Can the W.N.B.A. Make Money?


“We’re way undervalued today,” Cathy Engelbert, the commissioner of the W.N.B.A., told DealBook.

Stars have powered viewership peaks in women’s sports. In a 2018-19 survey by researchers at Ohio State University, only 3 percent of respondents said women’s sports constituted all or almost all of their sports consumption, and 10 percent said half or most of it. But viewers will show up in hordes, particularly when those matches are being played on a big global stage.

  • Serena Williams’s final match of the 2022 U.S. Open brought in between 4.8 million and 6.9 million views, the most for a tennis match in ESPN’s history

  • A record 6.43 million viewers tuned in to watch the women’s U.S. soccer team, which included Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, play in the World Cup last year.

  • Clark’s final college game, a loss in the N.C.A.A. championship game, drew 18.87 million viewers on ABC and ESPN, about four million more than the men’s championship game.

Alex Michael, a managing director at the investment bank LionTree, said the value of stars might be increasing as media consumption continued to shift away from broadcast television. “It’s not only the live games, but just their lives — whether it’s social media or other facets of storytelling,” he said.

The chicken-or-the-egg problem. While more viewers translate to more money for the league, it takes money to find new viewers. In 2022, the W.N.B.A. raised $75 million from an investor group that includes Nike, Condoleezza Rice, Laurene Powell Jobs and Michael Dell. The league is also planning multiple expansion teams that it hopes will bring in more money.

The 2022 funding has gone into marketing, ad campaigns, influencer marketing and live events, Engelbert said. And some of those efforts may be paying off: This past season, the league averaged 627,000 viewers per game on ABC — still a fraction of the 1.09 million across all networks for N.B.A. games, but its most-viewed regular season in more than a decade.

“The seeds were sown over the last five years for this monumental growth,” Chiney Ogwumike, a host for ESPN who was the W.N.B.A.’s first overall draft pick in 2014, told DealBook.

As evidence of ESPN’s role in that progress, she cited pregame shows for the W.N.B.A. and an increasing number of shows about women’s college basketball.

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