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WNBA Could Quadruple Media-Rights Fees to $240 Million Annually

  • Caitlin Clark is lighting up the WNBA just as the league negotiates new rights deals.
  • Also: Could TNT return to NFL business after nearly 30 years?
Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Caitlin Clark is a force multiplier for attendance, TV ratings—and now WNBA media-rights fees.

Riding the wave that crested with Clark, the WNBA could quadruple its annual rights payout from TV partners, sources tell Front Office Sports.

The 12-team women’s basketball league currently draws a comically low $60 million per year from its TV and streaming deals with Disney, Amazon Prime Video, CBS, and Ion. Under new long-term agreements being negotiated, the WNBA could boost its annual payout to the $240 million range, sources tell me. 

The NBA, which owns more than 50% of the 28-year-old league, is leading WNBA media-rights talks as part of its own larger negotiation for $75 billion in long-term media rights going through the 2030s. 

“The NBA is soliciting one total bid from media companies that does not separate the values of the NBA and the WNBA rights, according to people familiar with the process, and some media companies involved in the bidding are not assigning a specific figure to the WNBA rights,” according to The Washington Post. “That means the NBA’s massive deal could be rocket fuel for the WNBA—or that the WNBA’s increased popularity is more of an afterthought. It also could be a bit of both.”

My take? There’s no way the fast-growing WNBA will allow itself to be an afterthought this go-around. Those days are over. Rights fees are the financial lifeblood of sports leagues. If the WNBA doesn’t get the figure it wants, it has reserved the right to seek its own separate media deal outside the purview of the NBA.

Timing is important during contract negotiations. Right now, Clark is the most-talked-about, most-debated athlete in America. The media loves her. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert now has the ammo to shoot down arguments that her league has not been able to break through into mainstream sports conversation.

Consider: With Clark suiting up for the Indiana Fever, the WNBA drew its most-watched opening month ever across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, CBS, Ion, and NBA TV. Game telecasts averaged 1.32 million viewers, nearly triple last season’s average of 462,000 viewers. Viewership is up 60% among people of color, with viewership among Black and Hispanic people up 96% and 67%, respectively.

At the live gate, the WNBA posted its highest-attended opening month in 26 years, with 400,000 fans attending live games from through the end of May. Did we mention the sale of WNBA-branded merchandise rose 236% year-over-year? 

I’m still shaking my head at USA Basketball’s unforced error of leaving the WNBA’s No. 1 overall draft pick off the Team USA roster for the Paris Olympics. Clark is the third-most positively perceived active basketball player in the U.S., according to YouGov, behind only LeBron James and Steph Curry. One-third of all WNBA attendance this year has been for Clark games.

The former Iowa superstar would have been a one-woman Dream Team attraction for NBC’s Olympic ratings this summer. But while NBC will lose short-term in the ratings, the league’s current and future media partners will see a long-term gain.

Could TNT return to the NFL business?

At press time, TNT was hanging on to its 40-year NBA relationship by a thin, thin thread. The league has effectively tabled negotiations until the end of the 2024 NBA Finals. But one of the most fascinating subplots from the latest breakdown in Paramount Global sales talks, is the possibility that CBS’s owner could again seek a merger with TNT owner Warner Bros. Discovery. CBS owns TV rights to the NFL—the ultimate TV beachfront property—through ’33 at a price of $2 billion per year. Don’t forget, the former Turner Sports showed NFL games on Sunday nights from 1990–97, splitting the package with ESPN. One of the main goals of legendary former Turner boss David Levy was always to win back NFL TV rights. Yes, it would be the bank shot of bank shots. CBS would have to agree to share some rights with TNT (the two networks already partner for NCAA March Madness). The league would have to approve. CBS and TNT would have to solve affiliate concerns, etc. But never say never, especially with more networks teaming up to slash costs.

Bob Thomson, the former Fox executive, told me: “I don’t know that the CBS/NFL agreement would allow for games to be shifted to cable, but I could certainly see alt-casts, simulcasts, etc. Especially when CBS has a big, mostly nationally distributed, game.” 

Sports media consultant Joe Favorito sees a possible lane here, too. “I think that the sublicensing to partners, especially when viewers are needed in large platforms to satisfy brand spends, should be common-sensical if that occurs,” he said. “As long as the consumer knows where to find the game—and the NFL does a better job than anyone at cross-promoting, and WBD has been innovators at creating unique viewing experiences—why would the NFL NOT want that to happen. Everyone wins.”

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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