Women's college basketball's magical season is present for WNBA

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell04/19/24


Andy Staples On3 2024-04-19 at 12:00

Women’s college basketball’s groundbreaking season is the gift that keeps on giving for the WNBA.

While it’s early – the WNBA’s season doesn’t begin until next month – there is mounting evidence that much of the unprecedented popularity of the women’s college season is already transferring to the professional league as it welcomes in a star-studded crop of rookies.

An astonishing 2.45 million viewers watched Monday’s WNBA Draft on ESPN to see the Indiana Fever select transcendent star Caitlin Clark with the first overall pick. That figure dwarfed the previous record of some 600,000 viewers for the 2004 draft.

“This is a generational class,” said former Tennessee star Rickea Jackson, who was the fourth overall selection by the Los Angeles Sparks. “This class is just so different. The viewership is peaking. Women’s basketball is on an uproar. Everybody is tuning in. We averaged better than the men this year.”

This was the first time in history that more people watched the women’s national title game (18.7 million) than the men’s final (14.82 million).

Caitlin Clark providing big returns for WNBA

There may be just a bit of intrigue surrounding Clark’s debut with the Fever against the Connecticut Sun on May 14 on ESPN2. The Fanatics website has already sold out of its initial stock of Clark’s No. 22 jerseys.

In women’s basketball, Clark doesn’t move the needle. She is the needle.

Multiple WNBA teams, including the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics, have already moved their games against the Fever to larger arenas to accommodate more fans. 

Absorb this: Courtside tickets for her debut ($2,453) cost double what Indiana Pacers’ playoff courtside seats are going for ($1,220), according to ticket broker Gametime. In total, 36 of the Fever’s 40 regular-season games will be on national TV, up from 28 last season.

WNBA positioned to make most of excitement

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert is well-positioned to capitalize on the surging popularity of women’s basketball.

Two years ago, she led a $75 million capital raise for the league and has unlocked a trove of sponsorship opportunities. In fact, the league’s sponsorship revenue last year was $860.1 million from 36 partnerships, according to research and analytics firm GlobalData.

Two years ago, Engelbert, who said the league was in the midst of a three- to five-year business transformation process, told me in a phone interview, “We definitely have blown away my expectations on corporate sponsors, but we’re not even close to moving the needle on this [with] less than 1% of all sponsorship dollars [industry wide] going toward women’s sports.”

She also lamented at a Sports Business Journal conference two years ago that it is “so frustrating that we don’t get good TV windows, we don’t get enough national coverage, we’re not on SportsCenter.”

Spoiler alert: That dynamic is changing rapidly – and in the WNBA’s favor. 

The appeal of the league was already trending in a positive direction – last season’s viewership was up 21% over 2022. But now, as it catches the wave from women’s college basketball’s magical season, the WNBA is poised to rise to entirely new heights.