The WNBA is competing for viewers during one of the busiest times on the sports calendar and the league is holding strong with no plans to turn back the clock.
Through two games in the WNBA Finals, the series between the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty is the most watched in 20 years.
The finale opened on an NFL Sunday and the Aces win 99-82 over Liberty was the most-watched opener since ESPN began broadcasting the series in 1998. Game 2 Wednesday night – a 104-76 Las Vegas victory – was played while the MLB playoffs were in full swing.
“I think whatever period you operate in, there will be competition. It’s about continuing to try to grow your product,” said ESPN NBA analyst Doris Burke, who called WNBA games during her early years. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about the evolution of players and coaches in the WNBA. And I expect that trajectory to continue.
The numbers are moving in favor of the WNBA.
Viewership for both games was up 13% from last year’s final between the Aces and the Connecticut Sun. The first game on ABC averaged 729,000 viewers and the average was 626,000 for the second game on ESPN. The two-game average of 680,000 is an increase the league hopes to continue.
This will be the last end of a WNBA season in a non-Olympic year. Playing later in the fall is not a new trend for the league. This is the 13th time in the WNBA’s 27-year history that a Finals series has started or extended into October. When the league launched in 1997, programming ended in August – before the deluge of viewing options for sports fans.
An expanded regular season and playoffs pushed the end of the WNBA season toward head-to-head competition with the NFL, baseball playoffs, and the start of the NHL and NBA preseason.
When the WNBA debuted in 1997 with eight teams, its season ended before Labor Day. The league continues to operate in a condensed time frame. The WNBA collective bargaining agreement states that the season can begin no earlier than April 1 and must end by October 31. But without taking into account the 2020 and 2021 pandemic seasons, the league went from a 34-game regular season from 2003 until 2019, from 36 in 2022 to 40 this year.
Since last year, the playoffs have also expanded to best-of-three in the first round and best-of-five in the semifinals and finals. Changing the playoff format was one of the main goals of the WNBA Players Association during its latest round of negotiations with the CBA.
The change created compromises for the league.
More games and more availability in arenas also mean that sometimes the playoffs aren’t at the forefront. ESPN2 ended up doing a playoff doubleheader on a Friday night because ESPN had college football. Still, according to the WNBA, regular-season games on ESPN and CBS averaged 505,000 viewers, an 8 percent increase from last year. Sunday afternoon games on ABC averaged 627,000 viewers, the highest since 2012.
However, before the finale, the playoff audience averaged 400,000, down 8% from last year. However, the second game of the semifinal series between the Connecticut Sun and the New York Liberty on September 26, a Tuesday night, averaged 563,000 people on ESPN, the largest audience for a non-final playoff game on cable since 2001.
When asked at her annual news conference before the start of the Finals why the long stretches between playoffs, commissioner Cathy Engelbert cited the number of regular season games as a factor.
“It’s just the nature of the release windows and how it played out this year and how long the show lasted,” Engelbert said. “We also played 40 games this year, so I think some of the rest should come in handy.”
John Kosner, who runs his own digital and sports consulting firm, says that even though the playoffs and finals are at a busy time in the sports calendar, there are more people watching TV than usual. fall, which offers the opportunity to have a sample. to a wider audience.
“The reality of the WNBA season is that the league has to compromise. The fact is that no time of year is clear, and running from spring until now makes the most sense for premier arenas,” he said.
It helps to have the star power of this year’s finals. League MVP Breanna Stewart and sharpshooter Sabrina Ionescu lead a New York team to the Finals for the first time since 2002; The Aces under coach Becky Hammon and led by last year’s league MVP A’ja Wilson are attempting to become repeat champions for the first time since Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002.
“When you have a marquee game, like the Las Vegas Aces and now New York, that’s what the good old days were. That’s what we were coming back to,” Aces president Nikki Fargas said before Wednesday’s Game 2. “And I think the fans understand that not only are we going to follow you and support you in person, if I can’t be there. , then I will support you and watch over you.
The league has also tried to better use the popularity of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament as a springboard toward the start of its season. This includes the draft, which takes place in mid-April and usually less than two weeks after March Madness ends.
The promotion is expected to ramp up at next year’s tournament with Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, LSU’s Angel Reese and Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers on the horizon as well as next year’s Olympics. And that women’s college basketball audience has traditionally followed those players into the WNBA.
The increase in audiences will surely be a topic of discussion during the next television contract negotiations.
The WNBA’s television contract expires in 2025. ESPN/ABC carries all playoffs and the All-Star Game while Scripps, Amazon and CBS carry regular season and Commissioner’s Cup games.
The league will receive $33 million from ESPN/ABC for the final season in 2025, but it could see significant growth beyond that. A new media rights deal with additional partners would increase revenue. Multiple playoff carriers could even make the playoff schedule more compact.
“I’ll come back to the NBA at a time in history where they were behind tape,” Burke said. “It takes time to build the fandom and get these players to be at the forefront of the minds of sports fans across the country. But I feel like A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, and Chelsea Gray are becoming more well-known among casual sports fans.
AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg and AP Contributor WG Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed to this story.