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WNBA needs to capitalize on the Caitlin Clark moment

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Mar 21, 2024
Clark during the Big Ten women's championship basketball game on Sunday, March 5, 2023

Clark during the Big Ten women's championship basketball game on Sunday, March 5, 2024. Photo: Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via Getty Images

In Caitlin Clark, the WNBA is getting the type of star who can permanently alter the league's future.

Why it matters: Clark's arrival coincides with WNBA television rights negotiations, creating an urgency for the 27-year-old league to capitalize on a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Catch up quick: Next month's WNBA draft, in which Clark is expected to be taken first overall by the Indiana Fever, comes as the league nears the end of its exclusive negotiating window with its incumbent TV partners.

  • For the WNBA, the timing could not be better.
  • The league opened its 45-day exclusive negotiating window with its current TV partners Disney, Ion, Amazon and CBS Sports on March 9.
  • Those partners face pressure to cut a deal before the rights hit the open market after April 22 because Clark will be top-of-mind for potential TV partners waiting in the wings.
  • The league is poised to double its brand partnerships, says Sara Gotfredson, a former ESPN sales executive who now runs the women's sports media advisory firm Trailblazing Sports Group.

Follow the money: The deals and partnerships will directly impact the league's revenues in ways that matter more to the WNBA compared to other, more established leagues.

  • Low salaries have been a frequent pain point among WNBA players — for example, Clark can make just $76,535 for her first season — and often force them to play overseas during the offseason.
  • Others like Candace Parker and Chiney Ogwumike moonlight as TV analysts during the NBA season.

State of play: The WNBA is primed for a major increase based on women's sports trends.

  • The NWSL's new TV rights deals are worth $240 million — a 40-times multiple compared to its last deal — and ESPN's new NCAA TV deal values the women's college basketball tournament at $65 million a year.
  • The WNBA's current TV deals are worth around $60 million in total annually.
  • ESPN chief Jimmy Pitaro expects the WNBA to be part of any media rights renewal deal with the NBA.

By the numbers: Clark has delivered TV ratings at Iowa that should translate to record WNBA audiences.

  • "If the networks do it right, they'll give her that platform," Gotfredson tells Axios.
  • The March 6 game between Iowa and Ohio State, in which Clark broke the college basketball all-time scoring record, was the most-watched regular season game in 25 years, with 3.4 million viewers.
  • Her memorable National Championship matchup against Angel Reese and LSU last spring is the most-watched women's college basketball game in history, with nearly 10 million viewers.

Reality check: Women's college basketball has often been a bigger platform for stars than the WNBA, among the youngest pro leagues in the country.

  • The WNBA hasn't had a game draw more than 1 million viewers since 2008.
  • "I don't buy the argument that she's going to lose popularity because she's going to the W," Gotfredson says.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say the last time a WNBA game drew in over 1 million viewers was in 2008, not 2005.

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