The WNBA is competing for TV viewers during one of the busiest times on the sports calendar and the league is holding its own with no plans to turn back the clock.
Through two WNBA Finals games, the series between the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty is the most watched in 20 years.
The finals opened on an NFL Sunday and the Aces 99-82 victory over the Liberty was the most-viewed Game 1 since ESPN started broadcasting the series in 1998. Game 2 on Wednesday night — a 104-76 win by Las Vegas — was played with the MLB postseason in full swing.
“I think whatever timeframe you’re operating in, there’s going to be competition. It’s about continuing to try to grow your product,” said ESPN NBA analyst Doris Burke, who called WNBA games during its early years. “I don’t think there’s any doubt you can see the evolution of the players and the coaching in the WNBA. And I expect that trajectory to continue.”
The numbers are trending in the WNBA’s favor.
Viewership for the two games is up 13% over last year’s finals between the Aces and Connecticut Sun. Game 1 on ABC averaged 729,000 viewers and the average was 626,000 for Game 2 on ESPN. The two-game average of 680,000 is a bump the league hopes continues.
This will be the latest finish to a WNBA season in a non-Olympic year. Playing later into the fall is not a new trend for the league. It’s the 13th time in the WNBA’s 27-year history a finals series has either started or stretched into October. When the league was launched in 1997 the schedule ended in August — before the deluge of viewing options for sports fans.
An expanded regular season and playoffs have pushed the end of the WNBA season into head-to-head competition with the NFL, baseball playoffs and the start of the NHL and NBA preseason.
When the WNBA debuted in 1997 with eight teams, its season was completed before Labor Day. The league continues to operate in a condensed time frame. The WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement states the earliest the season can start is April 1 and that it must end by Oct. 31. But not factoring in the pandemic seasons of 2020 and 2021, the league has gone from a 34-game regular season from 2003 to 2019, to 36 in 2022 to 40 this year.
Beginning last year, the playoffs also expanded to best-of-three in the first round and best-of-five in the semifinals and finals. The altering of the playoff format was one of the primary objectives of the WNBA Players Association during its last round of CBA negotiations.
The change created some tradeoffs for the league.
More games and arena availability also means sometimes the playoffs doesn’t get top billing. ESPN2 ended up carrying a playoff doubleheader on a Friday night because ESPN had college football. Still, according to the WNBA, regular-season games on ESPN and CBS averaged 505,000 viewers, an 8% increase over last year. The Sunday afternoon games on ABC averaged 627,000, its most since 2012.
Going into the finals, though, playoff viewership was averaging 400,000, an 8% decline over last year. However, Game 2 of the semifinal series between the Connecticut Sun and New York Liberty on Sept. 26, a Tuesday night, averaged 563,000 on ESPN, the largest audience for a non-finals playoff game on cable since 2001.
When asked during her annual news conference before the start of the finals why the long periods between playoff series, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert cited the number of regular-season games as one factor.
“It’s just the nature of the broadcast windows and how that played out this year and how long the series went,” Engelbert said. “We also played 40 games this year, so I think some of the rest actually should come in handy.”
John Kosner, who runs his own digital and sports consulting company, says that even though the playoffs and finals are taking place during a busy time on the sports calendar, there are more people watching television during the fall, which brings opportunities to get a sampling from a broader audience.
“The reality of the WNBA season is that the league has to make trade-offs. The fact is no time of the year is clear, and running from spring until now makes the most sense for first-rate arenas,” he said.
It helps to have the star-power of this year’s finals. League MVP Breanna Stewart and sharp-shooting Sabrina Ionescu headline a New York team in the finals for the first time since 2002; the Aces under coach Becky Hammon and led by last year’s league MVP A’ja Wilson are trying to become repeat champions for the first time since Los Angeles in 2001 and ’02.
“When you have a marquee matchup, like the Las Vegas Aces and now New York, that’s what the old days used to be. That’s what we were getting back to,” Aces President Nikki Fargas said before Wednesday’s Game 2. “And I think the fan base is understanding that not only are we going to follow you and support you in person, if I can’t be there, then I’m gonna support you and watch you.”
The league also has tried to make better use of the popularity of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament as a springboard to the start of its season. That includes the draft, which takes place in mid-April and generally less than two weeks after March Madness is over.
The promotion is expected to intensify during next year’s tournament with Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, LSU’s Angel Reese and Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers on the horizon as well as next year’s Olympics. And that women’s college basketball audience has traditionally followed those players into the WNBA.
The ratings bump will surely be a topic of discussion during upcoming TV contract negotiations.
The WNBA’s television contract expires in 2025. ESPN/ABC has the entire postseason and the All-Star Game while Scripps, Amazon and CBS have some regular-season and Commissioner’s Cup games.
The league will receive $33 million from ESPN/ABC for the final season in 2025, but it could see significant growth beyond that. A new media rights deal with additional partners would increase revenue. Multiple carriers for the postseason could even make the playoff schedule more compact.
“I’ll go back to the NBA at a point in history in which they were on tape delay,” Burke said. “It takes some time to grow the fandom and get these players to be front and center in the minds of the nation’s sports fans. But it feels to me like A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart and Chelsea Gray are becoming more known to the casual sports fan.”
AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg and AP contributor W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed to this story.
AP WNBA: https://apnews.com/hub/wnba-basketball