The WNBA and CBS Sports recently announced a deal to broadcast 40 regular season WNBA games on the network. Those 40 games now brings the total WNBA television/streaming exposure to nearly 135 games this season, with 35 games on the ESPN family of networks (16 regular season and up to 19 playoff games), 20 games on Twitter, and 40 games on NBA TV.
This deal is certainly a big one for the WNBA and will lead to increased, incremental exposure for the league and its players. However, the deal still shows some of the challenges the league continues to face, as there’s a very clear distinction between CBS and the CBS Sports Network channels. The former is the national channel whereas the latter is a cable channel with fewer subscribers.
Additionally, the TV industry continues a downward trend of lost viewership. All four major broadcast networks, CBS included, slipped by more than 10 percent last year with the critical 18-to-49-year-old demographic. That resulted in the sharpest drop in ad sales, outside of a recession, in nearly 20 years.
These trends may have played a factor in CBS Sports’ decision to make this deal with the WNBA. When you start to lose revenue and margins you have to start looking at alternatives you may not have considered during “peacetime.” That new reality can be the catalyst for providing opportunities and platforms to new, fresh programming that can help deliver new, improved ratings that otherwise might not have manifested. That’s not meant as an insult to the WNBA or its product. The spacing and ball movement principles make for great games. Rather, it’s a condemnation of corporate advertising stagnation.
The WNBA may be a fresh new reprieve for television advertisers, as the WNBA saw nearly a 35-percent increase in TV viewership last season, which had to figure into CBS’s calculations. It’s particularly impressive considering the ever-increasing reality of lower viewership across the board for TV networks, with digital alternatives seemingly popping up on a daily basis and eating into the traditional mediums of cable and local television.
If the WNBA can continue to maintain or stay near that growth while adding a ballast of wind to the aforementioned deflated sails of television revenue, it could be a critical inflection point and stepping stone for the league moving forward. The TV and cable business is a copycat industry. If one network is doing well with a certain move, the others will follow. That’s why the only history you’ll see on the History Channel these days is reality show reruns.
Lastly, but certainly not least, is how much this deal will potentially affect the salaries of WNBA players. With Breanna Stewart’s recent Achilles rupture while playing overseas during the WNBA offseason, placing a spotlight on player safety and the need for an offseason rather than year-round seasons, there’s an ever-growing call for greater wage growth in the WNBA—an issue that will be at the heart of negotiations when the league’s current CBA expires at the end of this season.
All in all, even though the WNBA has now been around for 23 years, this deal and the WNBA’s new rebranding and ever growing zeal for women’s sports equality may place them at the intersection of opportunity, time, and place. This deal could be an important piece of the puzzle for expanding exposure, showing proof of the concept’s profitability to other networks, and increasing player salaries. In the right conditions, all it takes is the slightest piece of tinder and spark to start a forest fire, but this is a start 23 years in the making.