Mystics looking for ways to ride momentum created by NCAA Tournament

Mystics looking to ride momentum created by NCAA Tournament originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON -- Women's sports are on the rise. Whether it's the play on the court, the popularity of the stars or the rapidly growing interest of young fans, there's been a surge in popularity. TV ratings are increasing and setting 20-year highs and that budding momentum has the WNBA on the verge of expanding and inviting new investors.

Everyone is wanting a piece of the value of women's sports in ways that haven't been seen before. But when the women's NCAA basketball tournament's TV ratings smashed previous records, it garnered everyone's attention.

This year's NCAA women's basketball championship between LSU and Iowa attracted a 9.9 million viewer audience on ABC and ESPN2, making it the most-watched women's NCAA basketball game on record. Viewership peaked at 12.6 million and social media was buzzing about stars Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark.

To put that into perspective, that's right on pace with the 2021 NBA Finals per game average (9.91 million), per Sports Media Watch.

"It's a hot stove. You can't touch it," Elena Delle Donne told NBC Sports Washington's Wes Hall in regard to the temperature around women's sports. "The excitement right now around women's basketball is something that I haven't even seen. And I feel like each year it's been building and this year it exploded coming off of March Madness. Now, super teams make it exciting for fans to tune in and media likes to talk about super teams and underdogs like to compete and play against them. So I think it's going to be a great season for that.

That 9.9 million figure for the 2023 championship came after ESPN moved the game to network television (ABC) for the first time since 1995. The resulting rating was double the previous high set in the star-loaded 2002 NCAA championship between Connecticut and Oklahoma with 5.68 million, the previous record.

Getting the 'product' out in front of more eyeballs paid off. It's a notion that WNBA stars have been pleading with for years.

"Visibility," Ariel Atkins said when asked what contributed to the record-breaking viewing number. "I mean, we say it time and time again. I think that the biggest thing is if you put us on the TVs, if you put us in the venues, if you put us here, people show up. People want to watch, people want to view it."

Naturally on the calendar, the WNBA is up next. Just over a month after the college national championship game, the pro season will start with two newly formed super teams, Delle Donne expected to play every game and a new crop of young stars ready to take the league by storm.

Fans responded with the most viewed WNBA Draft since 2004 (572,000 viewers). But how the league can get the carryover of viewership from the college game to the pro is the league's biggest challenge.

"That's the million-dollar, the multimillion-dollar question. I think our players understand their responsibility and coaches understand, but really, the players understand their part in growing our game," Mystics head coach Eric Thibault said. "But I think the media has realized or is starting to realize that there are stories to tell that are interesting to people. It's great when you have a little chippiness, a rivalry on the court and there are great players to sell. But there's great stories in this league, whether it's the superstars or the people who are trying to make rosters for the first time. And I think you're seeing more and more media platforms want a piece of that."

The league already has a positive starting point. Last year's playoffs were the most viewed in two decades. Its regular-season TV audience was the largest in 14 seasons. Another national television network, ION, jumped into the media fray this year to now have games across their network, ESPN/ ABC, CBS/ CBSSN and NBA TV along with prominent streaming platforms.

Related: Eric Thibault surrounded by familiar faces in first year

It's a breakthrough that many feel is a long time coming. Now, the WNBA is seeing it's their time and they need to capitalize on the moment.

"How do we make this league better for [the college stars]?" Natasha Cloud said. "...So when you talk about they had a phenomenal, phenomenal tournament with a lot of record-breaking things for women's sports, right? How do we make this league better for them? And I think that's all of our common goal of okay, how do we continue to grow this league so that at the time that Angel Reese is graduating and ready to come into this league, Caitlin, Haley, all those, Paige and Azzi, that this league is in a better position for them to thrive and for them to have the same success and experience that they had in college, and there's no drop-off."