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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The WNBA Has Huge Ambitions as Caitlin Clark Finally Comes Aboard

  • Goal is to get WNBA to 16 teams in “next few years.”
  • League could go on its own and not with NBA in its next media rights deal.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

BROOKLYN – Caitlin Clark made her way to the podium to shake commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s hand and usher in a new era of the WNBA. 

She did the obligatory interview with ESPN before heading backstage and being greeted by…Jake from State Farm?

The insurance spokesman, who has appeared alongside the Iowa star and now No. 1 pick by the Indiana Fever in commercials, embraced his television co-star before the phenom began to make the media rounds. 

Jake, also known as the actor Kevin Miles, has become a Zelig-like figure in American sports, popping up in character at every turn. But the interaction was exactly what Engelbert wants out of a league poised to capitalize on the exploding popularity of women’s sports, with her eye on expansion, a new media rights deal and more corporate sponsorships. Hence, Jake. 

Speaking to the media before the 2024 WNBA Draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Engelbert sounded aware of the moment and the opportunity in front of the league. 

“It’s so clear that this draft class is entering the WNBA at an incredible time,” Engelbert said. “We are witnessing a transformational moment in sports that we may not experience for generations. The business transformation that we’ve been working so hard at is showing results. Support for the WNBA is continuing to grow. Our sport has never been stronger on the court.

“We are ready for this moment.”

Clark will obviously be a big part of that. Her impact was on full display at BAM, where a thousand tickets sold out in less than 30 minutes. It was the league’s first draft with fans since 2016, and it seemed fair to wonder if there’s a case to take future drafts on the road, like the NFL, to bigger venues.

Clark has piled up blue-chip endorsements and genuine celebrity status before she plays a game. She said Monday night that most of her current deals will follow her into the pros, providing the vast majority of her income. In the WNBA’s rookie contract scale, she’s set to earn $76,535 in salary from the Fever. But her current endorsements are projected at $3.1 million, and The Athletic recently reported that she’s set to sign a sneaker deal worth seven figures annually. She also spoke Monday about her forthcoming series with Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions, which shadowed her, South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso, and UCLA’s Kiki Rice this past college season.

“I’m actually an executive producer on the show, which has been kind of fun for myself,” Clark says. “And when Peyton Manning reached out, obviously it’s his production company, I was a little skeptical at first, but I was like, I don’t know if I really want to let people into my life like that. I’ve never really done it.

“But the way this year has unfolded…you can’t script it any better. It’s been absolutely incredible for women’s basketball. If you’re a women’s basketball fan or you’re not a women’s basketball fan, I encourage you to watch the show when it comes out. I’ve seen bits and pieces. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Clark wasn’t the only draftee with an interesting off-court portfolio. Cameron Brink, who went second overall to the Los Angeles Sparks, is the daughter of two Nike employees and the goddaughter of Sonya and Dell Curry, parents of Steph and Seth. Brink said Steph Curry FaceTimed her shortly before the start of the draft and much like her godbrother, Brink is an athlete who started with Nike, but signed elsewhere as she became New Balance’s first sponsored woman basketball player. 

“I converted for sure,” Brink said.

With unprecedented star power joining the league, Engelbert is looking to expand the league’s geographic footprint. She said Monday the goal is ”to get to 16 teams in the next few years.” The league is currently at 13 teams counting the San Francisco Bay Area team that will start play in 2025 and she floated Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, Nashville, and South Florida as places the league is currently negotiating with. Four new teams will come with 48 new roster spots or a third of the current league. The teams will bring in significant money for the league, too, as Warriors owner Joe Lacob recently paid a record $50 million expansion fee for the San Francisco-area team. 

All of this will help the league as it negotiates its next media rights deal. NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently said it makes sense for both leagues to negotiate together as they currently do, but Front Office Sports has previously reported the WNBA may seek out its own deal. The WNBA currently makes roughly $60 million annually from selling its media rights, which expire in October 2025. The league has recently agreed to deals with Amazon, CBS and ION. Engelbert has said the WNBA is trying to “double” the income of its current deal with its next one. The NBA is in an exclusive negotiating period with Disney/ABC and Turner. Engelbert didn’t deny the option to go it alone.

“I think as you look at streamers who have a subscription model, the WNBA gives the NBA longer programming across the year,” Engelbert said.” I think Adam uses the quote of 320 [days]… I actually think it’s more days. And there’s no other set of two sports leagues that can offer that live programming and sports to a streamer like that. I would say probably in that case we need the NBA because we have a smaller footprint with only 40 games, and it’s nice to go to market together.”

Over the years, Engelbert has mentioned the need for the league to create “household names” in order for it to grow.  “It was just a few years ago we were surviving, and now we’re going from survive to thrive,” she said.

“The one thing I know about sports, you need household names, rivalries, and games of consequence,” Engelbert says. “Those are the three things we’ve had over the past couple weeks, and hopefully will continue into the WNBA season.”

The new household names are here, officially, finally. The season—which starts in less than a month—and the media negotiations will be the next big tests of Engelbert’s ambitions.

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