WNBA average viewership grows 68 percent during a season focused on social justice

Average viewership of WNBA games grew 68 percent in 2020 in part due to 87 nationally televised games from the “wubble” at IMG Academy in Florida, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said.

Engelbert spoke with media on Thursday ahead of the WNBA Finals, which tip off Friday on ESPN2 between the No. 1 Las Vegas Aces and the No. 2 Seattle Storm. The WNBA Finals schedule features two games on ABC, including Game 5, which is a first for the company. It’s that kind of promotion that has helped grow the league in an out-of-the-ordinary year.

Engelbert said the league is already scenario planning for the 2021 season and what it might look like. The draft lottery is expected to be held before the end of the calendar year as the WNBA keeps an eye on the NCAA plans.

Viewership increase for WNBA games

The WNBA was up against every major sport this year, including playoffs for the NBA.

The increase in average viewership is significant in that there were more opportunities to do so with games available on TV (ESPN, CBS Sports Network) as well as on Facebook and Twitter streams. It had the benefit of doubleheaders on the main ESPN channel and wasn’t buried on ESPN News at all. There were 87 of 132 nationally televised regular season games, she said.

“It’s something I think next season we’ll have to be very cognizant and plan well ahead and make sure we’re agile like we were this year in TV windows,” Engelbert said. “We don’t always get to govern those, but we work closely with our broadcast partners.”

It continues the trend seen over opening weekend when viewership on ESPN properties were up 63 percent year-over-year. ESPN expanded its coverage after those games and hosted multiple doubleheaders a week.

The increase is also notable since players went even deeper into social justice causes this year. They dedicated the season to Breonna Taylor and spoke of victims of police brutality weekly during in-game interviews with ESPN’s Holly Rowe. This despite the idea people don’t want to watch sports because of the inclusion of politics and social justice causes.

The league also had increases in cross-platform action for social media posts (30 percent) and weekly mobile app downloads (85 percent).

WNBA Finals goes up against NBA Finals

Three of the NBA Finals games line up on days the WNBA is also holding its Finals. The times do not overlap; instead Engelbert sees it as an opportunity for basketball fans to have an entire night of action. On Friday, the WNBA Finals tip at 7 p.m. on ESPN2 and NBA Finals are on ABC at 9 p.m. ET.

“I think we’ll just do the best and take advantage of cross-promotion,” she said on the call. “We’re not on at the same time, but had we been [we could] do a live look-in from one broadcast to another.”

The company promoted the WNBA Finals during Game 1 of the NBA series Wednesday night. At the start of the WNBA season, NBA players wore the orange logo hoodie in support as part of a planned marketing campaign that paid off.

Marketing the key to keeping momentum going

Las Vegas Aces players celebrate after Game 5 of a WNBA basketball semi-final round playoff series against the Connecticut Sun, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Viewership is up for the WNBA despite going against every other major sport. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Marketing was a key component of the new collective bargaining agreement the league and players association signed earlier this year. With the COVID-19 disruption, Engelbert said that focus had to shift.

The league was planning to sign players to marketing agreements in lieu of them playing overseas. The intent is to keep the W at the top of mind while games aren’t being played. It won’t happen to the level they want this year, she said, but it will likely next year. Most players have already joined their teams overseas.

COVID-19: zero positive tests in WNBA bubble

The health and safety of players has always been paramount for Engelbert. She also addressed mental health with the media and said providing those resources will continue to be a focus.

There have been zero COVID-19 positive tests while inside the bubble, Engelbert said. Some players tested positive upon arrival, but were quarantined until they received two negative tests and could re-join their team.

Three inconclusive tests forced the league to cancel Game 1 of the league semifinal between the Seattle Storm and the Minnesota Lynx that was set to air on ABC. There was concern about a potential outbreak, but all three players subsequently tested negative.

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