canada africa partner reservation The rise of local WNBA media deals

The rise of local WNBA media deals


The WNBA is currently in the process of selling a new series of national media rights deals, partnering with the NBA to help forge a potential year-round basketball presence on partner networks. Even before that effort is made, the national rights will be a focal point of Caitlin Clark’s debut season with the Indiana Fever, which will feature 36 of the team’s 40 regular season games from coast to coast.

But last month, perhaps the most interesting and forward-looking part of the WNBA’s current media situation took place at the local level. Over-the-air TV broadcaster Tegna and Fever parent company Pacers Sports & Entertainment struck a deal to show 17 of the team’s games on stations in Indianapolis.

Tegna and the team then quickly expanded the pact to extend that coverage to eleven other markets, ranging from Davenport and Des Moines, Iowa – the state where Clark played collegiately – to Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. The expanded scale of broadcasting attracted five other TV station owners, turning companies that are rivals in several other areas into partners in Clark’s booming economy.

In the course of a rather unusual deal, Tegna and the Fever benefited not only from the unprecedented fan frenzy surrounding Clark’s professional debut, but also from the rapidly increasing cords that tied teams like the NBA’s Suns and Jazz, the NHL’s Kraken and Golden Knights , and the WNBA’s Mercury to broadcast all their local games on free television.

“This move is opportunistic on so many levels,” said Brad Ramsey, Tegna’s senior vice president of media operations Front office sports. “It’s just a perfect storm in the most positive way. … As soon as we announced the partnership in Indianapolis, we started listening to fans in other markets, including Iowa, Louisville and all kinds of other places. Other broadcasters also started reaching out and saying they would like to be part of this.”

The Tegna-Fever deal also highlights a previously underappreciated element of a WNBA now on its way to major expansion: full-fledged local team affinity, built significantly through local broadcasts. Historically, coverage of local teams has not been a prominent factor in the league’s overall media presence, especially compared to what the league receives through an array of national partners such as ESPN, CBS, Ion, Amazon, NBA TV or on social media .

Each of the league’s 12 current teams already has some level of local coverage to complement its national deals, whether those deals are based on over-the-air distribution, a cable-focused regional sports network or via streaming. In recent years, however, that mixed bag of distribution structures and the number of games available hasn’t been as much of a part of the WNBA. And for the league, local reporting has not had nearly as much economic significance as the ongoing bankruptcy of Bally Sports parent company Diamond Sports Group has for the MLB, the NHL and the NBA.

In a 2023 season full of significant growth on a range of national media, social media and attendance-based fronts, the WNBA has failed to highlight its local broadcast performance. But there are increasing signs of change in this area. In addition to the groundbreaking Tegna-Fever deal, other new local pacts for the ’24 WNBA season include an agreement between league runner-up New York Liberty ’23 and WNYW-TV, and another between the Atlanta Dream and Gray Television. In the Liberty’s case, the new deal moves local games away from the YES Network, where it has sometimes encountered scheduling conflicts with that outlet’s flagship team, MLB’s Yankees.

“Expanding our local reach and ensuring we are widely accessible where fans watch Liberty games is imperative in today’s ever-expanding media landscape,” said Keia Clarke, CEO of Liberty.

However, the WNBA preseason has already dramatically shown that making games “more widely accessible” to individual teams still hasn’t been enough to meet rising fan demand. Earlier this month, after a preseason game between Chicago Sky and Minnesota Lynx was incorrectly labeled as available on the League Pass service, a fan streamed the game live from her phone, racking up more than two million total views due to the unauthorized distribution.

Days later, the Connecticut Sun attempted to offer a live, unedited feed of a preseason game against the Liberty on their YouTube channel, but this was quickly shut down due to copyright issues with the video. It was spotted by the NBA’s own artificial intelligence program, Videocites, which identifies league content on the Internet.

Still, these various last-minute efforts to show preseason games online signal a turning point for the WNBA’s rising popularity, with fans expecting virtually every game – at any time during the season – to be available, just as it is the case for the WNBA. major professional leagues for men.

“The growth is so fast, it’s so accelerated,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. “Business as usual is no longer going to work; you will be left behind.”

That desire to deviate from the norm was also at the heart of the Tegna-Fever deal. As well as bringing in five other station owners – Coastal Television Broadcasting, Gray Television, Nexstar Media Group, Sinclair and Weigel Broadcasting – the deal included a mix of locations within the Fever’s existing broadcast area, some shared with the Sky, and some beyond. of each team’s core market. Financial terms were not disclosed, but those stations will receive local advertising inventory that is crucial to many sports rights deals, and local coverage of Clark and the Fever will now cover five states.

“While it is somewhat easy for the fan at the end of the line to watch these games, and by design, this is a complex, technical puzzle,” Ramsey said. “In each of those individual companies and individual markets you have a different infrastructure.”

Of course, other WNBA teams don’t have Clark. But Ramsey said he still sees the Fever deal as a template for other franchises in the league. In addition to the rising popularity of the WNBA itself, the ongoing battle with RSNs and the overall cable TV industry is fueling the accelerating movement back to over-the-air broadcasters.

“I could definitely see this” with other WNBA teams, he said. “If we can put more games on the air, delight our audiences and help these teams reach more fans, it’s a win-win-win.”