Sep 11, 2022; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) attempts to score a layup during the fourth quarter against the Las Vegas Aces in game one of the 2022 WNBA Finals at Michelob Ultra Arena. Mandatory Credit: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

When the formation of Scripps Sports was announced last December, it was made clear that the E.W. Scripps Company was not going to swing for the fences in the infancy of its new division. Avoiding becoming the disaster that is Bally Sports may have been top of mind, but the launch was also not long after David Zaslav made his infamous comments about Turner Sports’ pact with the NBA – comments he recently walked back. The timing of it all created intrigue for those in the know within sports media, yet no one – perhaps not even the folks at Scripps itself – had a true idea of what this new rightsholder had to offer these sports organizations. Being the new kid can be tough as no one notices you until you make people notice you. Yet it remained to be seen how Scripps could do that without breaking the bank or overpromising – you know, like Bally Sports had.

Last week, Scripps Sports signed its first major national deal as it agreed to broadcast WNBA regular season games on Friday nights through the 2025 season. The games will be on ION Television, a network making its first foray into sports since 2012-13 when WWE Main Event crashed and burned for one season. (Yours truly was there for it all!) Though its fans will scoff at the notion that the WNBA is a ‘challenger property,’ the W fits the profile of the types of sports deals the new rightsholder will seek in the coming years. It’s not too large of a league where the price of rights could be too much for a new bidder, but it’s also well-established, features quality game play, has tons of media-friendly personalities, and is full of intrigue going into the new season.

Eventually more details – mainly the money – will come out about this new agreement, but the excitement since Friday’s announcement means that both sides are coming out as winners in the early going.

For the W, the deal with ION provides a consistent weekday evening broadcasting window over free television. Trying to put aside the generational divides over how we consume TV, there’s nothing more coveted for a sports league than a primetime space on a traditional network’s schedule.

There will be some predicable gripes about not being able to find ION, and there’s a slight bit of merit to that for areas of the country where the network doesn’t have any local affiliates. As a hybrid broadcast/cable network, ION’s cable carriage ideally makes up for those gaps. However even that concern is negated by the fact that through digital cable/linear feeds, ION is placed no lower than channel 34 in any of the WNBA’s twelve local markets where most viewership is going to take place. This won’t be like NHL fans trying to find OLN on channel guides after the 2004-05 lockout sped up their exile from ESPN.

In addition to ION’s reach, the league should be served well by a network that’s hoping to make a good impression on sports organizations around the country. This is Scripps Sports’ first major national deal, and with the increased demand for women’s sports on television comes plenty of scrutiny on how well the company promotes the league and schedules its own programming around it. A major part of that support comes from having a regularly scheduled studio show (which will be produced by the WNBA itself); already displaying a far greater commitment to wraparound programming than what ESPN and CBS Sports have offered. For all the bloviating about the value of pregame and halftime shows, they help the presiding networks own as much of a particular daypart as possible. They are crucial for sponsorships and tend to have higher ad rates than the syndicated fare that would normally air at that time.

For Scripps/ION, the WNBA provides a synergy of sorts. As Scripps CEO Adam Symson told The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov:

“Economically, we’ve got, obviously, that nice intersection with the demos that we serve on all of the platforms that we serve, but we’re at a moment now where we can get into a partnership with a sport and a league that’s looking to us like it’s in a hockey stick growth mode versus the opposite.”

In simpler terms, both share an audience, with the WNBA’s base on a meteoric rise. ION mostly shows syndicated procedurals – cop shows, murder mysteries, etc. – that were big on other channels, and those shows have a decidedly older female audience. While live televised sports skew predominantly male, the WNBA has a better chance to retain some of ION’s main female audience than other sporting events, even as non-ION viewers only tune to the network for the game alone.

Of course, the network itself must figure out a way to sell its own brand to the WNBA viewer. If this deal was made with the ION Television of the 2010s, the channel could easily promote its nightly reruns of Criminal Minds because no other company other than CBS had rights to the show. However, linear syndication doesn’t hold the same weight in 2023 as just about all the shows on ION can be binged on the streamers. ION still needs to create and promote original content to entice its sports viewers for more than just the games.

All of that said, Scripps could be using the same game plan as another WNBA partner, Amazon. Since 2021, Prime Video has been the exclusive home of the league’s Commissioner Cup Final. While not the highest profiled event for any league, the game is one of the many proving grounds Prime Video has used for live sports streaming capabilities before it took on the exclusive rights for Thursday Night Football last fall.

Scripps and the WNBA will have plenty to learn about one another over these next three years. There’s no question that the W is going to get a bigger check from broadcasters after the 2025 season thanks to the continued surge in popularity for women’s basketball. Yet with the players, coaches and possibly some executives not always feeling the love from the W’s media partners, the league is rightfully testing the waters to see which networks see its full value. How Scripps treats the WNBA may not be the lead storyline in 2023 – that belongs to the hype of a potential Finals series between the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty – but it’ll be just as important as any game we see all season.

About Jason Clinkscales

Jason Clinkscales is a NYC-based editor and writer, as well as founder of The Whole Game. Formerly a research analyst for several media companies, he's a regular contributor for Decider, and was the editor-in-chief of The Sports Fan Journal. Jason holds out hope for a New York Knicks championship and the most obnoxious parade in human history.