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.