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The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, June 15, 2022
Last week, a group of reporters, myself included, met with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert to discuss league topics prior to a New York Liberty game at Barclays Center.
In that media avail, I asked Engelbert about the league’s eagerness to negotiate a new media rights deal. The current deal with ESPN runs through 2025, and paid the league $27 million in 2021, growing to a paltry $33 million by 2025. Other deals, with partners ranging from CBS Sports Network to Twitter, added anywhere from $250,000 in the case of Twitter in 2021 to $1.5 million from Amazon Prime in 2021. All numbers are from an internal league document shared with The IX.
“It’s not about, let’s rush to renegotiate a media contract,” Engelbert said. “It’s, let’s disrupt the valuation model so that when we negotiate our next media deal or set of media deals… we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t rush into something before a lot of that plays out.”
These are all reasonable points, of course. What the league loses by waiting became clearer than ever this week, when Major League Soccer signed a ten-year deal with Apple TV that will pay MLS $250 million per season.
The news raised the eyebrows of numerous people around the league. Multiple league sources have told The IX that the league has set an internal target of $100 million per year out of a new rights deal, something that represents a payday on par with MLS’ old deal, rather than anything approaching what the soccer league is about to receive.
And here’s the thing: MLS is a remarkable comp for the WNBA in any number of ways. In terms of season size, for instance, the teams play 34 matches apiece, to the 36 for the WNBA — the league, internally, plans to explore moving to as many as 44 by 2025, according to an internal document last November. And while MLS has 28 teams now, to just 12 in the WNBA, plans to grow to as many as 16 in the WNBA by 2025 were being discussed late last year as well. (Amusingly, the leagues differ in this way: many are critical of the WNBA for adding teams too slowly, while much of the MLS public conversation over the past decade came from wondering if the league was adding teams too fast.)
As for the games themselves, the ratings are strikingly similar. These are leagues that are roughly the same age, that faced, to my mind, weirdly angry response to their rises. I love MLS, I covered MLS, but there are folks who get angry in that irrationally hateful way about American soccer the way they do about women playing sports. (People are strange, you guys.)
So Engelbert talked about gathering more data, but I gotta say, I don’t know what kind of additional data you need. The most similar pro league to yours just got $250 million per annum for broadcast rights. And by the way, it puts all the games in one place — that’s a necessary component of the MLS deal, sure, but it also addresses the single biggest complaint I hear from every WNBA fan, which is that many people don’t know how to find the damn game they want to watch. It even would allow the WNBA to move on from the technical limitations of its own League Pass. And while it eliminates local broadcasts, well, let’s just say the quality of those varies sufficiently that it’ll be considered a win in some markets, too.
I do know what waiting could mean, though. A recession. A change in how the marketplace views live TV. A consolidation of streaming options that specifically hurts the WNBA’s bottom line, since fewer competitors for the league’s business could limit how many entities bid on it. And so many unknowns. Have you been paying attention to the last few years? Assuming we know what’s going to come next, well, it’s sure not a luxury I indulge in anymore.
Let’s also understand the sense of scale here: the WNBA just sold 15.8 percent of ITSELF for a one-time payment of $75 million. This is a payday for MLS that is more than three times that much EVERY SINGLE YEAR, with no equity given up in the process.
Here’s the place the comparison breaks down: MLS had come to the end of its media rights deal. ESPN has the WNBA signed through 2025.
This is why what I proposed in my question to Engelbert was akin to a Major League Baseball team signing an extension with a superstar young player still in his arbitration years. You save a little on the ultimate free agency price, in exchange for providing more goodwill capital up front. Yordan Alvarez just signed a deal like this with the Astros, but it is incredibly common.
This part is not in the league’s control, of course, and Engelbert addressed this as well.
“It’s not like if we went and tried to go to ESPN or anybody today and said we want to renegotiate this, it’s not the right time, because they’ll use the same model,” she said.
The thing is: the same model is what was just used to give MLS the kind of payday that would solve so many of the league’s thorniest issues, from player salaries to charter flights, even, as a deal with MLS money would both trigger the league’s revenue sharing targets in the new CBA and provide revenue that dwarfs leaguewide cost of charter travel — a pot of money that big gives the league freedom that is almost unfathomable.
Multiple high-level WNBA figures expressed dismay over the idea of the league signing for as little as $100 million per year in a new media rights deal — again, the internally expressed target goal — and even more so over the idea of waiting.
“We can’t let Cathy settle for this,” one league source put it.
But right now? Even that money isn’t on the table. A public pressure campaign and high-profile flirting with other outlets? That has to be the play. Because this is the reason players sign extensions ahead of their free agent years — eliminate risk, and get set up for life.
That’s what the MLS deal would do for the WNBA.
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