The WNBA is Entering Its Caitlin Clark Era - Latest Global News

The WNBA is Entering Its Caitlin Clark Era

When basketball phenom Caitlin Clark made her professional debut this week, it drew the largest television audience for a Women’s National Basketball Association game since 2001.

As Clark and other members of this year’s superstar rookie class begin the season, expectations are rising that the league is poised to catapult from niche fandom to mainstream success.

More than 2.1 million people watched Clark’s first game Tuesday night with the Indiana Fever, in which she scored 20 points and recorded three assists. The game, which aired on ESPN2, drew more viewers than the National Hockey League playoffs broadcast simultaneously on ESPN.

Clark is among the vanguard of 2024 WNBA rookies, including Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso, who achieved unprecedented success at the university, setting attendance records at many of their games, signing lucrative endorsement deals with Nike and Reebok and attracting millions of followers on social media.

A month ago, the Clark-Cardoso battle at the college basketball national championships drew 19 million viewers, tied with the Academy Awards, making it the most-watched sporting event in the United States in five years outside of American football.

The WNBA, now in its 28th season, hopes to bring that popularity to a league that has struggled to compete with other professional sports in the past.

Chicago Sky No. 10 Kamilla Cardoso during a preseason game earlier this month © David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The initial results were encouraging. More than 2.4 million people tuned in to watch last month’s player draft, in which the Fever selected Clark first overall, quadrupling the previous broadcast record. The league sold more jerseys in April than it sold in the entire 2023 season, a 34 percent increase, and each of its 12 teams is on track to set franchise records for ticket sales.

“I’ll be the first to tell anyone that this didn’t happen overnight,” WNBA chief growth officer Colie Edison told the Financial Times. The executives, known as “W,” are busy adding teams, negotiating new media rights deals with distributors and expanding access to charter flights for clubs. And last month’s college championship gave the league a new group of viewers to chase: About half of the national title game viewers weren’t already fans of the W, Edison said.

This week, the W unveiled the name of its next franchise, the Golden State Valkyries, expected to compete in 2025. The league wants to expand to 16 teams by 2028. However, comprehensive valuations for each current franchise are not publicly tracked. The Seattle Storm’s value was $151 million last year when they sold several minority shares, up from about $10 million in the 2000s.

Both the Men’s National Basketball Association and the WNBA are looking for their next round of media rights deals. Edison did not comment on the W’s current transfer value – reportedly worth $60 million – or how much it could bring in with the next contracts, but said the league would be open to a partnership with the NBA or independent negotiations, to get the best deal.

“Now it’s time to size them correctly [media] Ratings on numbers that reflect the true value of our league,” she said.

Some young fans wear Caitlin Clark jerseys © Darron Cummings/AP

Ted Leonsis, who has owned the WNBA’s Washington Mystics since 2005, said he has heard from media executives about renewed interest in the WNBA, particularly after the success of the women’s college ratings. Leonsis emphasized that the league is not just looking to increase rights fees.

“Money isn’t everything. The question is: How are you going to promote the game? How are you going to tell stories about the players, the coaches and the management? How are you going to curate All-Star Games? Will you be involved in the league’s success? ” he said.

The WNBA was on an upward trajectory before the arrival of Clark and others in its draft class – total viewership for the 2023 season was up 21 percent compared to last year. Still, it lags behind its male counterpart. According to Sports Media Watch, the W averaged 505,000 viewers during its regular season last year, while the NBA averaged 1.1 million viewers during its 2023-24 regular season.

Some see similarities between the Clark Reese moment in the WNBA and a formative time for men’s soccer. Basketball struggled to attract mainstream attention in the United States until the late 1970s, when two college rivals entered the NBA – generational superstars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who brought college fans with them and helped ushering in a new era for the league.

The comparatively underserved W was temporarily completely taken by surprise by the increasing interest. A preseason game between the Minnesota Lynx and Chicago Sky — featuring the professional debuts of Reese and Cardoso — was not televised earlier this month, so one fan was in attendance to stream the game on her phone. More than 400,000 people watched The current live and has more than 2.5 million views to date.

Indiana Fever No. 22 Caitlin Clark attempts a shot against Brionna Jones of the Connecticut Sun © Elsa/Getty Images

Ryan Tanke, chief operating officer of the Lynx, said the team has already been working to improve what it calls “direct fan access.”

“This is not business as usual, we have to make sure we accommodate this movement,” Tanke said, adding that the team hired more than 10 new people in its front office last year alone.

Meanwhile, the WNBA announced last week that it would allow teams to use charter flights for transportation between games. It is a standard offering in other professional leagues, but has been a hot topic within the W for years as the league’s relatively weaker financial condition made the use of charter flights untenable. The owners of the New York Liberty – Alibaba Chairman Joe Tsai and his wife Clara – were fined $500,000 in 2022 for violating rules that gave their team an unfair competitive advantage.

However, the rollout has not been uniform, with some teams flying privately this week while others relied on charter buses. Asked about the backlash, Edison said: “There will be growing pains, but all plans are in place to get things going as quickly as possible.”

There could be similar growing pains for Clark, who, in addition to her prolific scoring debut, also ran into foul trouble early in the game and recorded 10 turnovers. Still, the star said she’s focused on the future: “I would have liked to have played a little better tonight,” she said of her performance. “I think the most important thing is to learn from it and move on.”

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