The WNBA Is at a Crossroads

Two weeks ago, a whopping 18.7 million viewers watched the NCAA women’s basketball championship between Iowa and South Carolina across ABC and the “Bird and Taurasi Show” on ESPN – not only the most watched basketball game, men’s or women’s, college or pro, since the 2019 men’s national championship (and topping every NBA game since the 2017 Finals), but the most watched sporting event at all, outside football and the Olympics, since the 2019 World Series.

Needless to say, it was the most-watched game in women’s college basketball history, breaking the record set by… the national semifinal between Iowa and UConn two days earlier, which drew 14.2 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN2. That, in turn, broke the mark set by… the regional final the previous Monday between Iowa and LSU, which drew 12.3 million viewers to ESPN alone. An Elite Eight game on cable alone drew a larger audience than last year’s national championship between the same two teams on broadcast, which fell short of ten million, and indeed any previous women’s college basketball game, including when the women’s Final Four regularly aired on CBS in the 80s and 90s.

Obviously a lot of this has to do with the singular, and likely inimitable, phenomenon that is Iowa star Caitlin Clark, but it’s not just her; the most-watched game of the women’s tournament not involving Iowa or having Iowa as a lead-in or lead-out was undefeated South Carolina’s Elite Eight game, which still set the record for the most-watched Elite Eight game ever before Clark and Iowa blew it out of the water the following night. That game aired on ABC, which has only recently started airing women’s tournament games at all (let alone the national championship, which only started last year), but ESPN has aired three national championship games that failed to reach the 3.07 million viewers South Carolina’s win over Oregon State did, and of the 26 national championships that aired on cable alone from 1996 to 2022, only eight drew more than a million more viewers than South Carolina-Oregon State, two of them in the last two years before the title game moved to ABC.

So there’s reason to think that women’s college basketball can maintain some of its momentum and establish a new baseline for popularity. But it’ll have to do it without the forces that brought it to these heights this year. It’s not just that Clark has now left for the WNBA, drafted by the Indiana Fever; so has LSU’s Angel Reese, her nemesis in last year’s national championship game. So has the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso, both selected by the Chicago Sky to set up what could be a juicy Midwestern rivalry for years to come. UConn’s Paige Bueckers elected to return to college for another year, and even once she leaves the college game will be fine with the emergence of new stars such as USC’s freshman phenom Juju Watkins, not to mention all the young girls inspired by Clark and her cohorts that will come along over the next decade or two, but for now, all the biggest stars of this year’s tournament will now be the territory of the WNBA for the foreseeable future.

And therein lies an enormous opportunity… if the WNBA can put itself in position to take advantage of it. 

Read moreThe WNBA Is at a Crossroads

They made it official yesterday: we’ve been in a recession for a year. Will the WNBA survive it?

I write this Tuesday night, already tired from my last post and staying up too late the previous night, so I keep it brief.

The Houston Comets are folding – the team with the first four WNBA championships.

The symbolism can’t be good.

The importance in terms of the size of the markets the WNBA is or isn’t in? Philadelphia was always a bigger problem.

The importance in terms of expansion back to 14 teams (again)? Leaving aside the question of whether 14 teams is really a healthy number for the league, there has been some question of playing in Tennessee, but it’s worth noting that going too far east would force the Chicago Sky into the Western Conference. However, a Memphis team could plausibly play in the West, much like the Memphis Grizzlies play in the West. Other Western targets could include a trip up I-45 to Dallas, reviving the idea of a team in Denver, or a real Bay Area team. Other Eastern targets could include reviving a team in Florida or Cleveland, or a Philadelphia or real Boston team.

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 10/4-5

All times PDT.

Saturday
9-12:30 PM: College Football, Iowa @ #17 Michigan State (ESPN2). Wait, my new “mid-major lineal title” just got created, and all my thoughts were on whether Oregon State had done enough to crack positive B Points next week! (It will depend a LOT on SoS… but why do I keep reading, like from ESPN.com blogger Ted Miller, “what if the Penn State game was the fluke”? Penn State’s in my top 5! Didn’t the Beavers lose to Stanford as well? Win that game, and their B Rating is probably over 1 even without a better performance against JoePa! And that’s the only thing this entry has to do with the entire Big Ten.)

12:30-4 PM: College Football, #6 Kentucky @ defending 2004 Auburn-Utah titleholder #1 Alabama (CBS). Nick Saban is 1-0 this season in games against #6 teams in my C Ratings with the Auburn-Utah title at stake.

6-9:30 PM: College Football, defending Princeton-Yale title holder #4 Missouri @ #8 Nebraska (ESPN). Preceded at 3 PM by Auburn-Vanderbilt, so games REALLY got crammed on ESPN today. Blame the Breeder’s Cup, but seriously, this seems like a natural opening for one more college football contract. But the SEC just re-upped and the Big 12 signed last year.
Sunday
10-1 PM: NFL Football, regional action (CBS and/or FOX). The WNBA Finals, below, cleared out space for NFL Football to not be restricted to SNF.

1:30-4 PM: WNBA Finals, Silver Stars @ Shock (ESPN2). Man, the WNBA Finals can’t even get an ABC slot on a weekend now? Blame NASCAR, running from 11-3 today with the AMP Energy 500. In other news, even women’s basketball players think the WNBA stinks. I really wish supporters of women’s equality in sports would put more chips on other sports like golf or softball. Basketball is either boring or incomprehensible no matter who plays it.

4-7:30 PM: MLB Baseball, Angels @ Red Sox (TBS) and 7-10 PM: MLB Baseball, Cubs @ Dodgers (TBS). I suspect some game time changes may occur if the Phillies-Brewers series ends early. Hey, by getting football out of the way earlier in the day we could fit baseball in here (SNF is 5:15-8:30) and have a whole day of college football! Thanks, WNBA, for bumping out the Chase for the Cup! (Baseball would have bumped out a primetime game, not an afternoon game as in past weeks.)

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 9/27-28

All times PDT. All college football rankings reflect my C Ratings for teams in positive B Points.

Saturday
9-12 PM: College Football, Northwestern @ Iowa (ESPN Classic). Three teams in my top 25 and a team not in the top 25 but ranked ahead of either one of these two could conceivably go in this spot. But none of them are playing teams in positive B Points, and this might be a game to take that leap into the top 25, especially for Northwestern. Wait… Northwestern’s actually good?!?

12-2 PM: WNBA Basketball, Los Angeles @ San Antonio (NBA TV). Wait… a conference finals game on NBA TV? And it might be the deciding game?!?

Honorable Mention: 12:30-4 PM: MLB Baseball, regional action (FOX). All the hot playoff chase action! Too bad everything’s probably already determined.

4:45-8 PM: College Football, #1 Alabama @ defending 2004 Auburn-Utah title holder #6 Georgia (ESPN). Boy, how about my prediction on last week’s Watcher that Alabama would be “surprisingly strong”? Isn’t this two straight weeks CBS has screwed up the best SEC game? Not that Tennessee-Auburn is bad, per se…

Sunday
10:30-3 PM: PGA Tour Golf, THE TOUR Championship (NBC). The end of the playoff system that’s nothing like a playoff that no one cares about.

Honorable Mention: 11-3 PM: NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing, Kansas race (ABC).

5:15-8:30 PM: NFL Football, Philadelphia @ Chicago (NBC). A mediocre team and a team that was mediocre last year. But at least you got the big time markets!

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 9/20-21

All times PDT.

Saturday
9:30-12:45 PM: College football, Alabama @ Arkansas (Raycom Sports). Look for Alabama to be surprisingly strong when the new ratings come out on Monday.

12:45-4 PM: MLB Baseball, regional action (FOX). As usual, this is the only place baseball can fit.

4-6 PM: WNBA Basketball, New York @ Connecticut (NBATV). Now the playoffs are in full swing.

6-8 PM: WNBA Basketball, Sacramento @ San Antonio (NBATV). Man, the schedule really gets cramped this week and next with all the stuff I have to squeeze in.
Sunday
9-3 PM: Ryder Cup, final round (NBC). Is it just me, or does it seem like only sports journalists and groups that cover sports (ie ESPN) care about the Ryder Cup? And gee, it seems a lot bigger now that ESPN is covering the final round…

Honorable Mention: 10-3 PM: NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing, Dover race (ABC). When I looked, both this race and the next one were identified as the “Camping World 400”, but with different “presented by” sponsors.

5-8:30 PM: NFL Football, Dallas @ Green Bay (NBC). Obligatory NFL game that has to be SNF.

Sports Watcher Labor Day 3-day Weekend Special for the Weekend of 8/30-9/1

All times PDT.

Saturday
8-11 AM: College Football, Appalachian State @ defending 2008 BCS title holder LSU (ESPN Classic). Yes, it’s college football season again! Can lightning strike twice for App State?

12:30-3:30 PM: College Football, defending 2007 Boise State title holder USC v. Virginia (ABC/ESPN2). The move of the App State/LSU game could have opened things up for baseball, but this isn’t change, this is more of the same!

5:30-8:30 PM: College Football, Illinois v. defending Princeton-Yale title holder Missouri (ESPN). Once my C Ratings come out, everything is based on relative rating. Until then, you get this.

Sunday
10-12:30 PM: WNBA Basketball, Seattle @ Connecticut (ABC). I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know whether this is a regular season game or an early-round postseason game.

12:30-3 PM: IndyCar Racing, IndyCar Grand Prix at Detroit (ABC). Normally road course races are a bit of a slog, but I was glued to my TV last weekend rooting for Helio Castroneves to break a lengthy winless streak at Infineon. Too bad it was relegated to ESPN2.

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, LA Dodgers @ Arizona (ESPN2). Bumped to the Deuce by NASCAR.

Monday
11-3 PM: PGA Tour Golf, Deutsche Bank Championship (NBC). I didn’t realize until this week that the PGA Tour “playoffs” no one cares about had started. I had been thinking this was an important weekend for Sports Watcher with no real big events…

4-6 PM (potentially 4-9 PM on the West Coast): US Open Tennis, octofinal-round action (USA). The Labor Day college football game is mediocre v. mediocre in Tennessee v. UCLA, only of interest to masturbating “my c0nf3rence is teh rulz” spewers, and otherwise I couldn’t get tennis on here.

5-8 PM: College Football, Tennessee v. UCLA (ESPN). Mediocre v. mediocre. How exciting.

Thoughts on the WNBA’s new Atlanta expansion team

  • I remember happening upon a web site a while back that was heavily campaigning for the WNBA to put an expansion team in Atlanta. At the time, I thought it might have been a bit of a long shot, mainly because I didn’t think of Atlanta as a hub of women’s basketball (certainly not in the South), but at least was interesting.
  • The team fills a hole left open by the folding of the Charlotte Sting, evening out the Eastern and Western conferences at 7 teams each. Before the Sting’s folding, the addition of the Chicago Sky had a similar effect. The new Atlanta team serves as a replacement for the Sting in another way, serving as the WNBA’s team for the South. However, its placement in the “Queen City of the South” is probably a preferable placement to smaller Charlotte.
  • That said, there’s a reason I was skeptical about the WNBA-in-Atlanta drive. Philadelphia, Dallas-Fort Worth, the Bay Area (discounting the Monarchs), and Boston are all larger Nielsen markets without WNBA teams. But that says more about the WNBA in general than about the decision to put a team in the No. 8 media market. Remember, the WNBA was ten years old before they put a team in Chicago and thus triangulated. (In my parlance, a league “triangulates” when it has a team in each of the Big Three markets – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. That’s a major barometer of the health of a smaller league. Of course, the NFL gets by just fine without triangulation – it has no team in LA.)
  • By the 2000 Census, the largest metro area without a WNBA team is the Bay Area, followed by Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and (formerly) Atlanta. Right behind Atlanta is an ominous sign of the potential health of an Atlanta team: Miami, former home to the Sol. That team started playing in 2000 and lasted only three seasons before folding. Of course, that’s not so much a sign for the South as much as it is for Florida. Both the WNBA and MLS have had two teams each in Florida, the WNBA in Miami and Orlando, MLS in Miami and Tampa Bay (the largest Nielsen market behind Atlanta without a WNBA team). In all four cases, the teams either folded or moved elsewhere. Florida can’t even hold a major league team in places it should, as the story of the Florida Marlins and the continued suckitude of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays show. Still, it’s worth noting that Atlanta also lacks an MLS team… and once the San Jose Earthquakes return to the Bay Area, Philadelphia will be the only larger market and 2000-definition metro area without an MLS team, meaning Atlanta will be the largest market and 2000-definition metro area to have a WNBA team but no MLS team, replacing Detroit (on the list of markets) and Seattle (on the list of metro areas). Well, at least the Shock and Storm have had some success, even if the Storm might be about to take off for greener pastures.