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Volume 23 No. 9
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Networks see value in greater WNBA exposure

NESN and YES Network are boosting awareness of the Sun and Liberty, respectively, with cross-promotion and plans for shoulder programming.

During a recent game between the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, when a seventh-inning base hit created a brief lull in the action, the New England Sports Network went into promo mode. Color commentator Dennis Eckersley told viewers that the Connecticut Sun now called NESN home. Then he said, “Don’t miss the Sun hosting the Indiana Fever live from Mohegan Sun Arena tomorrow night at 7 on NESNplus.” As Eckersley spoke, a graphic appeared on screen and relayed the same information.

The promo lasted 11 seconds. But it was an early indication of NESN’s commitment to Sun coverage. It also provided great optics.

When the Sun share the screen with the Red Sox, even if only for a tune-in message, it raises the profile of the Sun. It signals that the WNBA product is valued and valuable. And it sends this bigger message to viewers: Just like the Red Sox, the Sun and the WNBA are worth your investment.

NESN and the Sun agreed to terms in April. This season, the network will broadcast 23 games with plenty of cross-promotion. That gives the Sun an enviable platform and an enviable association with the Red Sox. (Last summer, NESN’s Red Sox broadcasts reached more than 950,000 viewers per game throughout New England.) The same can be said about the new deal between the YES Network and the New York Liberty, and the platform created by the Yankees.

The WNBA’s COO Christin Hedgpeth calls the YES and NESN deals “feathers in our cap” that “further validate the confidence we have in our product.” It’s a diplomatic answer since all 12 of the WNBA’s teams have local or regional broadcast partners, or both. But when the most-watched regional sports network in the country (YES) and the second-most-watched (NESN) partner with WNBA teams, it carries greater significance and, potentially, greater influence. 

Networks are starting to offer more consistent WNBA coverage this season as part of longer business strategies.
Photo: nbae / getty images
Networks are starting to offer more consistent WNBA coverage this season as part of longer business strategies.
Photo: nbae / getty images
Networks are starting to offer more consistent WNBA coverage this season as part of longer business strategies.
Photo: nbae / getty images

YES and NESN could build bigger fan bases for their WNBA teams, fan bases with some of the same passion and loyalty shown their MLB teams. That’s not a knock on the WNBA’s much-ballyhooed national television deals with ESPN, CBS and NBATV. But YES and NESN have a special, more intimate relationship with their viewers. They’re a constant in the lives of those sports fans.

Being there, being part of the cultural landscape, makes a difference in sports. Potentially a big difference.    

“People are tweeting at me and at the Sun and saying, ‘I’m at a local sports bar and the Sun is on in Boston,’” said Connecticut Sun vice president Amber Cox. “That’s unbelievable. That’s just unbelievable legitimacy that it brings to our franchise and the WNBA.”

You can count Sun games in Boston bars as an early victory for the NESN deal. But its short- and long-term success, its ability to grow the women’s game, its power to put fans in seats at Mohegan Sun Arena, its influence on sponsors and advertisers depends on something more important and more fundamental than optics. It depends on how NESN and YES executives see the WNBA when no one else is watching.

“We know that the WNBA is making a big effort to grow revenues and we hope to help the Sun do that,” said Rick Jaffe, NESN’s vice president of programming and production. “We see the growth potential.”

Meanwhile, YES executives see WNBA games as an opportunity to strengthen the network’s lineup and its relationship with Liberty and Nets owner Joseph Tsai. “Mostly, it’s a business decision,” said John Filippelli, YES president of production and programming. “But we enjoy women’s basketball. It’s competitive. It’s fun. It’s energetic. It fit what we were trying to do. It takes us to a place I thought we needed to be in live programming.”

From there, the decision-making that follows naturally emphasizes the on-court product and cross-promotion.

On NESN, that’s how you get Eckersley reading a tune-in message. It’s also how you get a rebroadcast of a Sun-Fever game replacing a rained-out Red Sox-Yankees game. (According to Nielsen metrics and NESN estimates, the replay reached 120,000 viewers throughout New England). The network’s Sun coverage extends to articles and videos on the NESN website. The WNBA also appears in regular rotation on the NESN ticker.

Again, it’s a similar story with YES. Filippelli takes particular pride in the fact that the people who produce Yankees and Nets games on YES work on Liberty games, too.

Even though it’s very early for both deals, it appears that NESN and YES have a clear vision for their WNBA coverage. Equally important, the networks have committed to consistent coverage. They believe in the WNBA product. They believe if the games get good marketing, then the viewers will come. The networks are all in. No half measures. No shortcuts. And that’s another early victory for the teams and the league.

One more win: Jaffe and Filippelli said they’re not worried about ratings this season. They know it will be a slow build. Still, they’re already thinking about ways to give the WNBA more exposure in the future.

Next season, Jaffe hopes Sun players will be featured on NESN’s “My Story” program, a half-hour show that takes a deep dive into the backgrounds of Red Sox and Bruins players. Filippelli raises the possibility of a Liberty-focused magazine show down the road. It would also be nice to see pregame and postgame shows with analysis and player profiles.

But right now, the beauty of the NESN and YES deals is that fans get to sit back and consistently watch what happens.

Shira Springer (saspring@bu.edu) covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com