As WNBA enters ‘tipping point,’ key questions remain on how to approach expansion

Duke forward Imani Lewis’ first love was football. When she was about 5 or 6 years old, she was approached by basketball coaches at her older brother’s tournament about a career on the hardwood.

She tried basketball and eventually played both sports until she was a sophomore in high school. Back then, she chose the orange ball because she saw a viable career path in the WNBA.

“I would say the WNBA motivated me to start my career,” Lewis, 23, said of her decision to pursue basketball. “Listening to the stories of WNBA players made me relate to them, and that gave me a passion. If they just did it like that, then I can do it with the little to no skills I have now.”

The WNBA, in its 26th season, opens the postseason on Wednesday. A generation of basketball players like Lewis grew up with it. Now the league has reached a tipping point, with talks swirling about expansion and TV exposure. The challenge of the WNBA is to heal those pain points to make the game grow.

The WNBA has announced plans to expand by at least two teams over the next few years.  (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

The WNBA has announced plans to expand by at least two teams over the next few years. (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

TV exposure

Before becoming college basketball’s most dominant player, Aliyah Boston of South Carolina studied WNBA players like Candace Parker and A’ja Wilson. When a woman made a conspicuous step at the post, the 20-year-old Boston would point it out to her parents and say, “I need to practice that.”

When she tried to bring conversations about the league to her friends group, she was dismayed to receive responses like, “Oh, I’m not really watching it.”

“And I think, well, you definitely need to check it out,” she said, laughing. “That’s where you want to go. I mean, it’s definitely the next step after college.”

Boston’s theory as to why people aren’t talking about or seeing the WNBA is because they can’t find it.

In 2021, the WNBA had 100 games televised nationally between the ESPN, NBATV, and CBS Sports Network networks. This season, the NBA had 538 nationally televised regular season games on ABC, ESPN, NBATV and TNT. There are 30 NBA teams compared to the WNBA’s 12. Even accounting for this difference (by multiplying the number of NBA games by 40% since 12 is 40% of 30), the NBA still had more than twice as many nationally televised games as the WNBA (about 215 ). The Los Angeles Lakers (42), Golden State Warriors (41) and Brooklyn Nets (37) broadcast 120 games nationwide.

“If you don’t make it accessible, it’s difficult,” Boston said.

Aliyah Boston led South Carolina to a national championship win this year in front of a TV audience of 4.85 million on ESPN.  (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Aliyah Boston led South Carolina to a national championship win this year in front of a TV audience of 4.85 million on ESPN. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

She argued that when women’s sports are shown on TV, people watch. The 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game between South Carolina and UConn, which she officiated, averaged 4.85 million viewers on the ESPN networks, the most-watched title game since 2004. Viewership peaked at 5.91 million viewers. When they received the ESPN treatment on Sunday night, the women’s hoops were up to the occasion.

Kelsey Plum of the Las Vegas Aces was heard on the league’s streaming platform, WNBA League Pass, and on service TV during All-Star Weekend.

“For me personally it’s so interesting when people tune in where I can watch the game and I think well you have to download this app then you have to put this in and oh it’s blacked out so you have to go to this place,” she said. “I would just like to [to] easier and more accessible for fans to see. We understand the product is great and when we get people to watch the game they love it, but the hardest part is getting people there.”

Lack of visibility is a problem faced by women’s sport as a whole. A study by professors from Purdue University and the University of Southern California found that women get 3% to 5% of all sports media coverage. And when that coverage comes in, the study found that it’s often of lower quality and production value.

In the context of the study, the production value refers to the technical production, i.e. how much game material, music, graphics and interviews are contained in sports stories by women. The report noted that women’s sports stories don’t often guide shows like SportsCenter, and that stories that do tend to be longer and of better quality.

The WNBA All-Star weekend included significant logistical and transmission traps. The 2022 Skills Contest and 3-Point Contest were banned on ESPNU and were not open to the public nor available for streaming on WNBA League Pass.

However, ESPN has significantly increased its WNBA coverage. That year, the outlet launched Fantasy Women’s Basketball, the first full-size fantasy game for a major women’s sport. ESPN also hosted its first WNBA draft preview show in April this year and aired a free agency studio show in February.

Blair Green, 23, plays basketball at the University of Kentucky. Her best friend and former roommate Rhyne Howard plays for the Atlanta Dream. To see Howard, Green often has to navigate the WNBA League Pass, which many fans, media, and even WNBA players have publicly criticized as not being user-friendly.

A league source said the WNBA is “committed to developing a world-class product.” The league has implemented fan feedback and will continue to do so.

“She [TV networks] don’t talk about it [WNBA games] so much,” Green said. “When a big game comes along, you don’t really hear about it. Like someone could talk to me like, ‘Have you seen the game?’ And I was like, ‘What game? I haven’t heard anything about it.’”

A new WNBA media rights deal will begin in 2024, which could offer the league an opportunity to generate more revenue and improve player profiles. The current deal with ESPN brings the WNBA $25 million a year. Sports Illustrated reported that the league aims to increase that number to $100 million a year with the new contract.

Before Apple and Major League Soccer — a league comparable in size, age, and TV ratings to the WNBA — signed a $2.5 billion, 10-year deal, it was getting $90 million a year .

undertake expansion

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced plans to expand the league in May and later told The Athletic she hopes to add two teams as early as 2024.

The news came after players clamored for more roster spots amid preseason cuts. Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm called it a “watershed moment” for the league on Twitter.

“I hate to see so many great players get dropped from WNBA teams.” She wrote. “Salaries have increased, but a very restrictive cap has left teams in a bind. We need to mitigate it so our league can grow. The WNBA needs to adapt as soon as possible [before the next CBA]The current CBA runs from 2020 to 2027 (although the Women’s National Basketball Players Association may opt out in November 2024).

Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart believes the WNBA needs to create the most roster spots so the league can retain and develop a growing pool of talented young players.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart believes the WNBA needs to create the most roster spots so the league can retain and develop a growing pool of talented young players. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The WNBA is one of the most difficult professional leagues to create a roster in. Its 12 teams are only allowed to carry a maximum of 12 players, giving a total of 144 places. Due to salary caps, teams often do not maintain full rosters. Lottery tips and veterans were not used during the training camp this year.

“It’s very sad because a girl’s dream is to be in the WNBA,” Lewis said. “Everyone cheers them on. These coaches say we want them on the team, but they don’t have the space. This is unacceptable.”

Between cuts and the league’s upcoming prioritization clause, the WNBA is at a talent retention crossroads. Could expanding the league help retain players and grow the game? And if so, should the WNBA focus first on adding new franchises or expanding roster spots?

Two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker said she would prefer to add roster spots first, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. When it comes to the league’s long-term success, Parker and other WNBA players believe that unless young players are given the opportunity to develop before they are pushed into key roles, a talent gap will form.

“I would prefer to have more roster slots than expand,” Parker said. “In terms of a league, we will lose some stars, especially in the next three years. My question is, will we have enough stars to carry these other two franchises?”

Lewis said she thinks it would be easier to add to teams that already exist than to start new ones and find a place to house them, which could involve building new facilities.

“When you add a team, you look at the venues and the cities and there are so many things to look at,” she said. Adding roster slots, on the other hand, appears to be an entirely internal operation.

The addition of franchises would increase the league’s total roster slots and provoke an expansion draft. A league source said teams can claim players listed as available in such a draft by other franchises. This could temporarily soften the blow of the preseason and inseason cuts on both experienced and young talent.

The WNBA’s inaugural season in 1996 featured eight teams: Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Utah. In 2000, the league had 16 teams. It is in its 26th season at 12, with the Atlanta Dream being the most recent addition in 2008.

Although the WNBA is a fledgling league, there aren’t many precedents to refer to when planning next steps, as not many professional women’s leagues have survived 26 years. But it’s clear that the WNBA has reached a critical juncture where it must contend with issues that are hampering its growth.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the WNBA expansion. Continue reading:

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