Two weekends ago, the WNBA tipped off its 2020 season inside its Florida bubble with all 12 teams playing in six games that spanned the two days. All the contests were aired on an ESPN network or CBS Sports Network, and it couldn’t have gone much better.
ESPN hosted four of the games, placing them on marquee networks. Late afternoon games aired on ABC, putting the WNBA in the homes of every American. Sports fans made good on ESPN’s bet.
The network’s viewership for its WNBA games was up 63 percent from 2019, with the average numbers for the four contests reaching 401,000. The Sparks-Mercury game on Saturday was the most-watched ABC opener since 2012, peaking at 619,000 viewers with a rating of 539,000. At the peak of the nail-biting Aces-Sky showdown Sunday, the game brought in 646,000 sets of eyeballs.
It remains unclear if most of those viewers tuned in for the game or Las Vegas head coach Bill Laimbeer’s headband, but they count all the same.
In fact, the league drew so well on ESPN, the network decided to add even more WNBA games to its lineup. Originally, ESPN was planning to put 24 WNBA regular season games on its channels this season. After a successful opening weekend, it opted to add 13 more, a better than 50 percent increase.
The new ESPN games are a massive victory for the W, practically and symbolically. Of course, providing sports fans with 13 more opportunities to enjoy its entertainment on one of the biggest sports outlets in the world is a victory in of itself. But this means much more than that.
This further legitimizes the league and its on-court product as something valuable and worthwhile, perhaps the largest hurdle the WNBA has had to overcome since it began. There has long been a question of whether women’s sports – and in this case women’s basketball specifically – are truly as naturally unpopular as some argue, or if their relative exclusion from the sports media landscape has created an environment where sports fans consider them to be an afterthought. This is another sign that there is a growing market for women’s professional basketball, and now there is even more of a chance to prove whether the product or media coverage are the issue.
Positive signs have been there before this week, though. The new CBA increased the salary cap, bumped max salaries and gave players tons of better benefits, all signs that point to a growing health within the league and its budgets. The 2020 WNBA Draft, which was held remotely April 17, was the most-watched W draft in 16 years. It averaged 387,000 viewers on ESPN, airing on the network for the first time since 2011. The numbers were 33 percent better than when the draft was last on ESPN, and they were up 123 percent from the 2019 WNBA Draft.
This all comes at a time of uncertainty and upheaval in this country, which are likely contributing to the WNBA’s success. Cries for social justice are at all-time high, and the WNBA clearly embraces the messages and support its players fighting for causes they believe in, which resonates with many people. The pandemic has forced millions to spend significantly more time at home than ever before, meaning they’re more likely to be in front of their TVs and laptops searching out for entertainment. And the pandemic has shuttered sports, making any chance at watching high-level athletes do their thing live something sports fans can’t miss.
That’s not to say the WNBA hasn’t accomplished this through hard work and a genuinely improved league. In order to capitalize on an opportunity, one must already be prepared to do so. The WNBA worked out how to hold a season seemingly successfully during a massive pandemic, something leagues with resources and fandoms many times bigger haven’t figured out. That alone shows the organization and level at which this league operates.
The pandemic, the ensuing economic fallout and the incredibly fast-changing social landscape of America means one thing for certain: change. No one knows what the change will be. In some ways, it will be positive, in others it will be negative. But the America you knew in February is gone forever, and that means everything, sports included.
Major shakeups are happening in every aspect of American life and society. This is clearly the WNBA’s shot this generation to propel itself forward into the cultural zeitgeist of American sports. It has the most possible eyeballs with major network backing and a new CBA to anchor it down for years. The league has never been more stable. If the WNBA is to take off, now is the beginning of that launch.
For the sake of today’s young girls who will be tomorrow’s college and professional hoopers, I hope the WNBA takes full advantage.