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How Big is the Business of the WNBA?

In its 25th season, the WNBA is reaching new popularity milestones as its players capitalize on new opportunities to build their own brands.

The clock has expired on the WNBA regular season, and playoff matchups are locked in ahead of Thursday’s postseason tip-off.

In its 25th year, the longest-running league in women’s pro sports launched a new in-season tournament, featured endless action, and dazzled audiences across multiple platforms of both the legacy and emerging varieties. Even the run-up to the postseason played out spectacularly, as the New York Liberty clinched a spot thanks to last-ditch defeats by the Sparks and Mystics on the final day of the regular season.

All told, from the court to the Twitter-sphere, more people are tuned into the league than ever before. Take TV ratings as one single example of the W’s momentum:

  • Ratings for first five games of the 2021 season featured a 74% YoY boost
  • Halfway through the 32-game campaign, ratings were still up 44% compared to 2020
  • The July 11 contest between the Aces and the Wings aired on ABC in front of 643,000 viewers, the biggest audience for a WNBA game since 2012.
  • That mark was broken by Aug. 15’s Storm-Sky game on ABC, which drew 755,000 viewers
  • Overall, regular season viewership is up 42% over 2020 and 24% over 2019

But as far as the growth trajectory of the league is concerned, viewership is only one piece of the conversation. There’s a whole lot that the WNBA is capitalizing on before our eyes.

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Sponsorship Assists

Leading up to its 25th season, the WNBA redoubled its ambitions for growth not just with respect to its audience, but its partnerships.

The league’s Changemaker program launched in 2020 and has since attracted major sponsorships from Google, AT&T, Deloitte, and Nike. This new tier of corporate investment has helped to expand the league’s reach and implement everything from live broadcast enhancements to new avenues for fan engagement.

Additional milestone deals include:

  • Phoenix Mercury’s first-of-its-kind $66 million sports betting partnership with Bally’s
  • The league naming DICK’S Sporting Goods as its official retail partner

This season, the WNBA also launched a new partnership with Twitter. After over a decade of using the platform to reach fans, the WNBA has amassed over 700,000 followers and serves as a key resource for league highlights, news, and all things #WNBATwitter, the most consistently engaged (and very online) community of women’s pro basketball fans.

In May, the W and Twitter launched #FortheW. They rolled out the campaign with a signature hoodie featuring a QR code that directed to Twitter with pre-written copy for users to share across their networks. The code was designed to automatically update the copy depending on what was happening in the league at the time.

The campaign also maintained a central focus on social justice after research showed that WNBA supporters were more engaged citizens than many other types of sports fans.

Setting the Stage for the Next Chapter

This wasn’t just another regular season. In August, the league held the first Commissioner’s Cup final for a $500,000 prize purse. The Seattle Storm took home the inaugural Cup, and each winning player earned a $30,000 bonus. The game’s MVP, Breanna Stewart, took home an additional $5,000.

Top 10 WNBA player salaries for 2021, via Spotrac

The Commissioner’s Cup was not immune to criticism — by incorporating existing regular season games, it was a bit harder to follow than a standalone tournament —but it was a reflection of a broader commitment to moving the league forward that started with its new collective bargaining agreement reached in January 2020.

There’s much more work to be done on the march toward equity and quality of life, but the CBA improved conditions for the league’s athletes. Additionally, it aimed to decrease the need for its players to head overseas in the offseason in order to secure big money.

The CBA featured a number of highlights, including:

  • $120,648: The average WNBA player’s salary in 2021, 60% higher than 2019’s $74,349.
  • $221,450: New supermax salary number this year, positioning the league’s biggest stars to net nearly $500,000 annually when factoring in potential bonuses and league marketing deals.
  • 7: WNBA players making the supermax
  • 10: Players make over $200,000
  • 47: Players making between $100,000 and $199,999

Additionally, non-salary benefits are continuing to take shape, from travel conditions, maternity leave policies, and child care to enhanced career development opportunities.

Although these figures are still a far cry from the multi-million dollar contracts of the NBA, they mark a significant step in a positive direction.

For the Culture

After a powerful 2020 season, where the league’s athletes emerged as leaders on a number of social justice causes. From Black Lives Matter to voting rights, WNBA players positioned themselves as leaders.

The on-court spotlight is real, too — not only do TV ratings reflect this, but so does the star power visible in the stands. Across the country, WNBA games became a who’s who of sports and culture. It’s not hard to find LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Wilson, and Ciara are courtside for the W; even Drake has been spotted wearing a signature WNBA orange hoodie.

With the rise in popularity, the WNBA and its players have also begun to receive the respect they deserve across other places and spaces:

  • Stewart landed a player exclusive with Puma, making her the ninth WNBA player in history to have an exclusive shoe.
  • Candace Parker Day” was proclaimed for Sept. 16 by Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot in honor of one of the league’s most decorated stars.
  • The WNBA teamed up with Top Shot to offer NFT collectibles commemorating iconic in-game plays from past and present legends of the W.
  • SLAM Magazine published its first ever all-women’s edition, highlighting the next generation of stars and honoring the legends of the game.

To commemorate its 25th year, the WNBA has balanced ceremonial salutes to the women who built the league with real investments in its next generation of stars.

The game has evolved profoundly since its 1997 debut, and so, too have the ways that players and fans take it all in. These stars’ many stories were all brought to bear when the league unveiled the W25 — the greatest players of the WNBA’s first quarter-century of play, and a spirited snapshot of how the game has changed.

And as it transitions toward next chapters and new milestones, the possibilities for the next 25 years of the W are endless. But one thing is immutable as the 2021 postseason arrives: the road ahead is long and there’s a lot of hard work still to be done, but women’s basketball has never been a bigger business than it is right now.