The WNBA hopes to find new bounce when it starts a line-up of Friday-night games on the broadcast network ION.
The pact is part of a new deal struck between E.W. Scripps, which purchased ION in 2020 for $2.65 billion and brings live sports to the outlet for the first time since it launched in 1998 as Pax TV, then under the aegis of Paxson Communications. And it suggests a new model for sports leagues hoping to navigate an era in which the traditional sports model — reaching fans via national and regional cable — is facing challenges.
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The deal will give the WNBA more audience reach, with an “appointment viewing” event each Friday, says Colie Edison, the WNBA’s chief growth officer, in an interview. The league’s games are telecast by Disney’s ESPN and ABC, and Paramount Global’s CBS Sports, but those companies have rights deals with other, bigger leagues that may get more prominent scheduling. ION has a presence not only via over-the-air TV and cable, but on streaming platforms. “We want to create more fans in the funnel. To do that, our fans need to know where we are on and when we are on,” says Edison. “Our mission is to make it easy to be a fan of the WNBA.”
As part of the deal, “WNBA Friday Night Spotlight on ION” will feature WNBA games during two windows on Friday nights over 15 weeks from May 26 to Sept. 8. The Friday night schedule and windows, details of which will be announced at a later date, will include games that will be available nationally as well as games made available on a regional basis. Executives declined to discuss financial terms, but indicated the pact will encompass “multiple years.”
Scripps strikes the deal as the sports-media sector has grown more worried over the fate of so-called regional sports networks — cable outlets that command high fees by carrying games from local teams for the immediate market. With more consumers moving away from a cable subscription, that business is in flux, The ION pact might offer an alternative. “This is not just our game of the week. This is a game of the week, but always local,” says Adam Symson, president and CEO of Scripps. “We will use data to determine what game will resonate most with fans in a specific market. We will hacve up to five or six games going on at once.”
The WNBA will produce the games and utilize its own talent for play by play and analysis.
Scripps launched its sports division in late 2022, hoping to work with leagues as traditional cable viewership declines and the regional-sports model faces challenges. The company owns stations in 61 markets, while ION is the nation’s fifth-largest broadcast outlet, with more viewers than The CW.
“We are not going to turn ION into a sports network, but I think there is an opportunity” to take on one or two more sports “that we can establish and help grow, someone that may have a hard time finding a partner that can give it consistency and full distribution,” says Brian Lawlor, president of Scripps Sports.
(Above, pictured: WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and Adam Symson, President and CEO of the EW. Scripps Company)
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