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Would you believe the WNBA’s regular season averaged more national TV viewers for each game than MLS this year?
Since its founding in 1996, the WNBA consistently has fought the stigma that nobody watches its games. When a record-low average of 180,000 viewers tuned in to WNBA games in 2012 — plus a record-low attendance of 7,457 fans attending each game — that view became even more widespread. As the league’s most visible supporter, NBA Commissioner David Stern, prepared to retire, it wasn’t outrageous to wonder what would become of the WNBA.
ESPN quelled those fears in the spring, committing to carry WNBA games through 2022. And a SportsBusiness Journal analysis of this year’s viewership found that the WNBA compares favorably to other more high-profile leagues and sports events as a television property. While viewer levels fall far short of major U.S. sports, the WNBA appears to have solidified its place on ESPN’s schedule.
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“We’re happy with the ratings; we think there’s upside and growth in them,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and acquisitions. “People think the WNBA doesn’t resonate, but I don’t share that point of view.”
ESPN backed its commitment to the league in March, signing a six-year extension worth $12 million per year for WNBA rights. The contract allocates $1 million for each WNBA team.
In its first season since that deal, the league’s TV numbers increased 28 percent from last year’s record-low viewership. Regular-season games averaged 231,000 viewers, a figure that is higher than Major League Soccer’s regular-season game averages on both ESPN/ESPN2 (220,000 viewers) and NBCSN (112,000 viewers). To put the comparison in context, though: WNBA games primarily were held during the week in prime time; the MLS games typically were held on weekends and outside the prime-time window.
The WNBA Finals last month averaged 344,000 viewers, a number that compares favorably to viewership for the Frozen Four on ESPN2 (301,000 average viewers), the average for U.S. Open Series tennis events on ESPN2 (290,000 viewers) and IndyCar’s full-season average on NBCSN (282,000 viewers).
“The ratings of the WNBA on ESPN and ESPN2 have consistently shown that they draw a strong, loyal audience,” Williamson said. “Given the competitive landscape, I think most networks would be celebrating some of the results, if they could get to the numbers that we’re getting with some of their properties.”
Following its poor TV performance last year, the league rebounded in its recently completed season, and ESPN executives believe it is poised for continued growth. Williamson said the emergence of three rookie stars — Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins — should help spur that growth.
“We covered them in college, and they graduated into the WNBA, and we were able to follow that,” Williamson said. “Strategically making that connection between the NCAA tournament and the WNBA is a big deal for us.”
ESPN has found that viewer numbers for WNBA games stay relatively consistent. The league’s most viewed game this year drew 455,000 viewers on the night of Memorial Day (Delle Donne’s Chicago Sky vs. Griner’s Phoenix Mercury). The lowest audience was a Tuesday night in early August, when a Seattle-Phoenix game drew 145,000 viewers with a Little League World Series lead-in.
Unsurprisingly, ESPN says the majority of the WNBA’s audience continues to be made up of men, as it has for years, not women: 66 percent of ESPN’s WNBA audience is male, and nearly half is African-American.
Importantly for ESPN, the WNBA complements the part of the company’s programming lineup that focuses on women’s sports, which includes the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament (which it has carried since 1996) and its editorial division focused on women’s athletics called espnW. The WNBA’s viewership is comparable, though slightly less, than women’s college basketball regular-season games.
“We believe we’re the leader in covering women’s sports,” Williamson said. “Look at the NCAA college championships, whether it’s softball, volleyball or soccer. This is a key cog.”
Austin Karp is assistant managing editor at SportsBusiness Daily.
Editor's note: Chart below has been revised from the print edition.
Fox Sports signed a five-year rights deal with Feld Motor Sports that will give the media group rights to nearly 300 hours of supercross, arenacross, monster truck and other motorsports programming.
Financial terms of the deal weren’t available. Sources familiar with the agreement said it is an increase over the $1 million a year that Fox Sports’ former motorsports channel, Speed, paid for supercross.
The deal includes Monster Jam truck events, plus arenacross, supercross and more.
Photo by:COURTESY OF FELD ENTERTAINMENT
David Nathanson, Fox Sports executive vice president, said the company cut the deal because of the combination of supercross’ strong ratings and strong appeal among young viewers. The 2013 supercross season on Speed averaged a 0.24 Nielsen rating and 329,000 viewers over 12 races, down 20 percent from the 0.3 rating and 12 percent from the 374,000 viewers that the sport delivered last year. The most viewed race was held in Atlanta in late February and averaged 507,000 viewers.
“If you look at the ratings in the past of how supercross performed across Speed, it was one of the consistently highest-rated programming out there,” Nathanson said. “If you look at the demographics, the audience skews young. Supercross is cool and fresh and exciting. We ultimately felt the combination of those two things made this a must-have for us.”
Fox agreed to air every supercross race live on Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2, marking the first time that’s ever happened. When supercross moved from ESPN to Speed in 2005, the motorsports channel showed no live races. It added a live race in 2006 and gradually expanded its live coverage to show 12 of 17 races live.
Feld had a year left on its current supercross agreement with Fox, but it began negotiations early because it wanted to be part of the effort to build Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, said Ken Hudgens, Feld Motor Sports’ chief operating officer. It joins NASCAR, United SportsCar, and MotoGP as the only motorsports series to make the transition from Speed to the new, multisport channels Fox launched in August.
Hillary Mandel, IMG Media’s senior vice president, assisted Feld Motor Sports on its negotiations with Fox.
Fox Sports is in advanced negotiations to sell online college sports and recruiting network Scout.com back to Jim Heckman, the site’s founder, who sold it to Fox more than eight years ago.
Industry sources said the deal is set to close in the next several weeks, and will mark the departure of Fox Sports from the highly competitive recruiting content space, which also includes Yahoo-owned Rivals.com, ESPN’s Recruiting Nation, and 247Sports.com, now aligned with CBSSports.com.
Fox Sports declined to comment, and Heckman was unavailable for comment.
Scout.com faced problems last year when an attempted rebranding and relaunch as Fox Sports Next, a move designed in part to foster greater integration between the site and Fox Sports’ national and regional TV properties, ran into significant technical issues. Many pages on the site were rendered inaccessible, angering subscribers, who pay about $100 a year for premium content. The rebranding was scrapped.
Since then, Scout.com has existed as a relatively small and mature entity within the Fox Sports portfolio. By selling it, the company is choosing to focus more of its energy and resources on more prominent holdings, such as the recently launched Fox Sports 1.
Scout.com traffic in many months has run between 2 million and 3 million unique visitors, according to comScore data, far smaller than Rivals.com’s audience and lacking the rapid growth seen by the 3-year-old 247Sports.com.