WNBA poised to reach new heights with Valkyries waiting in wings

WNBA poised to reach new heights with Valkyries waiting in wings originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

With the volume pumped to unprecedented decibel levels and signs on various billboards and video ad campaigns, the WNBA's time to be seen, heard and fully appreciated by all is now.

As in, Tuesday, when the WNBA’s 28th season tips off.

Those who have been along for what has been a bumpy ride will be rewarded and those hopping aboard this spring should prepare for fireworks.

Much of the W buzz is related to the arrival of vigorously promoted Caitlin Clark, who was selected by the Indiana Fever with the first overall pick in the WNBA draft last month. Clark, however, is one of several rookies – Cameron Brink (Los Angeles Sparks), Rickea Jackson (Sparks) and Angel Reese (Chicago Sky) among others – ready to enter the W and turn up the temperature. Kamila Cardoso (Sky), a fifth rook projected to make an impact, sustained a shoulder injury last week but should make her debut sometime next month.

“I just want to step back and say how blessed I feel to be in women’s basketball because it’s not just this class,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said during the draft. “It’s next year, the year after. I mean, Juju Watkins and Hannah Hidalgo, Kiki Rice, Paige Bueckers. The list goes on.”

Blessed is an appropriate word for a league that for most of its existence has struggled to generate revenue, much less turn a profit. Ticket sales are up 93 percent over last season, per StubHub. Several teams have decided to move games to larger venues to accommodate demand. Revenue goals are being met months earlier that projected.

The Golden State Valkyries, for example, don’t begin play until 2025 but have exceeded 7,500 season-ticket deposits – and that was before the franchise announced its nickname Tuesday.

The timing of the WNBA’s raised profile is exquisite, as women’s sports in America are riding an unprecedented wave of momentum.

WNBA viewership last season was higher than any of previous 20 years and will take another significant bounce this season. A volleyball game in Nebraska, described as a celebration of women’s sports, drew 92,000 last summer. The FIFA World Cup reported record attendance and $570 million in revenue. Coco Gauff’s U.S Open Tennis final last September drew 3.4 million viewers, up 92 percent over last season and was, according to ESPN, the most-viewed major women’s championship ever.

Moreover, Gauff’s victory over Aryna Sabalenka registered more than one million viewers higher than those watching the men’s final won by the magnificent Novak Djoković.

What really set off alarms around the WNBA was the interest and viewership of the 2024 NCAA women’s basketball tournament. The final, featuring the unbeaten South Carolina Gamecocks against Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes, drew almost 19 million viewers – nearly four million more than cast their eyes upon the men’s final between University of Connecticut and Purdue.

That was, ahem, a first. And there was the unanticipated bonus of being the most watched basketball game – professional or collegiate – since 2019.

This is quite the runway for the WNBA and the partners already on board, as well as those lining up to become part of the revolution. Among them: Amazon, American Express, CarMax, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Nike, Peloton and Tissot watches.

“Our partners are committed to supporting women’s sports,” Engelbert said last week. “We’re seeing the work of our broadcast and streaming partners, especially ESPN and ABC. If you build it, they will come. We just proved that in March Madness, and we’ll bring that into the WNBA season.

“We’re bringing games to fans where they are, whether they’re on national networks, ESPN, ABC, ION, which was our over-the-air partner that we signed last year, streaming on Amazon Prime, ESPN+ or on our own WNBA League Pass, which last year saw milestone growth for the league. And we’re hoping to repeat that this year.”

Engelbert’s last six words are a sublime understatement, as she was suppressing the tickles going through her body. The W hopes to annihilate all previous measurements of growth.

The folks at Deloitte believe high-profile women’s sports in 2024 will generate revenue that for the first time exceeds $1 billion, tripling the evaluation of three years ago. The W will be a substantial contributor.

The 12-team WNBA will become 13 next season when the Valkyries launch. The league will grow to 14 when Toronto joins in 2026. Engelbert projects adding two more teams shortly afterward, aiming for a 16-team league by 2028.

Charter flights, with Delta Airlines as the sponsor, are being phased in for the first time. This is welcome development for legs around the league and a subtle boost for the quality of play.

As revenue rolls in – a huge upgrade is anticipated with the new media rights contract going into effect in 2026 – salaries should rise enough to change lifestyles and limit the number of players who need to supplement their income with pro leagues overseas. That, as Britney Griner discovered, can be dangerous.

The forecast is good news for all. A league too often subjected to intolerance is gathering widespread interest. It is primed to engage the uninterested, persuade the skeptical and maybe even send misogynists sinking into the soundproof dungeons they so richly deserve.

Moreover, the legion of casuals is growing. The W needs the casual fan to reach the heights being visualized. The smart money says bet on it.