WNBA ratings: Why the most-viewed season since 2006 didn't have a huge Finals spike

The full 2022 WNBA regular season on ESPN networks was the most viewed since 2006, ESPN announced Tuesday.

Individual postseason games reached highs that the league and ESPN, which airs the entire playoffs, promoted and celebrated. But all "most-watched in x years" or "up so-and-so percent" talk skimmed over the context, which explains the numbers and showcases a brighter future spotlight if it's taken.

ESPN experienced increased viewership for the regular season (20%), full season (22%), full postseason (22%), semifinals (45%) and playoff opening round (50%), the company announced. Despite the growth, the Finals viewership stayed constant even though it's usually expected to be the most-watched segment of a league. That meant the jump in viewers from regular season to Finals was only 30% compared to the 79% spike in 2021.

The WNBA had to move its Finals from mid-October up to mid-September because the FIBA World Cup tips off Wednesday in Sydney, Australia. It also has to deal with events that are already booked at arenas and available TV windows. There are some things out of the league's control, but with a media rights deal expiring within a few years, everything matters when assessing what will work best for a growing league that closed its 26th season this week.

The league took heat for its postseason scheduling, specifically starting the Finals on the first NFL Sunday of the 2022 season. The Las Vegas Aces won their first championship on Sunday during the NFL's Week 2 and it was the least-viewed Finals game of the past two years.

Yahoo Sports analyzed the Finals viewership for 2021 and 2022, as well as ABC games in each season, and it seems that going head-to-head with an NFL Sunday isn't doing the league many favors.

The Las Vegas Aces' A'ja Wilson holds up the WNBA championship trophy as the team celebrates following its win over the Connecticut Sun in the 2022 WNBA Finals on Sept. 18, 2022, in Uncasville, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Why WNBA postseason viewership was up, but Finals down

The Las Vegas Aces vs. Connecticut Sun four-game Finals wasn't a bad series in terms of basketball. And the storylines were aplenty. It might've gotten caught up in bad programming.

The entire WNBA postseason is usually up against the NFL and the end of the MLB season, plus MLB postseason in October. That wasn't the case this year with all but the Finals concluding before the NFL season kicked off and ahead of any down-the-stretch MLB playoff races. It also steered clear of the NBA preseason. It's a good indication more casual fans tuned in as viewership has been steadily increasing since the 2020 bubble season.

Here's a look at viewership for each of the 2022 Finals games, three of which went up against the NFL. It was the first year every Finals game was scheduled for ABC or ESPN.

Game 1: Aces hold on to 3-point win 

TV: ABC | Sunday, Sept. 11 at 3 p.m. ET PT

TV window: Opening Sunday of NFL season. Caught end of early afternoon window (1 ET) and cut into kickoff of late afternoon window (4-4:30 ET).

Ratings: 555,000 viewers (peak: 872,000)

Takeaways: It was an increase of 100,000 viewers from the 2021 Game 1 between Chicago and Phoenix, which was played on Sunday, Oct. 10, during Week 5 of the NFL season. Even though it was an ABC afternoon slot, it followed a trend of falling below ABC viewership from the regular season.

Game 2: Aces go up, 2-0

TV: ESPN | Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 9 p.m. ET

TV window: Yankees at Red Sox (7:10 p.m. ET)

Ratings: 649,000 viewers (peaked at 706,000)

Takeaways: Game 2 was the most viewed of the 2022 WNBA Finals and notably was the only one to not go up against an NFL game. The schedule for games was different than 2021, when Game 2 was on a Wednesday (and seen by 780,000 average viewers) and Game 3 on a Friday (524,000 on ESPN2). It was the most-viewed show on cable for persons 18-49 and the top show for men 18-49.

Game 3: Sun make it interesting in blowout

TV: ESPN | Thursday, Sept. 15 at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT

TV window: "Thursday Night Football": Chargers vs. Chiefs (8:15 p.m. ET)

Ratings: 579,000 viewers (peak 686,000)

Takeaways: The Aces made it close in what could have been a decider, but it was the Sun's game from the first quarter onward. The game still drew more average viewers than Game 1 on ABC, a channel that is in more households and often results in the highest-rated games of the season. It would further indicate that playing against the first week of the NFL season — versus a single Thursday night game on a streaming service many don't have — mattered.

Game 4: Aces battle for first championship 

TV: ESPN | Sunday, Sept. 17 at 4 p.m. ET

TV window: Late afternoon NFL

Ratings: 396,000 viewers (peaked at 608,000)

Takeaways: It was the least-viewed Finals game of the past two years, dropping below the 417,000 who watched the Chicago Sky clinch their title in Game 4 last year. The similarity is both were on ESPN on a Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET in 2021). It catches the end of the first set of NFL games and bleeds into the start of the next set. It would be interesting to see how these Game 4s would do on ABC.

Importance of WNBA games on ABC

Featured games on ABC, a channel in most homes with a TV, are in some cases passing 1.4 million peak viewers (Storm-Aces regular season finale). The NBA plays its Finals in the prime-time ABC spot and the NCAA women's basketball Final Four will now air on ABC.

When Yahoo Sports analyzed the jump in 2021 viewership numbers, it was clear having more games (100+) on big networks helped boost viewership. There were nine games on ABC that year, which was the same amount of combined games on that channel in a 12-year span from 2009-2020. And all that growth despite oddities, like scheduling four games on one night tipping at the same time. There's also no standard tune-in schedule, like the NBA has with "NBA on TNT" on Thursday nights.

Viewership on ABC, which almost exclusively airs the WNBA on Sundays, hit a peak of 755,000 in 2021 for an overtime thriller between the Storm and Sky out of the Olympic break. Four other games surpassed 550K.

Those aspects stayed true in 2022, with nine games again airing on ABC. And the viewership jumped even higher, with a peak of 852,000 watching the Storm and Aces in a rather meaningless regular-season finale. Certainly that number was helped by it being Sue Bird's final regular-season game. The Lynx-Sun game on ABC in the early window reached 682,000 and featured the final game of Sylvia Fowles' career.

Postseason 2022 games on the national network eclipsed those marks. The epic Game 3 of the Aces-Storm semifinal series went to overtime and averaged 905,000. It peaked at 1.4 million and is the most-watched WNBA game since 2008, beating out the 902,000 who watched Game 5 of the 2017 Finals. Game 4 on Tuesday was buried deeper in the network's lineup on ESPN2 and was viewed by 469,000 on average.

But then the dip happened for the Finals coinciding with the start of the NFL season. The three games up against the NFL were the three lowest-rated games in the 2022 Finals. And the same for the two Sunday games in the 2021 Finals.

Putting games on ABC clearly helps ratings, but how high could those ratings rise if it weren't an NFL Sunday afternoon?