The NBA announced Monday that it had reached a gargantuan new broadcast rights deal with Disney and Turner to keep its games on ESPN, ABC, and TNT for the next decade — and bring in a reported $2.6 billion per year over the life of the nine-year agreement that begins in the 2016–2017 season.
That is good news for owners, who stand to reap a massive financial windfall from the agreement, and there is some good news for players, who will see the annual salary cap take a big jump thanks to the new cash. There is good news in the agreement for another basketball league too: the WNBA.
According to the NBA’s release, the new deal includes an agreement to keep showing WNBA games on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC through the 2025 season. It also expands “in-progress highlight rights” from WNBA games on ESPN’s digital platforms. In other words, the WNBA will continue to be visible on TV and could be even more visible on alternative platforms.
The WNBA already signed a new TV deal with ESPN in 2013 that ensured its games would stay on TV through the 2022 season. That deal is worth $12 million per year — or $1 million per WNBA team — and expanded ESPN’s total WNBA offerings from 28 games annually to 30. It also established a televised Memorial Day doubleheader meant to mimic the NBA’s popular Christmas Day lineup.
The ESPN and NBA releases did not specify how the new deal will affect the WNBA beyond that it runs through 2025, so it seems that, outside of increased digital highlight offerings, it is just an extension of the current deal and won’t add any games or a larger financial commitment. The WNBA office did not immediately respond to a request for more details about how the deal will affect the league.
Still, its inclusion is evidence of the NBA’s commitment to the league’s growth and to ESPN’s confidence in it, and it comes at a time when the WNBA is posting some of the strongest TV numbers in its history. After sinking to record lows in 2012, the WNBA’s TV ratings rebounded in 2013, when it drew more than 230,000 viewers per game on ESPN and ESPN2. For comparison’s sake, that beat the ESPN family’s average draw for Major League Soccer matches for the same year (MLS, on the strength of the World Cup and soccer’s growing popularity, posted big gains in 2014 and signed its own new TV deal). The league has said that its online subscription service, WNBA Live Access, grew 24 percent during the 2013 season, and that it saw double-digit growth on its web site during the season.
The WNBA posted another ratings gain in 2014, averaging 240,000 viewers per game on ESPN networks. Its playoffs showed even better numbers, averaging 489,000 viewers on ESPN, a 90 percent increase from a year ago. The 2014 WNBA Finals drew an average of 659,000 viewers, up 91 percent from 2013 and enough to make it the most viewed Finals since 2006, according to Sports Media Watch.
The new deal, of course, is hardly all good news. The influx of cash to the NBA and owners’ coffers could mean another labor stoppage is on the horizon, as players continue to (rightfully) stew over the money they lost as part of the most recent labor negotiations and owners remain willing to do further battle with them. It’s also likely that the new deal will increase cable bills, as the money to finance this sort of payout almost always comes, as we and others have explained before, from network carriage fees that are passed on to consumers. And the WNBA side of it could be better, especially if it included a larger financial commitment that helped boost salaries in a league where the average is still below $100,000.
But the commitment to the WNBA and women’s basketball is a positive step for the league and its fans. The WNBA, which just completed its 18th season, has ridden a bevy of young stars and new marketing overhauls to better TV numbers over the last two seasons, and the guarantee of having its biggest games and stars on the nation’s largest sports network for the foreseeable future will only help its efforts to continue solidifying the place of a major women’s professional league in a crowded sports landscape.