‘Like Nothing We’ve Ever Seen Before’: WNBA Hopes to Capitalize on College Basketball Heat in Tip-Off of League’s 28th Season

The WNBA begins its 28th season tonight with more buzz and interest in the game from casual hoops fans than the league has enjoyed since its launch year in 1997.

WNBA insiders and boosters know this is an opportunity to make the most of, especially for the tip-off tonight with a double-header of games that getting an unusually wide platformby airing on ESPN 2 and Disney+.

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“The WNBA is certainly ready for this,” said Rebecca Lobo, a women’s basketball analyst for ESPN and a former player for the WNBA’s New York Liberty.

The spark for the brighter spotlight and bigger all-around platform that the WNBA this year came from Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso and other college women’s players who commanded international attention during a thrilling NCAA March Madness tournament earlier this year.

NBA insiders and boosters are fervently hoping that the heat around the NCAA finals in March has vaulted generationally defining players and rivalries into the WNBA. There have been many comparisons to the defining year of the modern men’s pro game being 1979 as college rivals Magic Johnson and Larry Bird both went pro, to the lasting benefit of basketball.

“The impact of this class is going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” said Lobo, who was a high-profile rookie during the WNBA’s first season. Lobo noted the record-setting TV viewership of this year’s NCAA women’s final, in which University of South Carolina defeated University of Iowa. The level of exposure and excitement about the quality of the women’s game is inspiring to veterans such as Lobo.

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“We’ve never had 20 million people tuned in to watch the [NCAA] national championship game. We’ve never had ratings like we saw throughout the tournament. There’s no reason to expect anything other than a massive boost in the TV viewership” for WNBA, Lobo said during ESPN’s May 9 WNBA press call. “The last time I can think of this much hype leading into a WNBA season was 1997 because it was the first one and people were eager to see what does professional women’s basketball look like? Now we have similar interest but for a variety of different reasons. What is this rookie class going to look like playing against the best players in the world?”

The surge in ratings and sponsor interest in women’s hoops is allowing WNBA to implement a massive upgrade of operations across the board. Players will regularly fly to games on chartered planes for the first time in league history. ESPN talent will host a regular season countdown show from the site of key games – another first for the WNBA. Lobo noted that the securing the countdown show was a mission for LaChina Robinson, longtime basketball broadcaster for ESPN and host of “WNBA Countdown.” And the production of WNBA game telecasts will include more elaborate camera set-ups and more data for instant game analysis flowing to anchors and commentators in the booth.

Robinson points to the heat of the WNBA’s freshman class of ’24 as having a transformative effect on the league. And she notes that these are players young enough to have never known a world without a professional women’s basketball league in the U.S.

“It’s just awesome to see what they’re bringing from the college game to the W in terms of eyeballs, the anticipation, the excitement, the resources that are being poured in to support this awesome class,” Robinson said. “I can’t wait to see what they do in terms of boosting our ratings and our viewership.”

The headline-generating accomplishments of Caitlin Clark – including becoming the highest-scoring NCAA basketball player in history – puts an enormous level of pressure on the Iowa graduate’s shoulders as she prepares to start tonight with her new team, the Indiana Fever against the Connecticut Sun. The burst of attention from March Madness means tougher scrutiny of her game-by-game performance.

“Caitlin Clark continually lived up to the moment every single time. She seems to be a player who’s a bit unfazed by what we would look at as pressure or expectation,” Lobo said. “It doesn’t mean she is, but she has appeared to be. She’s somebody who loves basketball, loves challenges and it feels like she is poised and ready for this moment.”

ESPN’s role in the larger landscape for women’s sports and in its role as the WNBA’s core TV partner is clear, according to Sara Gaiero, VP of production.

“We can’t let our foot off the gas now. The exposure of this sport is huge, being able to access it is huge. Now that we’ve got the platforms to do so, we can increase our storytelling around it, we can deepen our analysis around it, and that can help turn these fans from casual to committed,” Gaiero said.

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