How the Minnesota Lynx Went from Also-Rans to Outperforming the WNBA
With a tinge of sadness, Gary Cohen and Margaret Macneale strolled into Target Center on a sunny afternoon last August for Minnesota Lynx fan appreciation day. At their seats about 12 rows behind the Lynx bench, the Cohens—season-ticket holders since 2007—found T-shirts honoring Lindsay Whalen, the iconic Lynx star who had announced her retirement six days earlier.
The Lynx won, as they usually do, and afterward, at a memorable postgame ceremony, Whalen interspersed thank-yous with wisecracks. Attendance, announced as 13,013, seemed too close to Whalen’s No. 13 to be believable. But thousands of occupied seats in the upper deck, which the team rarely opens for regular-season games, suggested the figure might be close.
The return of University of Minnesota alum Whalen to Minnesota in 2010, in a trade from the Connecticut Sun, helped elevate the Lynx from afterthoughts in the Twin Cities sports landscape to the metro area’s winningest pro franchise.
Owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Timberwolves, lost money for a solid decade before the Lynx rose to the top of the WNBA, winning four championships between 2011 and 2017. Lynx and Timberwolves CEO Ethan Casson confirmed the Lynx have been profitable since they started winning, including last year, the first since 2010 without a home playoff game.
Whalen has long called Minneapolis a “bandwagon town,” one whose fans will support a winner regardless of sport or gender. Enter the Lynx. Last season the team drew 170,620 for 17 home games, or about 10,036 per game, down slightly from its record 2017 attendance but still second-best in the league behind the Los Angeles Sparks (10,642). That’s extraordinary for a women’s team whose season coincides with the Twin Cities’ cherished, fleeting summer, when residents decamp for lake country for 72 hours each week.
And the crowd for Whalen, though sizeable for basketball, fell short of the two best of the Lynx championship era—19,423 for Game 5 of the 2016 WNBA Finals and 18,933 for Game 5 of the finals the year before; that’s what the NBA’s Timberwolves draw on their best nights. Even in their most optimistic moments, the Cohens never anticipated crowds that large for women’s basketball.
“It was beyond belief,” Gary Cohen says. “You look around and go, ‘My gosh. This is quite the ride.’ ”
How did the Lynx get there? The championships and six finals appearances in seven years helped. So did geography. More than 40 years into the Title IX era, the Lynx showed that the right WNBA team in the right market at the right time can turn a modest profit, if its owner is willing to persevere.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve built here,” says Carley Knox, the club’s vice president of business operations. “We’re in a good spot.”
Lynx Revenue Ball
55% ticket sales
35% corporate partnerships
7,622 per game (avg) in 2010
10,540 per game (avg) in 2017
The Team that Wins
The WNBA begins its 23rd season this May as the oldest women’s pro league in the United States. The league debuted in 1997 with eight teams and the powerful financial backing of the NBA; the Lynx joined two years later as an expansion team. Because the NBA owned and operated all the franchises at first, the WNBA survived, while its competition, the American Basketball League, folded in 1998.
Yet the ride hasn’t been smooth. The league expanded to 16 teams in 2000, but two years later the NBA sold off franchises to local owners—some who already owned NBA franchises, some not. Several teams moved or folded as the league shrunk to its current 12-team configuration by 2010. The Houston Comets, winners of the league’s first four championships, disbanded in 2008. Only four of the original eight franchises remain.
The Lynx muddled along, posting only two winning seasons between 1999 and 2009 while finishing near the bottom of the league in attendance. Then, in 2010, general manager Roger Griffith made three significant additions—trading for Whalen, acquiring rugged rebounder Rebekkah Brunson in a franchise dispersal draft from Sacramento, and hiring a brash Detroit Shock assistant named Cheryl Reeve as head coach.
Success was not immediate. A last-place finish gave the Lynx the first pick in the college draft, which they used to select Maya Moore, the consensus national college player of the year from Connecticut. The addition of Moore to a nucleus of Whalen, Brunson, and Seimone Augustus, an overall No. 1 choice herself in 2006, took the franchise to its first WNBA title in 2011.
Three more championships followed in odd-numbered years—2013, 2015, and 2017—while attendance topped 9,000 per game, proving Whalen’s point. Game 5 of the 2017 league finals, against the rival Los Angeles Sparks at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena, even attracted scalpers, a milestone for many Lynx followers.
“I’m used to seeing people giving away tickets to women’s sporting events,” says Mary Jo Kane, director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport and a Lynx season-ticket holder from the beginning.
“When I moved here in 1989, I was told early and often there was great support here and interest in women’s sports. That has proven to be the case over and over again.”
Details about WNBA finances are notoriously hard to come by, especially now, with the players voting to opt out of their collective bargaining agreement after the 2019 season. League officials claim the WNBA lost $12 million last season, largely due to a 13 percent drop in attendance. But the Lynx are one of the league’s success stories, hitting on a formula for financial success that goes beyond winning.
Lynx veteran center and former league MVP Sylvia Fowles looks for an easy layup. (Photo courtesy of NBAE via Getty Images)
Metrics of Success
The WNBA’s $25 million television contract with ESPN provides significant revenue for each team. But ticket sales remain the primary economic driver.
Locally, Casson says, the Lynx draw about 55 percent of revenue from ticket sales, 35 percent from corporate partnerships, 5 percent from concessions and merchandise sales, and 5 percent from other sources. The latter includes the President’s Circle—fans who pay from $5,500 to $55,000 for special activities and player access—plus a modest local television deal with Fox Sports North. The President’s Circle had 38 members last year.
Lynx former chief operating officer Conrad Smith, who died in 2013, told Minnesota Public Radio in 2011 the Lynx were profitable “the first couple of years,” then lost money when attendance fell off. The Lynx bottom line (not unlike some NHL and NBA teams) depends on deep playoff runs; the more home playoff games, the better chance of breaking even. Reaching the league finals six times in seven years—and the Western Conference finals the only year they didn’t—put the Lynx on solid footing.
“As the team found tremendous success, winning a championship every other year, we saw a significant turnaround on the business side,” says Casson, a Lynx and Timberwolves junior executive from 1999 to 2010 before returning as CEO in 2016. “We were profitable. Over the last five-plus years, we’ve seen a low double-digit level of growth from a profitability standpoint.”
David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University who has written extensively about the league for Forbes and other publications, guesses the Lynx generate $6 million to $7 million a year in revenue, slightly more than the WNBA average. That’s based mostly on average ticket prices and their share of the ESPN contract. Berri believes successful WNBA franchises generate at best a $1 million annual profit, with the unsuccessful losing no more than one million dollars. The modest scale of the league and its expenditures, he says, makes it easier for teams to avoid exposure to substantial losses.
The 2019 WNBA salary cap is just under $1 million, pocket change compared to the NBA’s $101.9 million cap. Veterans’ annual salaries max out at $117,500. Teams fly commercial instead of charter, with younger players doubling up on hotel rooms. And the Lynx save on front office costs by sharing marketing and sales staffs with the Timberwolves.
When the Lynx spent $1 million in 2017 on temporary air conditioning for Williams Arena, its home for the postseason, Taylor guessed that might exhaust the team’s profit for the season—a strong hint at its margins. Berri credited Taylor for his willingness to lose money in the lean years.
“It takes an ownership that’s committed, and an ownership that understands you have to keep putting money into this,” Berri says. “When a league is starting out, the unsuccessful teams have the hardest time. The Lynx have done a really good job in building a roster that’s competitive, and that makes a huge difference.”
Though Lynx officials declined to reveal season ticket totals, a club spokesman said the Lynx led the league in full subscriptions the last four seasons and partial subscriptions the last three. That contributed to a significant bump in overall attendance, from an average of 7,622 per game in 2010 to a club record of 10,540 in 2017, when Target Center renovations forced the Lynx to play the regular season at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. A down year in 2018—the Lynx finished 18–16, their worst record since 2010—likely contributed to the slight attendance drop.
In their first decade or so, the Lynx drew mostly families and women. Knox said Moore’s arrival attracted young men used to watching her on television at UConn. According to club data, since 2015 the ratio of women to men—which had been running 3-to-1 women—is closer to 1-to-1. And the average age is trending about 10 years younger. Team officials attribute that to advances for the tech-savvy: Digital tickets, a Lynx mobile app, and more digital ways to watch games. “We’re definitely pulling in a different fan base than a lot of the other teams in town.”
The change registered with Reeve several years ago after a game, when she went at Hubert’s, the sports bar in the Target Center. Reeve often spars on social media with younger men who put down the WNBA—“SportsCenter bros,” she calls them—and she noticed two nearby whom she thought fit the profile. To her surprise, they recognized her and came over to talk. Not only had they gone to the game, but one wore an Augustus No. 33 Lynx jersey, which Reeve initially hadn’t noticed.
And I had this moment where I said, ‘We’re getting somewhere. We’re getting beyond that base.’ To be successful businesswise, you need more than just your little niche market.”
—Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve
“And I had this moment where I said, ‘We’re getting somewhere. We’re getting beyond that base,’ ” Reeve recalls. “To be successful businesswise, you need more than just your little niche market.”
With success came increases in ticket prices. The Cohens say they paid $280 for their season tickets in 2007; they renewed for 2019 at $731. Kate Wulf and Marianne Christians, season-ticket holders since the inaugural season, renewed at $1,428 each, more than double the $659 they paid in 2003. “Tickets are still a bargain at more than twice the price,” Wulf says.
Casson believes the players inspire that loyalty. Besides clinics, camps, and personal appearances—standard for professional athletes—players support causes that endear them to fans. It resonates when Maya Moore speaks out on criminal justice reform or Seimone Augustus backs a foundation that distributes free school supplies to kids.
In 2016, when Lynx players addressed the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and five Dallas police officers by calling for dialogue, healing, and compassion—the day they wore black T-shirts for warmups that read, in part, “Change Starts With Us”—Knox says the team lost only one or two season-ticket accounts.
“I was the one who got to field all the [phone] calls,” she says. “I don’t believe there were very many season-ticket members that made those calls. I’m not even sure there were very many people from Minnesota that made those calls. Generally speaking, our fan base was very supportive. It started a conversation that needed to be had. It was about bringing people together, and in no way divisive.”
The Lynx started winning at an opportune time, when the Twin Cities were starved for a champion, in a market where the success of other women’s teams paved the way: Whalen’s 2004 Gophers, who reached the NCAA Final Four, Minnesota’s seven-time NCAA champion women’s hockey team, and nationally ranked Gopher volleyball. The U’s Kane believes two generations benefitting from Title IX produced an audience eager to support the Lynx.
“You have a very strong fan base that grew up very comfortable with the idea of women playing sports and being successful,” Kane says. “You have an economic base where people can afford the tickets. You have fabulous facilities that people enjoy and take a great deal of pride in.
You have to give credit to Glen Taylor. A lot of other NBA owners, or [WNBA] owners, would and did walk away from their WNBA franchises. … You’d be hard-pressed to go to a Lynx game and not see him sitting right down there [near] the bench. That is a very powerful statement … that one of the wealthiest men in the state of Minnesota and one of the great patrons of men’s sports also cares deeply about women’s sports.”
—Mary Jo Kane, director, University of Minnesota Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport
“And from a business standpoint, you have to give credit to Glen Taylor. A lot of other NBA owners, or [WNBA] owners, would and did walk away from their WNBA franchises. Glen Taylor has not only supported the Lynx, but you’d be hard-pressed to go to a Lynx game and not see him sitting right down there [near] the bench. That is a very powerful statement, both symbolically and tangibly, that one of the wealthiest men in the state of Minnesota and one of the great patrons of men’s sports also cares deeply about women’s sports.”
The real test, though, remains. Whalen is gone, the roster is aging, and the run of titles ended last year with a first-round playoff loss. Former league MVPs Moore and Sylvia Fowles provide star power, but the Lynx need to retool, and Reeve, in her second year as general manager, will be under pressure to turn it around fast. Will fans keep coming if the Whalen-less Lynx struggle?
“Without Whalen, we would not have done anything,” Reeve says. “It was Whalen, coupled with winning. I heard so many times, people saying, Whalen introduced them to the WNBA … I’m not naive to think that we won’t lose some [fans] that were only Lindsay Whalen fans.”
So far, Casson says, season-ticket renewal is high, and new sales are on pace to match last year. He is optimistic: “Our fans are anxious to see what this Minnesota Lynx team [looks] like.”
Pat Borzi writes about sports for a variety of local and national titles.