place in the Eastern Conference and several promotions planned, team officials expect average attendance to climb higher the second half of the season.
"The lifeblood of the WNBA is ticket sales, so these numbers are very important to us," said Kelly Krauskopf, Fever chief operating officer. "We're off to a solid start this year, and the goal is to keep pushing things in a positive direction."
While the ticket sales gains are small, the increase is welcome news to a franchise that has seen attendance drop every year since the 11,267 average of its 2000 inaugural season. Meanwhile, eight of the other 12 WNBA franchises have seen attendance decline this year.
Krauskopf credited the success to an offseason sales campaign, which started weeks earlier than in years past. She added that PS&E put a renewed emphasis on the effort, which helped full-season ticket sales increase this year 30 percent.
The Fever also launched a new Girls of Summer advertising campaign, including television, billboard and direct-mail pieces, and launched several game-day promotions that bolstered attendance, Krauskopf said.
With little TV revenue, and sponsorship income hovering around $800,000 per team, ticket revenue is more important for the WNBA than for most other majorleague sports.
The higher attendance, along with a fan base distinctly different from other pro sports, helped the Fever increase sponsorship sales 8 percent this year, Krauskopf said. Key additions are Community Health Network, which joined as the team's presenting sponsor, McDonald's and Procter & Gamble's Swiffer brand.
"Our fan base is active females ages 35 to 45 and a lot of mothers and daughters," Krauskopf said. "These are active women decision-makers with a lot of purchasing power."
The WNBA's fan base is 77 percent women; the NBA's is 75 percent men.
"We've realized that our unique audience is a selling point," Krauskopf said. "It's the most unique audience in sports today."
But David Carter, principal of Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles-based sports consultancy, said the Fever and WNBA must broaden that base to assure survival.
"The question now is, can they really grow the sport?" Carter said.
Krauskopf, too, acknowledges the Fever must do a better job reaching male fans.
"Right now, I think we've carved out a niche for ourselves," Krauskopf said. "Now, to grow the business we have to grow beyond that niche."
Carter said key to survival will be "to manage expectations."
"They can't get caught up in comparisons to the NBA or other more established leagues," Carter said. "As long as they're comfortable with a modest growth strategy and sell that strategy to sponsors, they'll be fine."
The Fever have modest fixed costs, thanks to the league's salary cap of $673,000 and the team's use of its parent company's venue.
"We run a very lean operation and have learned to do more with less," Krauskopf said. "We realize that's the way it has to be going forward to assure the team's growth."
While Fever attendance is up about 300 fans per game this season, the leaguewide average continues to slide-from about 9,350 in 2002 to almost 8,000 this year.
For the league to realize consistent growth, it needs to create a "year-round buzz," said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and a noted sports economist.
"Overall, this league may need a fresh approach," he said.