August 23, 2022
Inside the record-setting WNBA audience in 2022
The WNBA had the most-watched season and the most-watched game since 2008
What happens when WNBA games are made available across Disney networks? Established fans and newcomers alike tune into the riveting action on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. This 2022 WNBA season has seen its share of off-court obstacles, injuries and plot twists. Yet, even with all the changes, regular-season viewership continued to increase this season, which is a testament to the ever-growing audience surrounding the WNBA.
All eyes on the W
Every season since 2020, there has been greater availability of games to watch thanks to new partnerships with Amazon Prime and Google and an increase in the number of games on mainstream networks such as ABC and ESPN. During the 2022 regular season, compared to 2021, there was a 19% increase in viewership on Disney networks, to an average of 372,000 viewers. It was the league’s most-viewed regular season in 14 years.
A tweet by HighlightHER’s Arielle Chambers from August 2021 still resonates today amid the latest viewership numbers. Such record-breaking numbers are encouraging for the W community. Moreover, they prove the oft-made point that, when made readily available, people are ready to watch women’s basketball.
Embracing the digital era
WNBA League Pass, Amazon Prime, CBS Sports Network, Facebook and Twitter have created a plethora of ways to get more games to the public. Yet, with a condensed schedule and an increase in games aired on ESPN and ABC, fans have easier access to some of the summer’s basketball.
Since February, when the WNBA’s $75 million capital raise was announced, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has given insight into the plans for that lump sum. She remarked on embracing the digital market, outlining potential plans to create culturally relevant documentaries on teams and individual players, increase the availability of merchandise and add optical tracking. So what have we seen in the digital market?
The WNBA League Pass app gained a 10% increase in subscriptions and just in time for the playoffs, on Aug. 8, the app was made available on Roku devices. Merchandise sales were up by 50% during the 2022 All-Star Weekend in Chicago compared to the 2018 All-Star Weekend in Minneapolis, which was previously the high-water mark. Videos on the WNBA’s official social media accounts received 186 million views, an increase of 36% from 2021.
One cannot watch a game without hearing commentators mention Google searches related to players or teams. After an exciting play by a highly marketable player, a small box sometimes displays what WNBA searches are currently trending on Google. This offers real-time analytics and continues the push for web traffic.
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The farewell tours
It was an uplifting sight to watch Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird and Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles receive their flowers as their final WNBA seasons progressed. From the recliner chair that Fowles received as a gift from Chicago to an intimate moment between Bird and Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright (who is also Bird’s former Seattle teammate) in Atlanta, fans in attendance and at home have been privy to many last-ride moments. Fowles became the first player to eclipse 4,000 rebounds in Sunday’s game against the Connecticut Sun and that game averaged 682,000 viewers and peaked at 822,000 viewers.
Another Sunday matchup shattered viewership numbers. The game between the Las Vegas Aces and the Seattle Storm on Aug. 14, televised on ABC, got the highest viewership numbers of any WNBA game since May 2008. It peaked with 1.1 million viewers and averaged 852,000. That game had many storylines, including the MVP race between Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson and Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and Bird’s last regular-season game in a Storm jersey.
Beyond audience views, records have also been set on the court this season. Remember when Sabrina Ionescu was the first player in NCAA history with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists? This year, she created another column for herself as the only WNBA player with a 500-200-200 season. In addition, the regular season saw seven triple-doubles from four players: Ionescu, Minnesota’s Moriah Jefferson, Chicago’s Candace Parker and Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas. And, in an era where players’ size does not predicate position, teams averaged a record 7.7 made 3-pointers per game, helping them to average 82.3 points per game.
Embracing a new era
The attention that two of the greatest players in WNBA history have received played a significant part in the attention this 36-game season has received. Fortunately, the next generation has arrived and is ready to fill their shoes. Both players have praised the latest class of rookies and players such as Wilson and Stewart, who are dominating early in their careers.
This season’s spike in viewership numbers parallels what is happening in other sports, with Major League Soccer (MLS) being a particularly close comparison. In its 2021 season, MLS averaged 276,000 viewers. In 2020, it averaged 233,000 viewers. The juxtaposition of the two leagues goes beyond the views: The first MLS game was played on April 6, 1996. The first WNBA game was played on June 21, 1997. Two leagues that have grown in the same era are experiencing an increase in viewership and expansion of their communities. The attraction is present, the fans are pouring in and more games are being televised on Disney networks.
Again, where these games are easily accessible and highly advertised, the fans will follow. There are communities of fans investing time and money and a new generation of viewers is joining an ever-growing community for women’s sports. For the WNBA, with up to 27 games of postseason action, the conclusion of this season could continue to set records.