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May 29, 2024

WNBA Commissioner says league ready to capitalize on momentum: ‘Our phones are ringing off the hook’

WNBA Commissioner says league ready to capitalize on momentum: ‘Our phones are ringing off the hook’

The WNBA stands on the precipice of a mainstream explosion — but the league must still get broadcast and other investment deals in place to build a stable financial foundation, according to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

In an interview with “NBC Nightly News” Sunday anchor Hallie Jackson, Engelbert said the league is working to capitalize on the rising interest in the women’s game. But it will take outside commitments to make it happen, she said.

“We need the ecosystem, essentially, the sports ecosystem to step up,” Engelbert said. “And I feel really good that that’s going to happen with our next media rights negotiation, as well as our corporate partners. Our phones are ringing off the hook.”

Viewership for women’s college basketball soared to all-time highs this year on the back of Caitlin Clark, the Iowa phenom who last season broke the all-time NCAA basketball scoring record held for 50 years by Pete Maravich.

But after Clark was selected No. 1 overall in the draft by the Indiana Fever, the league was criticized because she will make a base salary of just $76,535 as a rookie.

Caitlin Clark and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert on April 15 after the Indiana Fever selected Clark first overall at the WNBA draft.Adam Hunger / AP file

That raised concerns about parity with the NBA, where rookies earn a minimum of about $1 million and, in most cases, more. It also drew attention to the fact that many women’s players choose to play overseas, where they can potentially earn more.

WNBA players and the league negotiated the $76,535 figure in January 2020 based on revenues as both sides signed a collective bargaining agreement. While the league has said it doesn’t comment on its financial information, a recent Bloomberg News report said annual WNBA revenues have topped out at about $315 million.

That is an improvement since Engelbert took over in 2019.

“There’s no doubt when I came into the league, a lot of people did view it — someone asked me whether we were a charity,” Engelbert said.

Still, the gains pale in comparison to the approximately $10 billion in revenue that has been widely reported and recognized for recent NBA seasons.

Both leagues’ revenues are driven to a great degree by what they can get for TV deals. Bloomberg News reported last week that the WNBA’s current TV deal has been worth about $60 million. That compares with the multibillion-dollar deals that the NBA has with Disney and its ESPN and ABC networks, which it is seeking with other bidders.

Bloomberg said new deals being signed by the NBA include significant increases for payouts to the WNBA.

While Clark has gained a foothold in the American consciousness in a way few — if any — other female basketball players ever have, an entire generation of players is coming in at the same time, who, fueled by social media, should help solidify the league’s growth.

They include Angel Reese, now at the Chicago Sky, who led LSU to a national championship against Clark’s Iowa in 2023. Reese recently attended the Met Gala.

Another is Cameron Brink, a Stanford standout taken No. 2 overall in this year’s draft by the Los Angeles Sparks. She has already signed sponsorship deals with New Balance, Urban Outfitters and Netflix.

Washington Mystics center Shakira Austin, entering her third year in the WNBA, recently discussed the new generation with NBC News — and how the league must live up to expectations.

“Last year, we had peaks in attendance, peaks in sales and tickets, and it just shows that people have been dedicated to this sport,” Austin said. She continued: “I think we’re just going to continue to elevate and, you know, hopefully our league is able to, you know, back it up and be prepared for the attention we’re about to get.”

Indeed, even as massive change appears to be afoot, some observers say they need to see it before they can believe it’s truly happening.

“A lot of people are asking if the WNBA can meet the moment,” said Aaron Barzilai, founder of HerHoopsStats.com, which tracks WNBA data. “They’re hopeful, but there’s still an element of ‘We’ll see.’”

Engelbert said she is optimistic the league is capable of taking a major financial leap in the short and medium term. It has already committed to provide charter flights for all away games through a new partnership with Delta Airlines.

“We needed to build more revenue, manage expenses and ultimately return that to the players,” Engelbert said. “But it doesn’t happen over a three-year period.”

She pointed to the league’s success in raising $75 million in venture capital as an indicator of the growing interest.

“We’re trying to double revenue, we’re trying to triple things, we’re trying to quadruple things, five-times things, and it’s working,” she said. “It’s literally working, but it’ll take a few more years.”

She acknowledged it hasn’t been easy to get to this point.

“That’s what momentum is all about, is making sure that we’re providing household names, rivalries and games of consequence during our season this year so people will come and watch,” she said. “And once they watch we know they stay.”

Rob Wile

Rob Wile is a breaking business news reporter for NBC News Digital.

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