What will constitute success for WNBA deal with ION? — Betnijah Laney talks New York Liberty — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Apr. 26, 2023

Happy Basketball Wednesday! When the WNBA prepared to announce its new deal to televise Friday night games on ION, I had some basic questions. First and foremost was: how much money are we talking about here?

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On Tuesday night, I was finally able to report that answer. And it’s quite a lot!

For a league stuck in an outdated media rights deal with ESPN through 2025 — seriously, that $33 million the league will get looks absurd now, just imagine how it looks by 2025 — this is a big chunk of change, some immediate cashflow for a league that isn’t getting those expansion rights fees, whose owners only get to partake in around 42 percent of the profit (or loss) thanks to the structure of WNBA ownership, and who will be facing rising pressure to increase salaries and add other benefits, like charter travel.

I mean, I guess the league will face it? I remain utterly flummoxed by the WNBPA’s unwillingness to advocate for itself publicly. Just today, in a Bloomberg piece detailing a falling share of total revenue, WNBPA Executive Terri Jackson gave a non-answer about how she feels about it, and Nneka Ogwumike, the PA president, declined to comment at all. The union knows a huge part of its work is being a public-facing organization, yes?

Meanwhile, the league has just more than paid for its 2023 charter travel, announced the night of the WNBA Draft, a further cash influx that did not require giving up ownership stake in the league itself. (How that decision — roughly 16 percent ownership in the entire league for $75 million — looks today, from the vantage point of selling three years of Friday night television rights for more than half that total, is something that keeps several owners I’ve spoken to up at night.)

But hindsight is 20-20, am I right folks? So the league presses on, making the best of decisions that, in the case of the ESPN deal, long preceded Engelbert. And I am more optimistic than most about this ION deal!

A dedicated timeslot, a motivated partner, a nice chunk of money, a potential for ancillary programming and promotion? This is not a reason for complaint unless you believe Cathy Engelbert turned down an offer for more money and a similar timeslot from, say, CBS itself.

The part I don’t know the answer to, however, is what constitutes a ratings win here. Something like a comparable audience to what the league gets on its ESPN broadcasts would be a huge win, of course, but expecting that out of the gate, before building the habit, is probably unrealistic. The nightmare scenario is something akin to how few people watched NWSL during its run with A&E, but even that represented greater risk to NWSL than this does for the WNBA, since it served as the soccer league’s primary television outlet — and its only one.

Let’s set the over/under on what a win looks like right at an average of 100k viewers per Friday night.

One more thing on expectation setting: Engelbert, once again, said this week that she hopes the next media rights deal is around $100 million. It is not at all clear to me why this is the public talking point in a world where MLS just got $250 million per annum from Apple TV+. Frankly, even by the standards of the ION deal, $100 million per year would be a disappointment. It should not be the initial public ask.

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This week in women’s basketball

Great to see The Jada Show win a Webby.

The WNBA’s financial picture, writ-large, is the biggest story in the sport over the next 2-3 years.

Rebecca Prenevost talks with Shauna Green of Illinois about recruiting.

An update on Brittney Griner’s on-court return.

Five at The IX: Betnijah Laney, New York Liberty

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.