September 1, 2023
Strategic growth opportunities for the WNBA are plentiful
What do WNBA players think about the league's business potential?
WASHINGTON — As Entertainment & Sports Arena workers took down red Washington Mystics signs from the railings, dismantled thick black cable cords and unhooked courtside computers from the scorers’ table, Minnesota Lynx rookie forward Diamond Miller sat peacefully with a smile on her face, holding an infant.
A baby in the league holding a baby.
Despite tying her career-high with 25 points in a setback to the Mystics on Aug. 29, Miller is one of the WNBA’s many shining lights. The second overall pick is one of the new caretakers of the league, a role Miller enthusiastically embraces.
Despite a swirl of activity before, during, and after the Mystics game, Miller politely posed for photos, signed autographs, hugged her former University of Maryland teammates who attended the game and completed postgame media interview obligations.
Miller understands the best way to continue to enhance the game is to engage with fans and be an ambassador of the league. Miller’s teammate Tiffany Mitchell has seen support swell during her seven years in the WNBA.
“Visibility is key, and the more eyes on us, the more support we’ll have from fans and media outlets that want to cover the W,” Mitchell said. “Our fans are great in Minnesota. Anywhere you go on the road, their fan base wants to support their home team, so it’s great that people are coming out to the games and supporting us no matter what city we’re in. We’re getting a lot of fan support for the W this year.”
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Three nights earlier, fan support was evident as a swag-surfing crowd rocking from side to side stuffed itself into ESA last Saturday to witness the Washington Mystics beat the defending WNBA champs, the Las Vegas Aces.
Many of the ingredients for a memorable evening were already in place. The Aces entered the league’s best record and had come to town early for a celebration at the White House. Washington’s Elena Delle Donne returned after missing a few games. An overflow media contingent covering the contest necessitated the Mystics public relations staff having to seat reporters on the second level.
While the Mystics’ pristine performance had the sold-out crowd of 4,200 excited, the entertainment of the Black Greek organizations are better known as the “Divine Nine” during the annual evening celebrating Historically Black Colleges and Universities also sent shockwaves of energy shuddering through the five-year-old facility.
“To feel the crowd’s energy was great,” Mystics forward Shakira Austin said. “It’s an amazing feeling you don’t take for granted. The growth that our sport has been going through in the past couple of years alone is exciting. Seeing the outcomes of the work done by those who came before us is great.
“I can’t walk the streets of D.C. without somebody recognizing me or asking questions, which brings even more fans in. It’s exciting to know that I am part of the league’s growth.”
The enthusiasm and passion of the crowd pulsated through television sets from coast to coast thanks to the Aces-Mystics game being televised nationally by NBA TV. In its 27th season, the WNBA is enjoying record viewership thanks to multiple television deals.
Before this season, the WNBA added ION as another broadcast partner, creating appointment viewing with Thursday nights on Amazon Prime Video, the WNBA Friday Night Spotlight on ION, and weekend packages on the ESPN networks (ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC), CBS Sports Network and even the main CBS channel, too.
Every WNBA team is in the homestretch of a record-high 40-game regular-season schedule. The more games have been a win for fans. They have enjoyed the increased opportunities to see the best players compete at the highest level.
“That’s a key piece for the growth of the league and the growth of individuals,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said. “The WNBA is growing, people know about it, and people are tuning in. That’s the first piece. Once we get somebody normally to tune in, they love the product. There’s a high level of play, and the games are entertaining.
“We’re going to continue to grow it. There are great players in this league, and I know [the fans] will return once we get somebody to a game or watch it on TV.”
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The record numbers aren’t just happening with in-person attendance, but with viewership from home, too. The league was averaging over 550,000 viewers per national television game (ABC, CBS, ESPN, ESPN2) at the All-Star break — the highest average viewership in over 20 years — and has set various network-specific records over the year, too.
Those networks are beginning to adapt to add more coverage, too. Throughout this season, ESPN has aired a 30-minute pregame show called WNBA Countdown, with at least ten editions immediately preceding game broadcasts. It even extended the show to a full hour ahead of Brittney Griner‘s first home game in Phoenix.
The 2023 WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game between the Aces and Liberty attracted the largest audience for a WNBA game ever for Prime Video, nearly doubling the viewership of last year’s Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game.
“You can feel it when you come to games,” Lynx forward Bridget Carleton said. “There’s more fans in general at many different arenas, and every franchise is growing. When we are accessible to watch on TV, the fan base grows, and we feel that on social media and when we come to games. It’s good for our league and us.
“I think in the future, our deal with ESPN is up soon, so we are renegotiating with them, and we’re on a nice deal with them now, but hopefully, we can get some more money with that in the next couple of years would be a massive step in terms of the financial side.”
More proof of the WNBA’s popularity was that this season’s All-Star Game in Las Vegas was the most viewed in 16 years. It was held in primetime and aired on ABC, contributing to 850,000 viewers tuning in, up 16 percent from 2022.
This is further evidence that fans will flock to women’s sports once the strategic investment and respect is in place.
The WNBA is in a special place thanks to the tireless work behind the scenes to provide maximum exposure opportunities. Longtime Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve has a perspective on where the league was. She appreciates the growth and is excited about where the WNBA is going.
“In 2014, when we had a TV rights deal presented to us, I remember how it kind of solidified our place of maybe not worrying about the league not being here because that defined our ability to be stable at that time,” Reeve said. “I wish the leaders had more foresight on what media coverage would do as we increase media coverage and access to the league. Signing a 10-year deal was shortsighted. Yes, it gave you stability, but put some markers in place when we achieve things ratings-wise, we earn more. We’re the biggest bargain in sports in what we are getting paid in TV rights deals.
“Yes, it was great when you were beat up as women like we were at that time, and there was concern about the league being here, and there was cause for concern. We are primed to understand our value and leverage our worth because what’s next will be massive for women’s sports and the WNBA, and we can’t sell ourselves short. We’ve got to partner with people who will move us forward and not hold us back, whoever that is, and continue to have a forward-thinking mindset that is the growth stock that is the WNBA.”
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The WNBA continues to invest in its marketing as it started its Changemakers in 2020.
WNBA Changemakers are a collective of purpose-driven companies that harness their power to elevate women in sports and support the league’s mission around advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. CarMax joined a growing lineup of WNBA Changemakers at the start of this season that already included AT&T, Deloitte, Google, Nike, and U.S. Bank. The WNBA also signed partnerships with Mielle and Discount Tire.
“I’ve always said that if you could see her, you could be her,” Aces center A’ja Wilson said. “Who is telling our stories and how they are being shared is big. It needs to come from us, and it needs to be broadcast on a wider scale. I think we are doing that with the platforms we have now. We always know what LeBron eats for breakfast or when he ties his shoes, and that’s cool. That’s the stuff that people want to know. I think it’s just digging deeper than the basketball player you see in the WNBA. Dip into the foundation, the mother, sister, everyone in between, the wife. Those things are key, which pulls people in because it gets the heartstrings and makes people relatable, and that’s so key.”
Another critical component has been the authenticity of the league players. They are genuine and engaging, especially Aces guard Sydney Colson, who laughed when it was suggested that one of the most uttered phrases to her was, “Somebody take Sydney’s phone.” She admitted she’d heard that a few times.
Colson’s face lit up when discussing her social media presence, one of the best in the league for her commentary, which includes comedic content and good-natured ribbing of teammates.
For example, after Wilson tied the WNBA single-game scoring record with 53 points in Las Vegas’ 112-100 win over Atlanta, Colson tweeted later, “53 is cool, but 54 would’ve been better.” The video of Wilson and Colson having fun on the bench went viral. It showcased the fun side of each player.
“I am who God created me to be,” Colson said. “I don’t change who I am; there’s freedom in that. I take pride in who I am always. I’ve been grateful for my time in the league. We want more people watching and spending money to support the league, realizing we’re not just athletes. Many of us do things off the court and have other interests they are pursuing. Players can have endorsements and be associated with brands that benefit both parties.”
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Women’s sports are exploding.
Earlier this week, an NCAA volleyball match between Nebraska and Omaha played at Memorial Stadium, the Huskers’ football facility, drew 92,003 fans, setting a new world record for the most people to attend a women’s sporting event.
Last season’s NCAA women’s basketball championship game between Iowa and LSU aired on ABC for the first time. It drew 9.9 million viewers, making it the most-watched women’s NCAA basketball game ever — across all networks. Viewership increased 103% from last year and peaked at 12.6 million.
“I mean, you look at women’s college basketball, we are seeing the visibility grow by leaps and bounds, not to mention the sport’s popularity,” Washington guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. “It’s a great feeling, and while we know that there’s so much more we can do, I love the trajectory of where we are going as a league.”
Yet, while the viewership numbers, attendance, and the league’s popularity are trending positively, there’s also work to be done to continue to raise the bar.
Walker-Kimbrough mentioned more that can be done, such as expanding rosters and expansion, though she acknowledged the challenging logistics of adding franchises to the WNBA.
Added Wilson: “Do we do a great job (of telling stories)? Sure. Can we do a better job? Yes. So, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to tell those stories and broadcasting them on a larger scale. We are a nosy generation, and everybody wants to know your business. If someone wants to know it, tell it. I am grateful 100 percent for where we are now, but we must keep going. This is just the baseline.”
The new collective bargaining agreement should be attractive once it’s negotiated. It’s become evident that women’s sports are unique and deserve a higher financial share. No longer are women’s sports content to be happy with just being on television and getting whatever money somebody provides. They can and should be able to earn their market value, which is much more than what they receive.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that we’re going to continue to grow as a league, and we’ve come a long way since I started,” Plum said. “However, with the new CBA in 2025, I know we’re going to have an even bigger TV contract and more visibility opportunities.”
Written by Rob Knox
Rob Knox is an award-winning professional. A member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame, Knox currently serves as the Senior Director of Strategic Communications for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by SI.com, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.