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Volume 21 No. 31
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What drove the new WNBA deal

A few months ago, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver and WNBA President Laurel Richie approached ESPN President John Skipper with a plan.

Even though the WNBA was under contract to ESPN for another four years, the league’s executives wanted ESPN to open its deal and renegotiate new terms.

The NBA wanted to breathe more money into the 16-year-old professional women’s league and give it the sense of security that a long-term media rights deal could provide. After all, WNBA teams averaged a record-low 7,457 fans a game last season.

Skipper was intrigued by the idea. ESPN’s NBA rights deal ends after the 2015-16 season, the same time the WNBA deal was scheduled to end originally. All signs point to a bidding frenzy around those rights. ESPN and Turner Sports are the incumbents and want to keep the NBA’s rights. Plus, Fox and NBC will have their own 24-hour sports channels, and their executives have hinted that they plan make strong bids for the NBA.

Sticking with WNBA gave ESPN a chance to reinforce its commitment to women’s sports.
utting a deal for the WNBA would be a good way to curry favor with the league and show that ESPN wants to be a good partner.

But Skipper’s interest went beyond the next NBA deal. Under his leadership, Skipper has made a big push to cover women’s sports. ESPN has carried the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament exclusively since 1996. It has carried WNBA games since 1997, when the league formed. It launched an editorial division focused on women’s athletics called espnW. A new WNBA deal would fit within ESPN’s programming plans.

“This deal gives us a good opportunity to reinforce our commitment to women’s sports,” Skipper said. “We never had a question. We wanted to do a deal with the WNBA.”

After some negotiations, the two sides had a deal. ESPN agreed to extend its WNBA deal six years, running through the 2022 season. ESPN committed to pay the NBA $12 million a year for the rights, which amounts to $1 million a team, sources said. Most of the media money will be filtered directly to the teams.

In return, the NBA gave ESPN some revenue-making opportunities, such as additional ad time for it to sell during games.
“Extending the partnership shows a lot about ESPN’s commitment to women’s sports,” Richie said. “Having a better sense of the athletes and getting to know the athletes is a really important part of building allegiance to a player, a team or a league.”

In that vein, the deal accounts for new programming initiatives to grow ratings.

The deal increases the number of WNBA games on ESPN to 30 from 28, which includes a Memorial Day double-header on ESPN2 that will be the WNBA’s version of the NBA’s popular Christmas Day games schedule. Those Memorial Day games will include the teams with the top four draft picks, so ESPN will be able to highlight the three top picks that it has showcased in its “Three to See”: Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne, Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins and Baylor’s Brittney Griner.
“We want to grow the ratings,” Skipper said. “We think there’s an upside there.”

Last season, the WNBA averaged 359,000 viewers a game during the regular season on ESPN, 180,000 viewers on ESPN 2 and 804,000 on ABC.

Like other media rights deals, ESPN picked up TV Everywhere rights that allow it to show WNBA games on ESPN3 and its WatchESPN app. ESPN’s current rights deal with the NBA, which was signed in 2007 and runs through the 2015-16 season, included WNBA rights. ESPN’s deal with the NBA is not affected by this deal.

The WNBA also is relaunching the WNBA brand. The 16-year-old league is taking the wraps off a new logo, designed in conjunction with the firm OCD (Original Champions of Design) to reflect “the diversity and athleticism of today’s WNBA,” Richie said.