Oct 11, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) dribbles past Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young (0) in the first half during game two of the 2023 WNBA Finals at Michelob Ultra Arena. Mandatory Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

The ratings, interest, and popularity for women’s sports across the board have soared over the last few years. In many ways, 2023 represented a breakthrough for everything from Caitlin Clark and the NCAA Women’s Tournament to softball to volleyball to soccer and everything in between. Ratings were up across the board for most women’s sports, both collegiately and professionally.

That growth trajectory has only continued in 2024 – and not just in television, but in ticket sales as well. The Pro Volleyball Federation drew almost 12,000 fans in Omaha. The NWSL shattered its opening week attendance record. And the Women’s Final Four in Cleveland is officially a hotter ticket than the Men’s Final Four in Phoenix.

And now it’s time to cash in on rising popularity.

Enter the WNBA, who according to Front Office Sports, is seeking to break away from the NBA in negotiating a new rights deal to try to extract more revenue from the upcoming round of talks.

“The WNBA believes its media rights are undervalued,” writes Michael McCarthy. “If the league doesn’t get what it wants jointly from ABC and ESPN, it’s quite likely to negotiate its own separate deal, say sources close to the negotiations—either with Disney or a competitor. Possible packages and proposals are flying back and forth between the two sides, sources tell Front Office Sports, and the WNBA is open to anything. The goal is to maximize the league’s reach and market value.”

If this sounds familiar, it is. We heard something extremely similar last year when the NCAA was trying to negotiate a separate rights deal for the women’s tournament instead of being part of a championship bundle that had been standard operating procedure with ESPN. The NCAA had a convincing argument that the NCAA Women’s Tournament deserved its own set-apart deal because of the interest and success it’s received.

However, that breakaway deal did not come to fruition for the NCAA Women’s Tournament. The NCAA re-signed with ESPN at the beginning of the year keeping it as part of the championship bundle. However, they did get a 3x increase in rights fees and the NCAA WBB was valued at $65 million of the total $115 million paid out annually.

Of course, it’s not a complete apples to apples comparison. With the NCAA, the Women’s Tournament was seen as the main attraction. And the bundle probably works best for both the NCAA and ESPN in the long-run. The NCAA got greater exposure for other women’s sports and a good deal for many other championships thanks to the draw of women’s basketball, which will still be a centerpiece on ESPN moving forward.

On the other hand, the NBA and WNBA don’t have dozens of other championships to care for. A deal could get done very easily for each league independently. However, what the WNBA is coming up against is the headwinds of networks running out of money for live sports.

Anyone coming to the negotiating table at this juncture is facing the toughest climate for sports rights in years. Given the realities of the sudden switch to the streaming era and revenue streams being turned upside down, networks can’t afford exponential rights fee increases anymore. They have to be much wiser with their spending.

But in the WNBA, networks could find a wise investment. By the time Clark and other college stars reach the league, they will already be household names thanks to the success of the college game. And the summer calendar finishing up in early fall at least avoids football competition for most of the season. Add onto that the WNBA’s more ad-friendly fanbase, and it might be a league that a network is willing to take a chance on.

“The NBA and WNBA are approaching the marketplace jointly but remain open to all options,” an NBA spokesperson said in a statement to Awful Announcing.

There’s two scenarios that would be a home run for the WNBA. First, stick with the NBA and (like the NCAA) gain more national exposure for games with better timeslots and opportunities.

Second, if a network were to be left out of NBA bidding (say, NBC), invite them to make a run at being the exclusive home of the WNBA and go all-in promoting the coverage. NBC has shown it can do well owning exclusive rights like they’ve done with the NHL and EPL. Why couldn’t the WNBA be next?

Whether or not the WNBA is bundled with the NBA may not be the most important question. What will define the league’s next rights deal is if they get the revenue and exposure necessary to continue taking steps forward in the growth of women’s sports that shows no signs of slowing down.

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