How the WNBA is preparing to capitalize on Caitlin Clark and the rest of the incoming star power

NEW YORK — Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink and Kamilla Cardoso are officially WNBA players.

Now what?

There has been no more pivotal moment for the WNBA than this one with ready-made household names entering a league that has struggled for much of its existence to build them. The only thing comparable would be its launch in 1997 with Olympic superstars. The task now is to keep the audience developed in the collegiate ranks as upward of 24 million watched Clark, the No. 1 overall pick of the Fever, and Cardoso, the No. 3 selection of the Sky, in the national championship game.

It’s not only the Clark Effect, though she’s such a huge star her pregame for the draft was a cameo appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” Each time WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert stepped to the WNBA Draft podium at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Monday, she announced another established star with hundreds of thousands of social followers.

“This is my 1997 moment,” WNBA chief marketing officer Phil Cook told Yahoo Sports ahead of the draft. “You have household names coming in. You have an amazing league. The benefit I have is an amazing platform that’s been built for the last 27 years that they’re just walking over to.”

UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards (Mystics) and Nika Mühl (Storm) played in front of 14.2 million TV viewers in the Final Four last week, going up against Iowa’s Clark and Kate Martin, who was selected by the two-time reigning champion Las Vegas Aces. Reese (Sky) drew nearly as loud of applause as Clark. Alissa Pili (Lynx) and Elizabeth Kitley (Aces) built massive collegiate fanbases. Their schools have more followers in many cases than WNBA teams.

When Cook, a longtime Nike executive, came into the league in December 2020 as its first CMO, he thought of the league’s marketing in terms of 144 players carrying both an on- and off-court story. That’s 288 stories, and that becomes cumbersome.

From left, LSU's Angel Reese, Iowa's Caitlyn Clark, and Stanford's Cameron Brink, pose for a photo before the start of the WNBA basketball draft, Monday, April 15, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
From left, LSU's Angel Reese, Iowa's Caitlyn Clark and Stanford's Cameron Brink had a pretty big night Monday in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

“You realize you can’t be so democratic,” he said. “The fandom just won’t come with you. And the success of other leagues that focus on athletes, they focus on the few and the rest kind of carry on.”

One often-used phrase missing from Engelbert’s pre-draft remarks was a “rising tide lifts all boats.” Clark was the rising tide at Iowa, but as fans tuned in, they came to know Martin, Gabbie Marshall, Molly Davis and Hannah Stuelke. Casual observers became invested in Iowa, the team and program.

And with a smaller pool of bigger names, rather than a big pool of smaller names, Cook can better market the conflict between them to casual or incoming fans. Many of those millions watching the college game have never interacted with the WNBA.

“We were marketing the league as this group of 144, 12 teams, we’re an entity,” Cook said. “And now we’re starting to act like a real sports league and promote the rivalry.”

Cook described his first seasons on the job as a “great three-year internship.” Now it’s the big time, a “perfect storm” creating a marketer’s dream that will determine the league’s future.

Beef, rivalries, tension

Cook is quick to say he did not have anything to do with the Phoenix Mercury's marketing of their home game against the Fever and Clark this summer. But he did quietly applaud it.

Days after veteran Mercury guard Diana Taurasi told rookies “reality is coming,” the team advertised the matchup with a graphic pitting Taurasi, the WNBA’s all-time scoring leader, against Clark, the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader – “The GOAT” vs. “The Rook.”

“Whether you’ve been here for a decade or a day — your chance to witness greatness is here,” the post read.

Cook said he first saw it upon release and had never seen such a social media post from a WNBA team. Rivalries, conflict, beef, tension. This is how the league moves forward with its product.

“We have enough identities that are stars in their own right that they can carry the narrative,” Cook said.

The league worked the past few years to create cross-cultural names and build or rebuild rivalries. A'ja Wilson’s Las Vegas Aces and Breanna Stewart’s New York Liberty super-teams are one of them. Their WNBA Finals series was the most-watched WNBA Finals in 20 years and the most-watched Game 4 in league history.

“This is a league where the talent is exceptional, the rivalries are intense and where you tune in to watch a lot of games of consequence,” Engelbert told reporters before the draft.

The WNBA inherits a few more rivalries because of one-name stars who created strong followings in college. And there are more coming down the pipeline from the NCAA with time to build bigger brands. This summer could feature Caitlin vs. Angel and the excitement of the Sparks’ Brink and Rickea Jackson against the Sky’s Cardoso and Reese.

“Nobody is going to get no rebounds on us,” Cardoso said when she learned the Sky selected Reese. Reese said it will be fun for the frontcourt duos to square off.

Both franchises are in full rebuilds, but are automatically an interesting watch because of their rookies. That’s a benefit the league didn’t previously have out of the draft.

An ecosystem working together

A year ago, the Fever barely made it onto national television despite adding 2023 No. 1 overall pick and 2022 national champion Aliyah Boston from South Carolina. Their season opener aired on regional Bally Sports Indiana and the following game, a Sunday afternoon contest at the recently formed New York super-team, ran on Facebook and Twitter.

Now Clark and the franchise will play 36 of their 40 games for a national audience. Their first four games are on ESPN2, Amazon Prime, ABC and ESPN. That doesn’t happen without investment and interest from those platforms.

“It has to do with the entire ecosystem,” WNBA chief growth officer Colie Edison told Yahoo Sports. “It’s corporate partners stepping up, its media partners stepping up, and I think it’s really looking at the success of the NCAA and wanting to replicate that.”

It’s hard to overstate how imperative those massive viewership numbers will be this season. The media rights deal is up in 2025, and Engelbert has targeted it as the way toward a better league future, including higher player salaries and the potential for charter flights.

South Carolina's Kamilla Cardoso, left, poses for a photo with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being selected third overall by the Chicago Sky during the first round of the WNBA basketball draft, Monday, April 15, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
South Carolina's Kamilla Cardoso, left, poses for a photo with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being selected third overall by the Chicago Sky during the first round of the WNBA Draft, Monday, April 15, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

“This is an important year for us around viewership, around attendance, around all the qualitative and quantitative factors that go into the valuation of media rights,” Engelbert said. “Because as I've said to my team, there's not a day that we're not … if we're not working on things that feed into the valuation of our next media rights, we're not focused on the right things.”

Cook said the league recognizes it has plenty of opportunities to show its game for the first time through TV as well as social, player and team channels. It already started by running a linear ad campaign for the first time during the NCAA tournament. Featuring well-known former Final Four stars Arike Ogunbowale and Stewart, the league poked fun at welcoming the 2024 class with “Rookie-O’s” cereal. Engelbert said it received a 98 percent positive ad sentiment.

“We’re working as a group to embrace that new audience and make sure it’s easy to be a fan [and] get a great experience,” Cook said. “You understand what’s at stake in every game. And if we can demonstrate and retain those fans, our [viewership] numbers go up. Our numbers go up, the valuation goes up. And the valuation goes up, we get paid more money [and] we all win.”

The league will also advertise heavily out of the Olympic break this summer to carry over that audience, Cook said. It was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and Team USA’s gold medal that ushered in the success of the WNBA’s inaugural season around Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes.

The parallel in moments is obvious. Team USA is going for an eighth consecutive gold in Paris with Stewart and Wilson at the helm. Clark could be on the team. The difference is the growth this time around can launch the league levels above anything it’s ever experienced.