The 2020 WNBA season, which concluded earlier this month when the Seattle Storm swept the Las Vegas Aces in three games, was by all metrics a giant success—even with the entire season played in a bubble format in Bradenton, Fla., amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While all the other major pro sports leagues (NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL) are seeing their live TV ratings decline this fall compared to last year, the WNBA was an exception: viewership was up 15% for the season overall, and viewership for Game 3 of the WNBA Finals on ESPN was up 34% from last year.
The WNBA’s iconic orange logo hoodie, worn by NBA stars and non-basketball athletes like Naomi Osaka, became the league’s top-selling merchandise item ever, after a social media campaign created with broadcast partner ESPN.
And the WNBA promoted social justice and Black Lives Matter in myriad ways, including dedicating the entire season to Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in Louisville, Ky., in March, and players endorsing the political opponent of Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a part owner of the Atlanta Dream, after Loeffler made comments disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement. (This week, the Seattle Storm, as a team, endorsed Joe Biden for president.) The New York Times this month called the WNBA “the most socially progressive pro league.”
Here’s the thing: If you ask executives like Keia Clarke, CEO of the New York Liberty, the WNBA was always this way.
“Behind closed doors, we've been saying it for years now,” Clarke said in an interview this week at the From Day One Conference. “In a lot of ways, maybe we were ahead of our time. I can't take credit for being there at the onset. But when I speak with legends who were in this league, and former executives who were running this league in the beginning, it's almost like the world wasn't quite ready for a very socially progressive, in your face [league]... You know, we're feminists, we're majority minority, we are international... I just think things have finally caught up. I stand proud in the fact that we ourselves are embracing it, but for the first time, there's some media attention. You talk to fans who have been around for a long time, they will say the same thing. This is who we've always been, this is where we've always been, we're happy that you recognize it.”
Just as people hotly debate why the other sports’ ratings are down, Clarke isn’t sure the WNBA ratings bump can be attributed to one clear factor.
“You can put together a multitude of reasons coming together why more people were watching,” she says. “But one of the main ones that sits flatly in front of me is we were on television more than ever. There were exponentially more national television games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. I really truly think that the increase of games is what matters. If you can't see it, you can't be a fan of it... But you know, basketball was played in prominence this summer, with NBA and WNBA playing at the same time. I think you get a true hoophead, someone who can't get enough basketball, and they'll flip channels. We probably picked up some people who normally watch NBA and wanted to watch both, because both were playing at the same time this year. So you know, I can think of a bunch of guesses why—I'm grateful for it.”
The Liberty as a business has experienced a handful of notable recent changes.
Last year, Alibaba executive Joe Tsai bought the team, then bought the rest of the Brooklyn Nets and the Barclays Center. The Liberty will move from Westchester to Brooklyn for the 2021 season. And with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, the Liberty took Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu, who already has a Nike shoe deal and is expected to be a mega-star. (She injured her ankle in the bubble, in just her third WNBA game.)
Clarke, who has been with the organization for nearly 10 years, just became CEO in June 2020. In July, Joe Tsai said part of his mission with owning the Liberty is to “put women’s professional basketball on the same footing as the men’s basketball team. We own the Nets and also have the Liberty and it doesn’t make sense for us to treat them as one subsidiary of the other. They should be co-equals.”
Clarke says that’s no empty statement, it’s how Tsai has operated so far.
"Joe and Clara Tsai, who's heavily involved in the Liberty as well, look at us as an investment,” she says. “I think they have a really keen understanding of the difference, and sometimes similarity, between equality and equity. They are truly giving us what we need to be successful on our own. And I think that's a different set of thinking, in a lot of regard, for our league. Some teams have that in ownership, some teams have that in leadership, but not everyone, at this point.”
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.