WNBA Sep 24, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; A general overall view of the opening tipoff between Las Vegas Aces center A’ja Wilson (22) and Dallas Wings center Teaira McCowan (7) during game one of the 2023 WNBA Semifinals at Michelob Ultra Arena. The Aces defeated the Wings 97-83. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As the NBA finalizes a new media rights package set to triple its revenue from broadcasters, where the WNBA fits into the puzzle is still an open question. After initial reports suggesting the leagues would again pursue a joint broadcast rights package, it’s unclear what portion of the approximately $7 billion the league will make annually will go to the “W.”

In fact, nobody can be certain how legit the number we eventually hear from the NBA is at all.

In a recent appearance on the Plain English with Derek Thompson podcast, Puck sports correspondent John Ourand confirmed a lack of detail around this apportionment and shed light on the way in which the NBA determines this number — as well as why it might be baloney.

“That’s one of the head-scratchers that I have right now,” Ourand said. “[The NBA] has not yet separated out the W’s media rights, other than a few sort of smaller deals they made with some broadcast groups.”

While Ourand acknowledged the WNBA is already seeing business growth from increased ticket sales, sponsorships and, as a result, franchise valuations, the league may strike out on the massive explosion in broadcast rights fees some hoped for.

The reason? The NBA gets to basically fudge the amount it gives to the WNBA as a portion of its overall broadcast revenue. Right now, the primary shared broadcaster for both leagues is ESPN, which forks over a lump sum to the NBA and gets to air its NBA package as well as a significant WNBA package — including the entire postseason.

“The networks pay the NBA a few and the NBA decides what gets allocated to what league,” Ourand explained. “The broadcasters will say we value the NBA at X amount and the WNBA at Y amount. But the way it’s been described to me in the past is when the W got a certain number, media executives would sort of laugh to me like, ‘Yeah, we’re just paying this number, and whatever the NBA wants to say.’ If the NBA wants to say (the WNBA is) getting a billion dollars, they’re getting a billion dollars, but we’re paying for all of that programming. So it’s impossible to really say.”

Right now, the WNBA is reportedly making $60 million a year from ESPN. The exact revenue from additional deals with Amazon Prime Video, Scripps, and CBS Sports Network is unknown. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told CNBC in April she believes the league can double its broadcast revenue in a new deal.

But WNBA fans and media analysts should stay comfortable to not knowing the true math, according to Ourand.

“We’re going to get a number, the numbers coming from the NBA, but that isn’t necessarily the number that the broadcasters value WNBA games at,” Ourand added.

That not only begs the question of where the valuation is for WNBA broadcast rights, which trickles into franchise values and advertising revenue, but also when the WNBA will be ready to stand on its own on a broadcast deal. How can you calculate your value to networks when those negotiations seem superficial at best?

This situation is not unlike what women’s college basketball faced earlier this year when it was lumped into a deal between the NCAA and ESPN for college sports championships. Many believe that lucrative deal still undervalues women’s hoops, an argument that is pretty easy to make after record-breaking viewership for this year’s tournament.

In large part, this is what women’s sports stakeholders mean when they use words like “undervalued” to describe the product of women’s sports and the leagues that put that product out. Until this year’s move by the WNBA to charter flights for all its teams, many owners claimed franchise values to be “zero,” a place where they could “park losses,” per Sports Illustrated in 2022.

Continuing to attach WNBA broadcast rights to the NBA may not be necessary in the first place given rising viewership and the increasing broadcast revenue of NCAA women’s sports and world soccer. But ambivalence toward maximizing revenue would be nonsensical.

There’s a chance things change this time around, and reporters like Ourand often get specifics in due time. But publicizing the likely increasing value of WNBA broadcast rights would seemingly be in the NBA’s best interest as its operating owner, yet there isn’t so much as a whisper around the number so far.

“The internal tug of war is going to come in to where, when does the WNBA stand on its own and just go out into the market with its own set of rights that’s not tied to the NBA?” Ourand posited.

Expect a greater push from players and insiders for the league to split further from the NBA in the coming years to work around issues like this, especially with a likely collective bargaining negotiation coming not long after this new media rights deal goes into effect next year.

[Plain English]

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.