WNBA ratings were soaring heading into the Finals, a showdown between the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun, but the best-of-five series ran up against scheduling challenges—which has become the norm for the league. The Finals face competition from the opening weeks of the NFL season, a problem without an obvious solution since the WNBA’s early season schedule conflicts with the international basketball calendar, a pay-driven challenge unique to the W.
The 2022 regular season was the league’s most watched since 2008. Regular season numbers for the W have long remained relatively stagnant, but the 25 games that aired on Disney’s networks this season saw a 19% jump over 2021. The regular season finale between the now-champion Aces and the Seattle Storm on Aug. 14—which rounded out basketball legend Sue Bird’s farewell season—peaked at a whopping 1.1 million viewers.
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The postseason, which is typically where WNBA viewership makes the biggest strides, kept the upward trend going. Going into the championship tilt between the Aces and the Sun, this year’s playoffs were the league’s the most viewed since 2002. The Finals themselves presented a seemingly ripe opportunity for monster ratings—but the series’ potential was handicapped from the start by competition with the start of the NFL season.
The Aces’ crusade for the franchise’s first title, led by MVP and DPOY A’ja Wilson and first-year head coach Becky Hammon, started with a Sunday afternoon clash on ABC that was played amid Week 1 of the NFL schedule. The game went head-to-head with the last hour of the NFL’s early window (which drew 17.4M viewers on CBS and 12.1M on Fox) and the shared late afternoon window (which saw 18.5M viewers on Fox and another 17.4M on CBS). Early metrics still showed spikes in WNBA viewership, with Game 1 racking up an average of 555,000 viewers for the most-viewed Finals’ opener in five years. That number was up 18% year over year, according to ESPN, despite the competition.
Games 2, 3 and 4 of the final series were broadcast on ESPN’s main network, but scheduling again presented competition for eyeballs. Tuesday’s Game 2, unopposed on the NFL front, averaged 649,000 viewers on ESPN according to Nielsen, which was down 18% from Game 2 of last year’s Chicago Sky-Phoenix Mercury series. Game 3’s 9 p.m. ET tip-time on Thursday put it in direct conflict with Thursday Night Football, and the potentially series-ending clash saw a modest 9% jump over 2021 as a result. Sunday’s Game 4 put the Finals series once again up against a packed football slate. Viewership statistics for Game 4 were not released as of publication.
Through the first three games of this year’s Finals, Disney’s deliveries were essentially flat compared to 2021. The average draw of around 594,000 viewers per telecast marks a gain of just 0.8% year over year after the most-watched regular season in more than a decade.
To be clear, any programming that runs opposite the NFL tends to lose out, not just the WNBA. Game 1’s big viewership spikes therefore suggest that most of the WNBA’s audience was composed of die-hard fans as opposed to casual on-lookers. If the W wants to maximize viewership and entice those more casual fans, the continual conundrum of putting the Finals up against the NFL needs to be solved.
Avoiding conflicts altogether amid a crowded fall sports calendar is a tricky task, particularly with the WNBA historically preferring Sunday launch slots during the postseason, likely to avoid conflict with ESPN’s college football commitments. Pushing the start of the season up to wrap the playoffs before September begins is the obvious suggestion, but it’s essentially a nonstarter for the WNBA. The league’s early weeks already overlap with the international women’s basketball schedule, which is a red-hot issue given that almost half of the league’s 144 players competed abroad last year to earn additional income.
In an effort to keep players from leaving the U.S. for leagues abroad after the WNBA’s summer season ends, the league negotiated a new “prioritization rule” in its 2020 CBA that goes into effect starting with the 2023 season. The rule requires WNBA players to prioritize their commitments to the league over international opportunities and establishes punishments for those who fail to do so.
Starting in 2023, players with more than two years of experience in the W who fail to report to their teams by May 1 or in time for the start of training camp (whichever is later) will be fined. Missing the start of the regular season will result in a suspension for the year. The stakes are even higher in 2024, with season-long suspensions in store for players who don’t join their teams by the start of training camp.
To make those deadlines, players may need to miss the end of their international seasons as is, putting them at a crossroads and clouding the WNBA futures of many. Several have already indicated that the overseas income may be too lucrative to pass up. Even if other non-U.S. leagues adjust their schedules to minimize conflicts with the current WNBA calendar, moving the WNBA season up further to avoid NFL intersection would likely create even more conflict.
There’s no clear answer as to how the W should work around ratings-hampering NFL conflicts. What is clear is that competing with football’s household dominance is costing the league a chance to maximize viewership through its most popular part of the schedule: the postseason.