WNBA Ion Friday Night Spotlight intro Screengrab via Ion

Everywhere you look, women’s sports are surging. The growth and demand is directly intertwined with visibility and accessibility. Showcasing games on network television is not only a smart investment, it’s part of an evolution of women’s sports programming that will continue to grow and expand throughout the next decade. 

Scripps Sports is ahead of the curve. 

The media company has announced it is adding a pregame studio show to its StateFarm WNBA Friday Night Spotlight on ION programming, which launched in Spring 2023 and is part of a multi-year partnership with the WNBA.

“Scripps Sports was established to help leagues and teams extend their reach and connect with audiences through new distribution channels,” said Brian Lawlor, president of Scripps Sports, in the original press release. “Women’s sports merits a national broadcast network that ensures every American TV household can watch these amazing athletes and their gripping game play.”

ION has incredible reach. In December 2023, it was ranked as the ninth most-watched network in the country. WNBA Friday Night Spotlight on Ion featured double-headers over a period of 15 weeks from May to September. It was the first time any sporting event, men’s or women’s, was aired on ION. And it did incredibly well.  In November 2023, ION announced its WNBA broadcasts had reached a total of 12.3 million viewers.

“When we partnered with Scripps Sports for the 2023 season, we were hoping their reach would drive WNBA viewership to higher heights, and Scripps overwhelmingly delivered,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. “New fans found us. Faithful fans embraced the appointment viewing. This success is only going to grow in the future.”

The WNBA was just the beginning. Last November, the NWSL announced a landmark media partnership and distribution agreement with a handful of networks, including Scripps Sports.

ION pledged to air 50 of 118 matches on national television platforms during the 2024 NWSL season — the most of any partner in the agreement. The network has also included the first-ever weekly original pregame studio show dedicated to the NWSL on Saturday nights. Each show features video vignettes of an NWSL player (or players) before every double-header match in ION. 

“The feature is a prelude to the game,” says Nicole Denne, Senior Director of Content at Scripps Sports and Executive Producer at ION (WNBA and NWSL).  “As you watch and connect through storytelling, you’ll have a vested interest in watching that particular player on the pitch or the court. Fans have their own dreams and challenges, and these themes are relatable in every day lives.”

WNBA on Ion executive producer Nicole Denne
Via Scripps Sports.

This kind of appointment viewing and commitment to studio show content is key. Fans can add it to their regular sports-viewing routine and schedule. Same time, same channel, every weekend. More importantly, the stories have been rich, informative, impactful and endearing. Previous features have included Savy King, who first met her soccer idol, Caprice Dydasco, when she was 10 years old. Almost a decade later, they are now teammates on Bay FC. North Carolina Courage’s Victoria Pickett lost her brother Dylan to mental illness. She now uses her platform to spread awareness and compassion on mental health. Carson Pickett, a player for Racing Louisville, recently united with Jo Jo Tidd five years after a photo of the two of them at an Orlando Pride game went viral. Both Pickett and Tidd have a disability. 

Denne believes this kind of pregame women’s sports content has hit its mark.

“I think the best way to measure success is through social media and how many people are sharing, and we do get those numbers and it’s growing, which is encouraging,” she says. “As much as we can get those stories out there on social, that’s where we’re going to find success. That’s where we’re really going to be exposed. And it also brings them in to want to watch the game or learn more about the [featured athlete].”

By adding a similar pregame studio show to supplement its WNBA Friday Night Spotlight, Scripps Sports hopes to establish a wider and growing audience within the WNBA community. The show will include 30-minute highlights from the week’s previous game, spotlight upcoming matchups and feature in-depth stories from around the league. Halftime analysis will also be a part of regular programming. 

“The approach that we’ve taken with the NWSL is the same approach we’re taking with the WNBA,” says Denne. “The stories that we’ve told, there are no reporters or correspondents. It’s in the words of the players. It’s their story, by them. Not someone going to get a particular story.” Everyone has a different background. Everyone is unique. Everyone is diverse. Let them tell their story.”

Storytelling has long been the Achilles’ heel of the WNBA. Throughout the league’s nearly 30 years of existence, it has struggled to market and showcase its diverse portfolio of players in a way that connects and resonates, particularly with new and casual fans.

“Storytelling is the component that will amplify, expand and galvanize us to an unprecedented level of relevance and sustainability during this inflection point of our game,” says Seattle Storm assistant coach, Pokey Chatman. “The skill level, sacrifice and investment from [WNBA] players is unmatched. Telling their stories will connect the world to them at a level they  deserve.”

While Caitlin Clark may be the big draw for newer fans of the WNBA, there’s about 143 other players to get to know. Each one has dreams, goals, challenges, diverse backgrounds, unique upbringings, memorable interactions and more to share. 

“There’s a lot of attention on Clark. And I think it’s important to tell the stories of the people who made it possible for [new] players to be here,” says Denne. “That’s how we connect the fans. They’re jumping in because of Clark, but they get to learn about all these other players. Things that they’ve done, things that they’ve been through, what it was like when they were first in the league.. I think it’s a perfect opportunity.”

The first WNBA pregame show will debut on Friday, May 17th at 7 p.m. (ET). This season, ION is scheduled to  air 43 WNBA regular-season games — the most of any broadcast partner.

About Lyndsey D'Arcangelo

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a seasoned sports writer, author and women’s sports advocate. She previously wrote about women’s basketball for The Athletic and is the co-author of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.