Women’s basketball just had a moment. Can the WNBA build on it?

Rhyne Howard said the quiet part out loud this week. The WNBA’s 2022 No. 1 overall pick and reigning rookie of the year took to social media to express a dichotomy within the league that has frustrated many who follow the game.

The league wants to capitalize off the record-breaking viewership from the Final Four and NCAA national championship game. At the same time, some of those players who were drafted after proving hugely popular during those games were waived this week before Friday’s season opener.

  • Draft new players with fans who are ready to support them and the league.
  • Player gets waived because there are not enough spots.
  • Fans no longer want to support the league as a whole.

“Ugh, this is stressful,” Howard tweeted in the final line.

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A consistent goal of the WNBA has been to grow its fan base. There have been positive trends in recent years; 2022 was the most-watched regular season in 14 years, with viewership up 16 percent from 2021. The league just held its first preseason game in Canada and sold out Scotiabank Arena, where the NBA’s Toronto Raptors play. Now there’s an opportunity to build off a women’s NCAA tournament that had the most viewers on ESPN for the national championship game, Final Four, Elite Eight and Sweet 16.

“They’ve adopted a new audience to consume their game, and this was not a traditional women’s college basketball audience,” said Phil Cook, the WNBA’s chief marketing officer. “It’s audiences of sports who love competition, love rivalries, love quality of play on the court, love tension. I think there’s a rising tide lifting all boats in the world of women’s basketball that we are definitely leaning into.”

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert added: “Now we have to make sure we take these great players and, as they come into our league, we continue to market them, put the marketing dollars behind them. . . . Now we’ve got to bring those fans along with us.”

Cook said athlete storytelling — through marketing and the media — is central to attracting and growing the WNBA’s audience. But there’s a challenge in doing so with popular incoming players. The league has just 12 teams and 144 roster spots, and with the limited opportunities, even the top young players can have trouble making teams.

Emily Engstler, the No. 4 pick from the 2022 draft, was waived by the Indiana Fever and Washington Mystics recently. Former Maryland guard Abby Meyers, the No. 11 pick in 2023, was waived by the Dallas Wings during training camp. Alexis Morris, Brea Beal and Elena Tsineke, all 2023 second-round picks, were waived. Morris became widely popular playing for champion LSU, as did Beal for 2022 champion South Carolina. Monika Czinano, who was a star as Iowa reached the championship game, was drafted 26th but waived by the Los Angeles Sparks.

Not only are these players widely popular from their exploits on the court, but with NIL now a part of the college landscape, many are coming in with established brands and large social media followings. Rabid fan bases such as LSU’s will follow former players such as Morris simply because they’re Tigers. When those players don’t make the league, those potential fans can fall to the wayside.

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“The talent is there. We just need more teams,” said Christine Franklin, executive vice president of marketing at Octagon, a sports and entertainment agency. “From a business perspective, that expansion opportunity feels really ripe given the talent and the pipeline of players coming in from the NCAA. There does need to be some person or strategy to get those NCAA players to the bench of the WNBA quicker. How do those top 10 to 20 players make it that first year? Because that’s not happening right now.”

Still, the interest in the WNBA is in a good place and the league had a popular offseason with player movement, particularly in Las Vegas and New York. Many have dubbed the Aces and Liberty as super teams, with defending champion Las Vegas adding two-time MVP Candace Parker and two-time champion Alysha Clark and New York acquiring a pair of MVPs in Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart, along with four-time all-star Courtney Vandersloot.

Plus, Brittney Griner’s return to the Phoenix Mercury after she missed last season while being detained in Russia for 10 months is highly anticipated. She already was one of the faces of the league but became a national story as President Biden worked to bring her home. Now there will be even more people following her efforts throughout 2023 and beyond.

The WNBA also installed marketing deals that give players an opportunity to earn money away from the court. This past offseason, the league sent Napheesa Collier (Connecticut), Arike Ogunbowale (Notre Dame) and Kelsey Mitchell (Ohio State) to attend games at their alma maters and interact with fans and boosters to promote the league.

I think it’s really more on the networks to step in and step up in terms of investment of what they create in and around the playoffs and the tournament,” said Camille Buxeda, Octogon’s director of women’s basketball. “This is setting up an incredible table for Cathy and her team at the WNBA to begin negotiations with different networks [before] the next [collective bargaining agreement]. This is all the leverage in the world that Cathy and her W team can really utilize to take to these networks and help them understand.”

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That may be the biggest opportunity for exponential growth. The WNBA airs games on several platforms, including Ion in a new deal, but ESPN and ABC remain the largest platforms for national games. WNBA games and the NCAA tournament have had strong numbers on major networks. A new deal after the one with ESPN expires in 2025 should give the league an influx of cash and the chance to get in front of more eyeballs.

Liberty and Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai recently made the point while discussing a new documentary about the inception of the WNBA during an appearance on “Good Morning America.”

“There’s been so little media coverage around women’s sports,” Tsai said. “Even though there’s a very proven appetite for women’s sports, only about 5 percent of all sports coverage is on women sports. There’s just such a lack of storytelling, and I really wanted to bring some national attention to the league and to these amazing athletes.”

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