WNBA, Scripps Ink Innovative Broadcast Deal
We’ve written extensively on this site about the shift to online viewing of sports, or streaming, away from the traditional methods of satellite and cable. From streaming-exclusive deals, like Major League Soccer‘s joint venture with Apple, to the collapse of regional sports networks, there is an inexorable shift away from the traditional consumption of sports. Even among the biggest stakeholders, platforms like CBS and ESPN, there’s been a major growth in the percentage of fans who watch sports through streaming on an app on their smart TV, or on the go on their mobile device.
Being ahead of the curve on innovations like this is a big part of the reason enthusiasm for the growth of leagues like MLS is so high. But a recently announced deal between the WNBA and Scripps has given us another question to ponder. Namely, can a network new to sports boost the visibility of one that has struggled for it? In an already-crowded marketplace, it’s a big risk, but it also offers a compelling point for analysis.
A new kind of game
We recently noted that the appetite for women’s basketball in the United States seems to be reaching a fever pitch. Television audiences and in-person attendances are growing, as social media allows broadcasters and rights holders to tell stories in a more broadly interesting way, rather than a tight focus on the sport itself. The personalities and stories of the players coming to the fore has allowed for the growth of a more casual fan, something to which so-called niche sports have rarely had access.
To this end, the WNBA, which also has a contract with ESPN/ABC, has partnered with Scripps to air games on Friday nights on the Ion Network. The channel has been around for some 25 years, but has been known most often for its blocks of procedural dramas like Criminal Minds or Monk, or made-for-TV movies. Just over two years ago, though, it was purchased by the Scripps company, one of America’s oldest media conglomerates.
Scripps got their start in newspapers in the late 19th century, and have been involved with television for some time. Their properties, however, are networks like HGTV and the Food Network, known more for scripted reality shows or documentaries than live sports. Thus, the WNBA would seem a strange fit on Ion, which will broadcast the games on cable, satellite, and most importantly, the streaming app Bounce.
The first step of many?
However, the deal, which runs through 2025 — when the league’s current deal with ESPN/ABC expires — is set to be the company’s first, but it’s not expected to be their last. The desire to maintain and acquire prestige through the broadcast of live sports is a powerful one.
Scripps CEO Adam Symson was especially bullish on the matter, “I think it’s time for women’s sports to be showcased in a way that its fans deserve. It’s time for the league, the owners and the players to have a platform where they can showcase the athleticism and the drama that is the WNBA.” Most importantly, it should be noted, the regular timing of the games will be important — even though ESPN/ABC is set to air more than two dozen WNBA games this season, they will be aired across a hodgepodge of times and days of the week, something which can dissuade a casual fan.
Indeed, Symson noted the NFL’s success with the same primacy of schedule. The popularity of franchises like Monday Night Football have been key to the league’s having become the biggest in the United States, and while that scale may be hard to emulate for the WNBA, following a pattern that is tested will do well for the league and the network.
This may seem ambitious, or even quixotic on Scripps’ part, but ratings for the league, using that aforementioned patchwork schedule, were up 19% year-on-year last season. Viewership for the WNBA draft also saw a substantial rise, and with talents like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese joining the league in the seasons to come, Scripps look to be making a move for both the present and the future, helping the league and the sport take its next steps.