WNBA's virtual draft succeeds on ESPN with second-highest audience, most in 16 years

There’s now another comparison to make between New York Liberty rookie Sabrina Ionescu and Phoenix Mercury veteran Diana Taurasi.

The 2020 WNBA draft in which Ionescu was taken No.1 overall now ranks second in viewership. It was the most watched since Taurasi, the league’s scoring leader, was taken first in the 2004 draft.

The viewership numbers had a few things going for it, namely that the COVID-19 crisis meant it wasn’t going up against any live sports and people were home. It was the first virtual draft in modern history to be followed immediately by the NFL draft Thursday.

But the draft also benefitted from a marketing push and kind placement not typically given to the league.

WNBA draft 2020 ranks 2nd in viewership

The draft aired Friday night on ESPN and averaged 387,000 viewers.

That’s up 123 percent from the 2019 draft featuring No. 1 pick Jackie Young as one of five Notre Dame starters to be drafted. That aired on ESPN2 and switched to ESPNU for the second hour.

It’s also up 33 percent from the last time in aired on ESPN in 2011. UConn’s Maya Moore was the No. 1 pick.

The draft generated 6.5 million video views on the WNBA and NBA social media accounts, the league said. That’s up 165 percent from last year. They totaled 1.3 million minutes watched, up 237 percent.

The WNBA Instagram account had its highest year-over-year growth, per the league, with more than 3.8 million video views on Friday. As well as announcing picks, the league used the account to show draftees dressed for the occasion as a virtual orange carpet and shared throwback picks.

Ionescu’s star power a key draw

Oregon’s Ionescu drew attention to this year’s draft after a record-setting collegiate career. She has marketing appeal and her relationship with the late Kobe Bryant, as well as fellow NBA stars such as Steph Curry, has made her a household name now. They have also helped “co-sign” the league’s standing, as noted when the WNBA announced an award in Bryant’s honor.

Even though it was assured Ionescu would go to the Liberty with the first pick, people wanted to tune in to see it firsthand. Hence why the draft classes of Taurasi, the UConn sensation, and Moore rank high in viewership. All three are collegiate superstars with the hardware to back it up.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert had also said earlier this year the league would honor Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and the two young girls who were killed in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles during the draft. That surely brought in viewers who may not be WNBA fans, but Bryant fans, to see what that meant.

The league’s hectic offseason with a new collective bargaining agreement and frenzied free-agent moves has also created a buzz around the league. Big names switched cities and there has been talk of superteams.

ESPN marketing push helped viewership

It helped that the draft was on ESPN, rather than its other stations. Putting it there gives credence to the fact it is a big deal and worthy of the big stage. It was originally slated for ESPN2, but was moved after the company received pushback since there were no live sports to put on its main channel.

ESPN marketed the event unlike it typically does, arguably since it had a larger stake this time around. With more than a month without live sports, the company’s viewership numbers have taken a hit. It got a big win this weekend with the draft — the first real sporting event to occur since mid-March — and the first two hours of “The Last Dance” documentary on Sunday night.

ESPN analyst Holly Rowe said during a conference call four days before the draft that the promo for the draft was already seen by a large number of people.

“Even though we will be doing it in a remote, unique fashion because of what’s happening in our country right now I still feel like the buzz and the excitement is higher than ever,” she said.

Which plays into the fact that due to the virus, and the new nature of a virtual draft, more people were stuck at home and interested in watching at least something sports related. That’s far from the biggest reason, though.

The WNBA draft was a win for the league and ESPN. The rise in viewership goes beyond the aspects of COVID-19 crisis and show that if you promote an event and give it a platform, people will tune in. Having a talented superstar helps.

The WNBA's virtual draft on ESPN ran into some expected hiccups, but set a solid precedent for the upcoming NFL draft. (ESPN screenshot)
The WNBA's virtual draft was the most watched of the event in 16 years. (ESPN screenshot)

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