2022 has been another year of exceptional growth in women’s professional team sport.
Uefa Women’s Euro 2022 set more records in women’s football, where club teams hold enormous potential. In cricket, plans are emerging for a women’s version of the all-conquering Indian Premier League from 2023.
There is still some way to go but it all reflects progress across the board, with brand interest matched by a rise in female leadership and top athletes growing in cultural and financial power. That pattern is repeated through one of women’s sports’ best established pioneers.
Launched in the US back in 1997, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has entered its second quarter-century with a record-setting regular season. Television viewership was up 16 per cent over 2021 , with average figures of 379,000 per game and total audiences across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and CBS reaching a 14-year high. 100 games were shown live. The audience for the All Star Game rose 53 per cent, while the WNBA Draft was the most watched since 2004.
On the WNBA’s social media channels, video views rose 36 per cent for the year to 186 million, while traffic to WNBA.com doubled and subscriptions to the WNBA League Pass OTT service were up ten per cent.
Back in February, the WNBA announced a $75 million funding round involving dozens of investors, female business leaders, sports team owners and brands like Nike. Billed as ‘the largest-ever capital raise for a women's sports property’, that gave the league and its teams a $1 billion valuation overall, according to CNBC.
Those new resources are earmarked for a revamp to the WNBA’s business model, with a concerted marketing drive and improved digital and fan engagement products. The deal follows a 2020 collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, that committed teams to improving player pay and offering a raft of female-focused healthcare and career development benefits. Expanding the number of teams is also a priority: there are currently 12, each of which has a 12-player roster.
For all the advances made in women’s sport over the last few years, and the platform the WNBA has provided, the discrepancies between its profile and that of men’s major leagues in North America are huge. That has all kinds of knock-on effects.
Hanging over this season has been the painful episode of Brittney Griner, one of the elite performers in women’s basketball over the past decade, who has been held in custody for several months in Russia on drug charges. The particulars of Griner’s case are complex, legally and diplomatically. Still, it is striking that she felt compelled to play a season in the Russian league - prior to that country’s invasion of Ukraine - in order to top up her WNBA salary. It remains common for even leading stars to spend their off-season competing in Europe or Asia, a prospect that would be hard to imagine in the men’s game.
The common expectation is that the WNBA will strive now to improve its visibility but there are also signs that brands can work with players to reach new fans. Heading into the playoffs, Chicago Sky’s 2021 WNBA finals MVP Kahleah Coppah secured an endorsement deal with Gatorade. Four-time All-Star A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces became the first female athlete to sign with Ruffles, joining NBA icon LeBron James in promoting the snack brand.
The next generation of WNBA stars will have had opportunities to build a commercial presence on the college scene due to new name, image and likeness (NIL) rights rules.
Those at the other end of their careers - Seattle Storm’s legendary Sue Bird retires after the playoffs aged 41 - could have new ways to extend their influence, too. In 2021, after a takeover at the Atlanta Dream, Renee Montgomery became the first former player to co-own a WNBA team.
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