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

The WNBA could be the next sizzling sports media property with the Caitlin Clark ratings juggernaut likely to supercharge interest in the sport. That sparked questions whether the women’s basketball league should go it alone when selling its TV rights that are up after next season, or marry its efforts with the NBA’s high-profile TV negotiations.

Before getting to that, it is important to understand the NBA all but owns the WNBA and can make the ultimate decision. NBA commissioner Adam Silver last week said selling them jointly made sense.  The NBA owns sizable equity in the women’s league; five of the 12 WNBA teams have NBA owners (soon to be six of 13 when the new San Francisco team debuts next season); and some team owners in 2022 invested in the $75 million WNBA capital raise.  

Still, is the WNBA better off selling its rights alone and capturing the tsunami of attention Clark has brought to the league? The consensus among experts contacted by Awful Announcing is in agreement with Silver that the two leagues should sell jointly because of the NBA’s media infrastructure and marketing muscle. 

They should definitely work very closely with the NBA because the investment in media is going to be significant,” said Micky Lawler, who spent nearly four decades in professional tennis, the last nine as president of the WTA Tour. “So you don’t want to duplicate that, you want to create efficiencies, because you do need to invest in content and you need a very solid media strategy.”

It’s not quite apples to apples, but Lawler points to a deal she negotiated with Sky Sports covering the UK, Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Sky would only do the deal if it included the ATP rights too, Lawler recalled, because that way the channel could tell the complete tennis story.

The NBA/WNBA dynamic is of course different from the ATP and WTA Tours, which play at the same time and often at the same event. There is little schedule overlap between the NBA and WNBA schedules, with the WNBA tipping off its season next month, about half way through the NBA playoffs.

My sense is that, just as a reminder, the NBA represents roughly 260 nights a year programming,” Silver said last week. “WNBA currently is about (an additional) 60 nights (of the year). That could grow over time. To the extent we can present ourselves as a year-round basketball product, that becomes increasingly important, I think particularly to streaming platforms that are dealing with potential churn.”

Typically the WNBA and NBA media deals are not done together, the last time in 2014, and then just for the ESPN component. The leagues also sold a package jointly in 2002, said Ed Desser, a sports media consultant. The WNBA is on outlets currently like ION and CBS Sports Network that are not part of NBA distribution, so that could mean the WNBA will keep some inventory out of the joint package with the men’s league if indeed the two organizations’ rights are sold collectively.

“The WNBA media negotiation will benefit substantially by its association with and leverage available via the NBA,” Desser said.

One question of course is if say ESPN pays a lump sum for the NBA and WNBA, how is the pie divided? In 2014 the WNBA would have been content to be on ESPN. But what if WNBA TV ratings surge this season to a million or a few million per game (up from mid six-figures) this season. The league already took a political hit over Clark’s pay (her salary is set by a CBA struck in 2020 before Clark even played at Iowa). But nevertheless, if WNBA games begin getting audiences in the NBA range, dividing the media lucre could be a sensitive topic.

You can track everything, you can track the viewership, you can track engagement,” Lawler said, explaining how the decision should be made. “So, so you can just handle it in a very mathematical way of, we have the viewership of the ATP is A and the viewership of the WTA is B.”

Currently the WNBA pulls in about $60 million annually, a fraction of the NBA, which earns roughly $2.6 billion per annum on average.

“Certainly there will be an increase for the WNBA,” said media consultant Bob Thompson. “Probably up to $110 million to $115 million when you include the Prime Video, CBS, and Ion packages as well.”

One lesson Lawler said she learned when it comes to TV is it’s not about male or female, but selling stars.

“It became much more about stars than about gender,” she said. “With the WTA and ATP, we saw when we worked on marketing together, we saw a tremendous uptick in the numbers. I mean, it is clearly the way to go, you want a single channel for the fans of the sport because, again, the fans of the sport, they’re going to go see your LeBron James, Steph Curry, Caitlin Clark, the stars are driving this forward.”

For women’s sports, it’s not just Clark and the WNBA; the nascent Professional Women’s Hockey League is drawing strong crowds, the National Women’s Soccer League has seen franchises valued at nine figure sums; even volleyball is attracting mega-crowds. An inflection point in the culture certainly seems to have arrived.

“It is aligned with the changing, at every level, even in the workplace, things have changed so much,” Lawler said. “You are operating as a woman on a much more even playing field. You don’t have to manage the things that we had to manage around 20 years ago. So it’s now the world has finally become a wiser, wiser place to recognize the talent of women.”

About Daniel Kaplan

Daniel Kaplan has been covering the business of sports for more than two decades. A proud founding reporter of SportsBusiness Journal, he spent the last four years at The Athletic.