The WNBA progress is coming, fast and sometimes messy — Katie Lou Samuelson talks Fever, WNBA autonomy

The IX: Basetball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, May 8, 2024

Happy Basketball Wednesday, presented by The BIG EAST Conference. As word spread on Tuesday afternoon that the WNBA would be chartering flights for all travel — “as soon as we can get planes in places”, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, providing an amusing visual of Cathy on a tarmac — my phone started blowing up.

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As one general manager put it to me: “I hope we booked refundable!” Another touted the power of e-credits. All of which is to say: this was news that caught virtually everyone across the league by surprise.

That’s happened before, but typically it has been the bad news that gets buried. No one was upset about this shocker, with a collective response far closer to “surprise vacation to Cancun!” than “you’re being audited”.

But it is part of a current movement that is sweeping across the WNBA landscape and leading to changes, infrastructure built in real-time moments. Not all of it is happening in the buttoned-up way we’ve seen the WNBA operate for years.

The announcement itself, coming on the heels of a tweet by the great Christine Brennan from Engelbert herself, didn’t go through numerous drafts, stops and starts, or even include the kind of conversation with stakeholders that can lead to collective buy-in. None was necessary here, with the league stepping forward to assert it now has the money to spend.

To understand how quickly this has changed, consider that back in 2021, the New York Liberty said it had found a way to get charter travel comped for three years. The league worried the charter travel, once started, couldn’t be walked back, and nixed the Liberty’s idea.

As in most ways right now, this is about Caitlin Clark but it isn’t about Caitlin Clark all at the same time. Clark’s audience has, it turns out, transferred. In much the same way that the NWSL eventually took advantage of the U.S. women’s national team popularity, the WNBA has seen demand for its product jump dramatically.

Stathead Stat of the Week

Breanna Stewart had 31 points and 10 rebounds in the Liberty’s face-off with Indiana on Thursday. That’s Stewart’s 13th game with 30+ points and 10+ rebounds, tying her for the second most in WNBA history. The only player with more is Tina Charles, with 15.

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But it’s not simply an audience for Clark — we’re not talking about Fever games alone, either. Back in 2019, the WNBA proudly touted a 24% increase in average viewership of its games on ESPN. The average viewership jumped all the way to 306,000. That is: regular season games on a national cable network found in hundreds of millions of homes.

The WNBA did not broadcast the Chicago Sky vs. Minnesota Lynx preseason game last Friday night. So a Lynx fan, from her seat, did so. And it drew, at its peak, more than 200,000 viewers. From her phone. The WNBA Finals games in 2023 averaged 728,000 viewers. A 20-year high! Great news!

More than 2.5 million people have viewed the Sky vs. Lynx preseason game as recorded on a phone.

The league drew criticism for streaming the Fever preseason opener but not Sky vs. Lynx, but the WNBA had a very good reason for this: there was no broadcast for them to pick up and stream. In theory, instead of showing up on the tarmac, Cathy could have gone to the game with her phone and done this, but that doesn’t feel like the optimal use of the league’s commissioner.

Also: finding a solution to the audience pining for a Sky vs. Lynx preseason game, and prioritizing it amid all the developments requiring more, more, more from the WNBA feels like a different caliber of urgent than it was, literally, last week. Because now we know that a fan’s streaming of a WNBA preseason game has a built-in floor of 200,000 fans.

It does speak to something that Engelbert and the league couldn’t have simply assumed — that we would see that immediate transfer of audience to the pro league. NWSL took many years to pick up the USWNT audience, and went through labor pains, terrible scandals, multiple commissioners, and a truly microscopic revenue stream from its piddling television deals. It took Jessica Berman to connect those power lines, essentially. Even that took a while. Which is normal.

This? This isn’t normal! What’s happening in the WNBA is happening at a speed most leagues simply aren’t equipped to handle. These are first-world problems, but a bumpy ride is likely ahead. There is a common concern among some players and agents I’ve spoken to that the league, having declared charter travel the law of the land, will cry poor as a result of it heading into what is widely expected to be an official opting out of the current collective bargaining agreement by the players. This had the added advantage in prior WNBA CBA negotiations of being true, and even now, the league cannot yet cash checks it hasn’t received.

But Engelbert and the league are about to play a game men’s leagues have in collective bargaining for a long time, while the Players’ Association is going to need to show it is able to produce a consistent, public messaging on revenue and receiving its fair share. Whether leadership is capable of that laser focus on revenue share, rather than ancillary issues, remains one of the unanswered questions in the eyes of many around the league. It did not escape notice that this charter breakthrough came from a league declaration, not a negotiated point with the union.

Ultimately, it will be incumbent upon Engelbert and the league to get this right, to spend more on what will allow the league to get bigger, faster, and not overspend in the current moment, while keeping labor peace. That’s not easy when putting a dollar figure on what women’s basketball moment we’re living in seems to shift, hour-by-hour.

But on everything from paid attendance to the cash cow of media rights deal coming in the months ahead, the forecasted tsunami of money, and what it can mean for the league, keeps growing. Note that the reporting of late on NBA rights isn’t including the more-valuable-by-the-day WNBA rights as a potential add-on, with Cathy Engelbert far more focused on the WNBA’s future specifically than the NCAA leaders who packaged the women’s basketball tournament with everything other than the men’s basketball tournament (which has been earning $880 million per season), took $65 million for it, and called it a day.

So the buildings have to go up fast. The Connecticut Sun were not going to televise their preseason game against the New York Liberty. (The lack of preseason television broadcasts has long been a point of contention for WNBA fans.) But they got creative, and with 24 hours to spare…

There will be breakthroughs, there will be well-meaning misses, there will be ill-advised attempts that lead to social media dunking which, as it always does, will quickly subside. It’s probably worth looking into details before getting mad, by the way: the specifics of so many public outrages are way more complicated than the angry tweet about it.

Instead of perfection, this needs to be the standard: everyone should be scrambling to try more, do more, lift more, to maximize this women’s basketball zeitgeist. I think it’s fair to say that for much of the WNBA’s history, it did not operate this way.

I don’t think it’s going to get everything right. But clearly, Engelbert and the WNBA understand the task, and the opportunity, in front of it right now. That may be a bigger win that anything Caitlin Clark has done.

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Talia Goodman’s news is public and I could not be more excited for her.

Great stuff here from Talia on JuJu.Love to see Rotowire investing in WNBA coverage.

Lucy Olsen is giving back.

It really looks like Kate Martin is going to make the Aces.

Courtney Vandersloot isn’t close to ready to shut it down.

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Five at The IX: Katie Lou Samuelson, Indiana Fever

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Written by Howard Megdal

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