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What the 2023 WNBA season will tell us about the future of the league

‘Growth’ is the word on everyone’s lips as the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) returns for its 27th season. As the teams prepare for tip-off, SportsPro breaks down some of the key off-court talking points going into the new campaign.

19 May 2023 Sam Carp

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The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) is growing.

The 2023 regular season, which tips off on Friday and runs until September, will feature a record 40 games per team. There is also going to be more nationwide coverage of those matchups this year, with a new deal with Ion Television complementing the league’s existing agreements with the likes of ESPN, CBS and Amazon.

Yet amid a surge in viewership and investment in women’s sport, there is a nagging sense that now is the time for the WNBA to expand further and cement itself as the leading domestic women’s basketball competition for women.

Indeed, new media rights deals and expansion loom large on the horizon, and the WNBA’s 27th season should reveal much about what the league’s future will look like. That future appears bright, but the competition’s powerbrokers will be keen to ensure that the ongoing discourse around pay and working conditions does not have a ripple effect on any upcoming commercial discussions.

With all that in mind, SportsPro looks at some of the key storylines set to dominate the off-court conversation between now and the finals in October.

Expansion remains on hold even as investors circle women’s sports

The 12-team WNBA has not added a new franchise since 2008, when the Atlanta Dream joined the league, but there is perhaps no better time for the competition to expand in a moment when women’s sports teams are an increasingly attractive proposition for investors.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently reported that the Seattle Storm, one of the WNBA’s most successful teams, are now valued at US$151 million on the back of a minority stake sale – a figure said to be about 15 times the price of several WNBA teams sold previously. A new franchise is unlikely to command that level of investment but the number speaks to just how much the stock of women’s sports properties has risen in recent years.

Portland, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Nashville have all been mentioned as possible destinations for a WNBA team. The 19,923 fans that attended the league’s inaugural Canada game at Scotiabank Arena earlier this month also reaffirmed Toronto’s credentials as a viable home for a professional women’s basketball franchise. Yet the league appears to be in no rush to expand.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert had hoped to name an expansion city at the end of last year with the intention of a new team potentially joining in 2024. The former Deloitte chief executive has since revised that target, saying in February that expansion remains two to four years away, with the aim to have at least one additional franchise from 2025.

That could be too late for several players, some of whom have been calling for expansion to come sooner as the league’s existing teams make roster cuts ahead of the new campaign.

‘We need more teams,’ veteran guard Natasha Cloud tweeted earlier this month, shortly after seeing teammates Evina Westbrook and Alisia Jenkins waived from the Washington Mystics roster. ‘These players deserve to be on a roster. It really kills me.’

The WNBA’s cautious approach seems more curious when juxtaposed with the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which has wasted no time in capitalising on the growing interest in women’s sports. Four sides have joined the competition since 2021 and a further two franchises will bring the total number of teams to 14 from next year, including a club in the Bay Area which commanded a record expansion fee of US$53 million.

Perhaps buoyed by the scale of that investment, NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman told the Washington Post earlier this month that she now wants the league to grow to 16 teams by 2026.

For the WNBA, Engelbert said in a recent interview with Sports Business Journal that expansion is “the next thing we’re working really hard on” but said “we’re not that far down the road” with any of the cities that have expressed interest.

“We’ve been doing a lot of heavy lifting in this offseason,” she said. “I’d certainly like to see two more teams come into the league, that opens up 24 more roster spots, and longer term hopefully more than that.

“I haven’t made it a secret that I’ve been travelling around, listening. We did a huge data analysis of 100 cities, demographics, psychographics, NCAA women’s viewership, arenas, Fortune 500 companies. You need all of that, you need committed owners long term. We have a lot of interest from a lot of cities. I’d say we’ve narrowed the hundred down to 20 or so.

“I haven’t been shy about saying that we wanted to transform the business and economic model so that our existing owners and new owners have a higher chance to be successful.”

Scripps TV deal promises to make WNBA appointment viewing

One reason Engelbert will want to have expansion teams either ready to play or confirmed by 2025 is likely because that is when the WNBA’s existing broadcast agreement with ESPN will expire.

The partnership, which was worth US$27 million to the WNBA last season and will reportedly pay US$33 million in the deal’s final year, has been crucial in growing the profile of the league, with Disney once again set to show 25 games nationally across its ESPN and ABC channels this season. Live match coverage is also going to be available across CBS platforms, Amazon Prime Video, Twitter and the League Pass streaming service.

However, a new television deal with The E.W. Scripps Company promises more revenue and reach for the WNBA from 2023 onwards. Terms of the multi-year agreement have not been disclosed, but Forbes reports that the contract is worth US$39 million in total and will expire at the same time as the league’s partnership with ESPN.

Crucially, the deal ensures that WNBA games will air on Scripps’ Ion Television network in two dedicated Friday night slots. That is something that ESPN hasn’t been able to guarantee, with fixtures being televised on different days and on different channels, and not always at the same time. The league will hope that giving fans a regular broadcast window to cement in their diaries will create viewing habits similar to the way Americans engage with the National Basketball Association (NBA) on Thursday nights and National Football League (NFL) on Sunday afternoons.

The WNBA’s broadcast deal with ESPN expires in 2025

The Scripps deal comes as TV ratings for the WNBA and women’s basketball in general continue to soar. Regular season viewership last season was up 16 per cent compared to 2021 and the playoffs were hailed as the most watched in 20 years. The recent WNBA Draft, meanwhile, delivered 572,000 viewers, up 42 per cent on last year, which came a week after a record 9.9 million people watched Louisiana State University beat the University of Iowa in the Women’s March Madness final.

That all bodes well for the WNBA as it prepares to negotiate its next national media rights deal from 2026 onwards. Engelbert told The Athletic in April that the process will begin in 12 to 18 months and said she saw the Scripps deal as an “absolutely positive sign” ahead of going to market.

“It’s the number one thing I’m focused on as it relates to the economic model,” Engelbert added, this time speaking to SBJ about the next broadcast deal. “And, especially women’s sports, where their under-valuation is so stark to me. Because when you look at some of our metrics and our viewership and now, we’ll get a lift from the women’s March Madness, we are at or above some of the smaller men’s professional leagues, yet their media rights are 12 to 15 times ours.”

Will players opt out of the current CBA?

According to Bloomberg, the WNBA will generate between US$180 million and US$200 million in combined league and team revenue this season, which is nearly double the reported US$102 million made in 2019. That number has been boosted by the aforementioned Scripps deal, a growing roster of sponsors and a US$75 million investment received at the start of last year.

While more money coming into the league can only be a good thing, it has shone a light on player pay and the terms of the WNBA’s existing collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which runs until 2027. Announced in 2020, the deal was widely hailed as a positive step at the time and included a provision for 50-50 revenue sharing from 2021 if certain league targets were met. It also ensured a 53 per cent increase in total cash compensation, with the minimum player salary for this season standing at US$62,285 and the maximum at US$234,936.

However, Bloomberg reports that the players’ share of revenue shrank to 9.3 per cent during 2022 financial year, down nearly two per cent compared to 2019. That is in stark contrast to athletes in the men’s NBA, who will receive 51 per cent of ‘basketball related income’ under their recently announced CBA.

WNBA stars have historically sought to maximise their income by spending the offseason playing in overseas leagues that typically pay better salaries. The introduction of paid player marketing agreements (PMAs) has allowed a handful of players to spend their offseason at home in return for appearing at league-affiliated events, removing the need for them to travel abroad. But the issue was laid bare by the case of Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who was detained for ten months in Russia on drug-related charges after cannabis oil was discovered in her luggage.

Griner recently said that she will not play club basketball overseas again and other WNBA players may be considering following her lead with the league’s ‘prioritization’ rule coming into effect from this season. The controversial clause, which is built into the current CBA, essentially dictates that players give priority to the WNBA ahead of overseas competitions or risk being hit with penalties.

Under the rule, contracted WNBA players who do not report for the start of training camp will have their base salary docked one per cent for each missed day. The punishment is even greater for those who miss the start of the regular season, which will result in players being suspended without pay for the entire campaign.

Brittney Griner has said she won’t play abroad again after being detained for ten months in Russia

The league’s stance is understandable given that star players returning late or after the start of the season has a negative impact on the on-court product. But in a sport where the gender pay gap is already a delicate issue, the prioritisation rule threatens to cause even further friction in the coming months.

“I think prioritisation needs to be talked about and addressed,” New York Liberty star Breanna Stewart said in September last year. “It’s one of the biggest disconnects between the players and the WNBA board of governors. The fact of the matter is there are a lot of players going overseas. This is something that will affect the majority of the players in our league. It should be interesting.”

It is the latest point of tension between the WNBA and its players, who in recent years have called on the league to allow more private flights – even though they signed off the existing CBA without charters.

To its credit, the WNBA has expanded the use of charter flights for this season to cover back-to-back regular season games and all playoff fixtures, a move that the Associated Press (AP) reports will cost the league US$4.5 million.

Still, the strength of those player-league relations this season will go a long way to determining whether the WNBA athletes decide to opt out of the current CBA after the 2025 season.

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