Mateo’s Hoop Diary: The WNBA showed significant growth despite serious obstacles

The WNBA is in its infancy at age 27 but on the rise. Twenty-seven years after the merger of the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League in 1949, the NBA was not the billion-dollar empire it is today. In fact, in 1978, its TV deal with CBS was worth four years, $74 million. The current deal the W has with ESPN is valued at $33 million, expiring in 2025. The arrangement with Scripps to air Friday games on ION is for $39 million, also ending in 2025.

This year, the WNBA had 25 national broadcasts, the same number as the last campaign, but its viewership increased by 18% in those games, and its regular season was the most-watched since 2006. The Playoffs’ average audience was 470,000 people, making it the most-viewed in 16 years, and the Finals hit its highest spectator marks since 2003. The championship round featured two super teams- the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty, featuring three different MVP award winners, a Women’s Eurocup Finals MVP and seven current All-Stars.

Potentially, with growing fan support, expansion and the evolution of women’s basketball, the W will rival its counterpart someday. But, the league and its partners have hindered its growth despite the success of 2023.

I was assured by those in charge of WNBA coverage at ESPN that scheduling is coordinated with the league. During the championship round, Games 1 & 3 were set on the same afternoon as Sunday Kickoff for the National Football League. On a fixed conference call with reporters before the Finals began, director of communications Ron Howard intervened when Jon Lewis of Sports Media Watch asked about competing with the NFL.

Howard blamed ESPN for the decision while its reps were on the call, too. I texted him, as was his request, that his explanation was not good and contradicted what ESPN said. I followed up and was ignored.

Could the WNBA have done something about sharing the spotlight with the most popular sports league in the country? Well, Major League Baseball quit trying to compete with the NFL on Sundays for the 2022 World Series. It makes one wonder, what could the W have done without engaging in self-sabotage? As many as 1.3 million peeps tuned in for Game 4 when it wasn’t competing with pro football.

On July 14, the league held its 3-Point Contest and Skills Challenge. Sabrina Ionescu won the shooting crown in a historical display of accuracy. Despite the afternoon’s events having a 46% higher audience than 2022, many people missed it while at work or leaving. Howard ignored questions about the festivities starting at 4 p.m. ET.

The All-Star game was played the next night, at a suitable time of 8:30 p.m. ET, and had an average audience of 850,000.

Basketball lovers are interested in the WNBA. It’s up to the league and its partners to care as much as they do.

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