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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Exploding Demand for Preseason Broadcasts Catches WNBA by Surprise

  • The league put five of its 11 preseason games on WNBA League Pass.
  • Fans haven’t clamored for preseason content to this degree in the past.
Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

In 2022, the WNBA didn’t air any preseason games nationally. Last year, it aired two. (Some teams had games broadcast locally on regional sports networks.) None of that led to national headlines or clamoring on social media.

Enter Caitlin Clark and the rest of her rookie class, who appear to be changing the sport and the league at a head-spinning pace.

The league put five of its 11 preseason games on WNBA League Pass: Clark’s two preseason matchups, the Canada game, New York Liberty at Chicago Sky, and Phoenix Mercury versus L.A. Sparks. And fans want way more. (In the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, preseason games are mostly available locally or on league-owned entities like NFL+, NBA League Pass, and MLB Network, with select games on national carriers like ESPN and Fox.)

Fans won the imaginary media-rights negotiations and started showing games themselves. Without a broadcast for the Sky against the Minnesota Lynx (although an erroneous graphic from the league showed it would be available on WNBA League Pass), a fan’s livestream of the game got two million views, according to X. A fan’s stream of the Seattle Storm game against the Mercury clocked more than 20,000 views on the app. The WNBA did show games live on X last year, but those were real productions, not bootleg streams from the stands.

“I mean, it sucks,” New York’s Sabrina Ionescu said of the missing Chicago-Minnesota broadcast. “I think representation of every team is important. … Hopefully, the league can fix that because I think they dropped the ball on that part and hopefully they have a great explanation as to why that wasn’t televised. But hats off to the person that just figured it out.”

“There’s been a thirst for it, not just this season, but even before that, I felt like,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of airing preseason matchups. “They have to weigh the production costs for preseason games, maybe it’s not beneficial for everyone to do. So that’s what’s in the way, that decision of where are you going to spend your money.”

The Connecticut Sun took matters into their own hands for their Thursday night matchup against the Liberty, promising a YouTube stream of their own. The stream was shut down due to copyright issues: It was flagged by the NBA’s own AI video tracking program, Videocites, that identifies league content on the internet.

How much of this is the WNBA’s fault for missing the moment? How much falls on individual teams for not realizing the lack of access and stepping in with another option, like the Sun tried to? It’s hard to tell. After all, this is the preseason. The small number of games being streamed might stem from the fact that this massive demand for preseason games really hasn’t existed until now. Just look at attendance numbers. Gainbridge Fieldhouse welcomed 13,028 fans for Clark’s home debut, smashing the team’s preseason attendance record of 9,024 people set in 2000. The team was second to last in the league last year with an average attendance of 4,067 fansin the regular season. The league knew the buzz would be coming for Clark and put her two preseason games on League Pass, but it didn’t anticipate such a demand for the six unavailable games.

A league spokesperson did not immediately comment when contacted by Front Office Sports.

In some ways, the preseason streaming mess shows how high interest is in the league right now and increases pressure to get it right when the real games start next week. Clark opens her WNBA career Tuesday playing last season’s semifinalists, the Sun, followed by the league runners-up, the Liberty, Saturday. While fans will have to bounce around different networks and platforms like ABC, Amazon Prime Video, and Ion to catch her this season, Clark’s games will be available. So will Angel Reese’s, and Cameron Brink’s, and Nika Mühl’s, and Aaliyah Edwards’s, or whichever favorite rookie the new college-basketball-turned-WNBA fans want to watch.

The league may have whiffed on an opportunity with the preseason. But given this year’s surging interest in women’s basketball and the WNBA’s limited history of broadcasting preseason games, it’s easy to understand how it happened. The WNBA now has a chance to prove itself to all its new fans starting Tuesday.

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