WNBA CBS Sports Edit by Liam McGuire, Comeback Media

Early Saturday sports are regular appointment viewing for fans in the fall, but CBS is winning the summer so far with its 1 p.m. ET WNBA broadcasts. The network is reeling in millions of viewers on a weekly basis, turning nothing into something in the midday slot and capitalizing on increased interest in women’s basketball.

As WNBA broadcast rights are hammered out along with the NBA’s this summer and the women’s league’s celebrity rookie class stretches its wings, CBS’ strategy around the WNBA is an easy template to follow and a flashing light highlighting the value networks can get right now by building tentpole programming around the league.

Last weekend’s comeback home victory by the Indiana Fever over the New York Liberty averaged 1.87 million viewers and peaked at 2.66 million as the Fever capped off their comeback. Overall, average WNBA viewership has more than doubled on CBS this season compared to 2023.

CBS originally bought WNBA rights in 2019, but largely directed games toward its CBS Sports Network cable station. CBS only sporadically aired games on its over-the-air network until this season, when it committed to eight broadcasts versus just 12 on CBSSN.

In addition, 2024 marked the first season in which CBS handled production of its games as part of an extension of that 2019 deal.

“These games will look, feel, and sound as if you were watching NFL, college football, or college basketball on our network,” CBS Sports coordinating producer Todd Keryc told Sports Video Group in May.

CBS also hired two play-by-play voices, two game analysts, and three reporters to cover the games.

WNBA broadcasts on CBS Sports Network still feature the home team’s feed piped out through the national cable network.

As with everything around the league in 2024, there are many reasons for the viewership explosion. The past two CBS broadcasts have featured Caitlin Clark, who is in her own tier when it comes to drawing eyeballs in the WNBA so far this season. On June 16, the rematch between Clark and Rookie of the Year challenger Angel Reese averaged 2.25 million viewers, making it the most-watched WNBA broadcast in 23 years. Clark is a huge draw, and CBS smartly scheduled two of her games in their marquee timeslot early in the season.

Clark is not the only thing working, though. CBS’ broadcast of the Liberty and Minnesota Lynx on May 25 averaged just over 700,000 viewers, making it the most-watched WNBA game ever on the network until the Clark-Reese showdown.

Looking forward, two 2023 WNBA Finals rematches in August between the Liberty and Las Vegas Aces coming off the league’s Olympic break figure to rate well.

But as Awful Announcing’s Joe Lucia noted in his writeup of CBS’ new deal with the WNBA, the potential for this partnership is vast. At a time in which leagues are scurrying to diversify their broadcast partners, CBS provides an existing site for the league to reach more fans on traditional broadcast television.

“We’re taking over the production of these games at a really opportune time,” Keryc told SVG in May. “We think that our platform can be used for more storytelling and be a national spotlight for women’s sports.”

Women’s basketball already saw the dividends that can pay in recent years as Disney opted to air the NCAA national championship game on ABC starting in 2023. Viewership more than doubled from 2022 to 2023, and again from 2023 to 2024.

Beyond women’s basketball, staple weekend daytime game broadcasts have a track record of bringing in viewers. Fox’s rejuvenated Big Noon Kickoff and Big Noon Saturday college football slots have hit big since 2019, even beating out ESPN’s vaunted College GameDay this past season. This past English Premier League campaign boasted its best total audience delivery ever on NBC during the early mornings from August to May.

It would be no surprise to see CBS add more WNBA dates to its over-the-air schedule in 2025 after the early success this season. The WNBA only plays for about 20 weeks excluding All-Star weekend (which is broadcast by ESPN). CBS is already broadcasting games about half those weekends now. Even if it wanted to avoid scheduling conflicts around the NFL, the network could get up to around 14 Saturday broadcasts to build out the slot into a real staple from late May through late August.

After hiring a real team anchored by the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and Milwaukee Bucks voice Lisa Byington this year, another future step would be for CBS to add shoulder programming for the WNBA. Right now, there is no pregame, halftime, or postgame show for games. Not only do these studio shows bring in viewership around games, they also help develop intrigue and context to market the sport and networks’ investment in it and give sponsors more inventory to pay for. From a WNBA standpoint, Scripps Sports’ successful build-out of Friday night WNBA doubleheaders the past two years illustrates the potential for broader coverage.

While NBC is taking back pro basketball broadcast rights next year, CBS already has a leg up on the women’s side. It’s too early to predict an arms race for the relatively young WNBA, but the evolution of the league’s CBS deal represents yet another case study of the potential for real investment in the league.

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.