As women's sports around the globe continue to become more and more popular, it is becoming more clear that the WNBA is lagging behind in the visibility department. A league filled with talent and very few of it is recognized by the public due to the lack of accessibility to the game as a whole. Over the past few weeks, there have been many players from Sue Bird to Jonquel Jones that have challenged the media to view the WNBA in a different light. The talent is without a doubt there, and having just 12 teams in the league, there are only a limited number of spots to fill on each roster, creating disguised "super teams". In 2019, an average NBA audience was around two million per game while the WNBA sat around just 246,000.
While some people like to blame the so-called "lack of excitement" in the women's game, the truth is that most of the games are more complicated to find than it takes to turn on an NBA game on a relaxing Wednesday night. From fuboTV to WatchESPN, and even Amazon Prime Video, Facebook Watch, and Twitter, the WNBA has a multitude of platforms on which it broadcasts its games on. On top of the lack of media coverage, the league has failed in its mission to try to provide the games to the public in a quick and accessible way. It often takes multiple clicks, searches, and possibly even some money in order to keep up with the WNBA on a regular basis, and for this league to grow, the world needs to finally embrace it, because it will not disappoint.
Last week when reigning WNBA MVP was in COVID-19 protocols trying to watch her team play she struggled herself to tune into the game, stating on Twitter, "Why is the game blocked in my area smh man this is crazy...Swear we’re the only league that makes fans do a deep dive on the internet to support."
From a less than remarkable All-Star Game MVP trophy to limiting the viability of games to their fans because games are not available to watch on WNBA league pass if they are broadcast by a team’s regional sports network, there are so many things this league has to fix in order for it to take the next step. The league has to begin by addressing the viewership issue and creating more of a fanbase that can compete with other professional leagues in the United States.
At times the games are on ESPN or ABC, but when it comes to the majority of the games in the regular season, fans most of the time have to either purchase a service or scavenge the internet for more time than they would like in order to watch their desired contest. Arguably the biggest game of the regular season, the Commissioners Cup Championship game was broadcasted on Amazon Prime Video which is an $8.99 monthly subscription. If Cathy Engelbert and this league are to get anywhere, it needs to find ways to get more meaningful contests on free and easily accessible platforms for its fans not only in the United States but around the world that can access without any issues.
There is no reason that games should be blocked in a specific area, and while some regional media outlets will cover them, the larger ones barely acknowledge the fact that there is an actual WNBA season. There is no way a regular fan of a sport is going to go through several apps, never mind one just to keep up to date with a professional basketball league. The players, and hopefully the league office know that the product is top-notch, and having just 25 in total in the regular season on the ESPN networks is not going to do the job that Engelbert and the league want to do. It may not be a priority for these larger companies to have the WNBA on their platform due to the perceived lack of viewership, but the least these people can do is give these talented young women a shot to show the world what they actually can do.
During All-Star weekend both A'ja Wilson, and Plum spoke on the issue of accessibility for fans with Plum stating, "I would like to see the league make it easier and more accessible for fans...We understand that the product is great, and when we get people to watch the game, they love it, but the hardest part is getting people there...there are better ways to strategically figure out how to draw fans in, and keep them."
Wilson later stated, "You tell me I got to go through three apps, I am not watching that...Let’s be honest here."
In 2021, the WNBA experienced the highest viewership numbers since 2008, due to the fact that the league finally realized the obvious trend. Just nine games on ABC between 2009 and 2020, and in 2021 the league had nine in all and over 100 nationally televised contests. In 2008, the WNBA had eight games on ABC, but in one of the most confusing turn of events, the WNBA only managed one on one of the biggest networks on television, affecting the numbers of viewership drastically.
The league is growing back after extremely poor tv scheduling, putting four games at the same time on the same night, dismal marketing, and insufficient tv coverage, but it is nowhere near where the league needs to be. The All-Star Game MVP trophy symbolized the small portion of the sports culture it takes up on a daily basis, and with the talent the players know it possesses, the league has to find a way to make the league more watchable for fans that don't have subscriptions for every service under the sun. In August of 2021, the WNBA joined the NBA, and NHL among other teams, partnering with an app called "Buzzer". The app provides sports fans with live look-ins to games and players that they specifically tell the app to focus on with the unique personalization settings.
It gives fans easy access to the live game, letting the fans purchase the game directly on the app, not having to deal with the WNBA League Pass directly. The only problem is that nobody knows about it, and with star players saying that there are too many services, the league needs to simplify, not overcomplicate the process for an average fan. It is a step in the right direction, partnering with a growing app in the sports industry, but the league has stretched itself too wide into so many services that fans don't know where to tune in on a nightly basis to watch their favorite team. Marketing has always been an issue for the league, and as "Buzzer" grows into a more regularly used part of sports culture if it does at all, the league needs to realize fans don't want infinite options to watch the same thing.
Among all the other problems that this league is enduring not only this season but in years past, the only way for this league to grow is to figure itself out when it comes to where the fans can find the games. There is so much talent in this league, and with the expansion to possibly two other cities, more and more people are going to be interested in what the league has to offer. NBA fans know where they can find games on a nightly basis, whether it is ESPN, their local sports network, or even TNT.
Each game is a new story for a fan of the WNBA, whether it is CBS Sports Network one night or Amazon Prime the next, every fan has to be constantly on their toes to find their desired game. League Pass doesn't always give easy access to games, due to the possibility of it being blocked in that specific area like what happened to Jones when she was trying to watch her team while in quarantine. Seeing players like Candace Parker, or even Chiney Ogwumike showing their faces regularly outside of just the WNBA game matters a whole lot. While the league has explored different avenues to solve this issue, if the players of the league are speaking out about it, the league has not done a perfect job.
From travel problems to simple disorganization with merchandise, the WNBA has plenty of dilemmas, but not reaching as many fans as possible despite the amount of quality talent around the league cannot happen. There is no question that some of the efforts are there, but the results are not what they would like. The league is filled with small gains, each season at a time, and with plenty of steps back along the way. The lack of information conveyed to the public is at a minimum, and if the WNBA expects to grow, and add more and more fans each season, something has to change. It is like the league's broadcasts are in a top-secret vault that few know how to get in, but when they do, they are amazed at the product on the other side. Holding the skills competition, and three-point contest of All-Star weekend without fans was one of the most confusing decisions the league has made.
The WNBA needs to be open and welcoming to as many people as are interested in the league, not letting them miss out on the best the league has to offer in what should have been an unforgettable weekend. It is simple, the league is making it too complicated than it has to be. The interest in women's sports could not be higher at the moment, but there simply cannot be parents of players asking where they can tune into the game. It's multiple steps, instead of just one. It is Sue Birds' and Sylvia Fowles' last season as professionals, and the league could be taking massive advantage of that when it comes to marketing.
Once the WNBA figures out a way to draw fans to watch more games, the growth is going to be astronomical. Not being able to purchase gear like other leagues is one thing, but having trouble searching through the internet to watch games is a whole different story because these women are talented, and they deserve to be recognized more than they are.