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The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Nov. 15, 2023
As NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman sat on a podium next to her many successful suitors for a piece of the action broadcasting pro women’s soccer in this country for the next four years — at a price few could have imagined just a short time ago — my thoughts shifted to the next two biggest media rights resolutions coming in the women’s sports space: the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament in 2024 and the WNBA in 2025.
Berman sounded triumphant notes, and rightly so: $60 million a year for the next four years, broadcast partners that bring both an astonishing number of NWSL games to large-scale audiences like CBS, ESPN and Scripps, while preserving the opportunity to negotiate once again in 2027, should the current trajectory of women’s sports continue apace.
“This moment is a celebration, a celebration of how far we’ve come, but most importantly, of where we’re heading,” Berman said to an audience of media in-person and virtually on Friday. “This is the beginning of our future.”
This is not hyperbole. It’s math. A league that once offered minimum salaries of less than $6,000, and maximum salaries of $30,000, now faces a 2024 and beyond with the dramatically larger capacity to pay for everything that comes from $60 million a year, as opposed to $1.5 million.
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There will be endless negotiations over how that money is spent, and the players are fortunate to have a powerhouse attorney, Meghann Burke, in charge of the NWSLPA. But the point is: you can’t divide a pot of money that isn’t there.
All of which brings us to the pivotal moment ahead for the WNBA. And no one quite knows whether the league is positioned perfectly for it, or if the moment will come a bit too late.
The positives: follow that trajectory, add two years, and in theory a league that’s been saddled by a rights deal that paid just pennies on the dollar for the WNBA’s largest selection of games and jewel events (All Star and playoffs), maxing out at $33 million in 2025. The more market-appropriate Scripps deal with the WNBA helps, at $13 million per season, but to truly alter the league’s economics, a new deal that dwarfs even NWSL’s $60 million per season is required. That’s the reality of a league where team owners effectively own around 42 percent of their own teams, due to the $75 million raised by selling league equity and the previous stake held by NBA owners, which had been 50% of the league. NWSL’s structure offers no such restrictions. $60 million is $60 million (give or take in-house production costs).
Multiple executives — the more skeptical ones — have also noted to me that the NWSL has fairly smoothly moved toward 16 teams, while the WNBA remains stuck at 13. That, too, is a math problem, but it could quickly morph into a crisis-of-confidence problem.
Meanwhile ESPN, which did not take my suggestion to successfully negotiate early with the WNBA and try and lock in a discount, has now lost that opportunity.
But while ESPN did not take the opportunity to talk up its overall place in the women’s sports sphere when I asked their executive at the NWSL event, Rosalyn Durant, how she viewed the network’s place in the larger women’s sports landscape.
“It is an excellent question,” Durant said. “For today, we’re focused on NWSL and we want to celebrate them and happy to address the other leagues at a different time.”
If ESPN is preparing an offer to dwarf what NWSL was paid, this was an ideal opportunity to position itself.
That’s the worry in many quarters of the WNBA, however. What if ESPN isn’t, as its subscriber numbers keep dropping and a bill is coming due next year simply to hold onto the NCAA Tournament? What if ESPN views the two properties as an either/or? Will it truly prioritize the league which, for all of its audience growth, has never come close to approaching the 10 million who watched Iowa-LSU in last year’s national collegiate final?
The league sweats every single audience number, and for good reason. NWSL, meanwhile, put up a solid number for its title game, though it was down from 2022’s high.
No matter. The ink on the NWSL media rights deal is dry.
The upcoming period of time will be the defining moment for the WNBA — either the beginning of its future, as Berman described the current moment for NWSL, or the kind of missed opportunity those of us who care about women’s sports be rueing for generations. No pressure.
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