Already scheduled to offer its largest regular-season WNBA slate of games ever, ESPN is adding 13 more broadcasts this season, bringing its total to 37.
The games – which now include at least four with every team – will air across ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2, as well as on the ESPN App. ESPN’s networks are also the television home of the WNBA playoffs.
In April, the 2020 WNBA draft hit a six-year viewership high, averaging 378,000 viewers on ESPN. That was up 59% from 2019 and 26% from 2018, when it aired on ESPN2, according to Sports Media Watch.
The league kicked off the 22-game 2020 season on July 25, which is being played in a bubble-like environment at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The opening game between the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury averaged 540,000 viewers on ABC, making it the most-watched WNBA opener since 2012, ESPN said. Viewership was up 20% from the league’s first game in 2019.
The increased broadcast footprint will allow the league to shine a bigger spotlight on its growing group of popular players, like Sue Bird, Candace Parker, and Diana Taurasi. Sabrina Ionescu, the former Oregon Duck who became the first player in NCAA history to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds, made her debut for the New York Liberty on July 25 – the team is scheduled to appear on ESPN networks five more times.
In 2013, ESPN inked a deal to keep the WNBA on its networks through the 2022 season for $12 million per year. By 2016, as part of its negotiations with the NBA, that amount more than doubled to $25 million – still just one one-hundredth of what ESPN pays for the men’s league.
Ahead of the 2019 campaign, CBS got in on the action with a multiyear 40-game deal for an undisclosed fee. This season will mark the first time that CBS will broadcast a game on the CBS Television Network, while the remaining games will air on CBS Sports Network.
Additional games will air on NBA TV or WNBA League Pass, and teams also have local TV deals.
ESPN commentators will continue to call the games remotely from the network’s Bristol, Conn. campus while Holly Rowe adds on-site reporting. Booth teams include play-by-play announcer Ryan Ruocco with analyst Rebecca Lobo, and play-by-play announcer Pam Ward with analyst LaChina Robinson.
ESPN’s expanded commitment comes as WNBA players continue to be at the forefront of social justice causes, and the storylines surrounding play are among the most buzzworthy ever.
The league announced it would dedicate the bubble season to raising awareness about social causes, including the creation of a Social Justice Council to “be a driving force of necessary and continuing conversations about race, voting rights, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and gun control amongst other important societal issues.” Other efforts include warm-ups with the messages “Say Her Name” and “Black Lives Matter.” Both the Liberty and the Seattle Storm walked off the court prior to the pre-game national anthem on opening day.