Monday, May 20, 2024

WNBA can’t afford to screw up gift it’s getting with Caitlin Clark’s popularity

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Editors’ Note: USA TODAY has full coverage of Monday night’s WNBA draft. Follow along with our live blog here for the latest updates, news and highlights.

Not since it launched in 1997 has the WNBA faced a more critical season.

Women’s basketball has never been more popular, thanks to an NCAA Tournament that was so compelling and had so many big games featuring the biggest names that its final for the first time had higher ratings than the men’s tournament. Not by a small margin, either.

Caitlin Clark has become a cottage industry like Tiger, LeBron and Tom Brady, gifting the league a gold mine with her star power, commercial appeal and fan base. She’s already got “rivalries” with Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury and Sabrina Ionescu, Breanna Stewart and the New York Liberty, and there’ll be others once Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are drafted Monday night.

Sponsors are clamoring for a piece of the W while ESPN and the other media partners are tripping over themselves trying to capitalize on the blockbuster interest generated by the last two college seasons.

Handle all this right, and the WNBA establishes itself as a true, major league sport. Maybe not rivaling the NBA, but certainly leapfrogging the NHL.

There’s just one thing that could derail this freight train of momentum:

The WNBA itself.

Despite beginning its 28th season, the WNBA still often operates like a start up. Or a league petrified it’s one step from folding. While the NWSL races ahead with expansion − it has added four teams over the last three seasons and will add two more in the next two years − the WNBA plods along, having announced just one new franchise, which won’t begin play until next year.

It has tolerated horrendous placement for its playoff games, allowing ABC and ESPN to pit the WNBA Finals against the NFL − a no-win battle if there ever was one. It’s accepted second-class status from both the NBA, which still owns about half of the W, and some of its own owners, who all act as if they’ve done women athletes some grand favor by giving them a league and that should be enough.

As for marketing its players, making sure its stars were household names, the WNBA has been, quite frankly, abysmal.

“The WNBA, I don’t think, has done a great enough job of marketing their individual stars, for whatever reason. Because there’s been a lot of them,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said at the Final Four.

Auriemma ought to know, given many of the players he’s referring to played for him.

Even WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert acknowledges the league’s poor history of selling its players. The WNBA had one marketing person when she took over in 2019, she said, and it had never had a CMO until she hired one in December 2020.

Yes, you read that right. A professional league, one supposedly backed by the NBA, still had only ONE marketing person and no CMO after 20-plus years. MBA programs will devote entire semesters to this kind of business malpractice one day.

Previous WNBA executives will no doubt cite money, or the lack thereof, and the folks who like to hate on women’s sports will crow about the WNBA only surviving this long because of the NBA’s cash. There is a difference between making money and being profitable, however, and the league is absolutely making money. Bloomberg projected the W would bring in between $180 million and $200 million last season, up from about $102 million in 2019.

That’s not insignificant, especially given how woefully undervalued women’s sports have been in terms of media rights and commercial dollars. Just for fun, go back and look at what the NBA’s revenues were in the 1970s. And the NBA didn’t have to deal with systemic misogyny.

But there is no excuse for the WNBA not to thrive now. Not when players like Clark and Reese − and, in seasons to come, Paige Bueckers and JuJu Watkins − are making big names for themselves in the college game and bringing all those eyes with them to the league.

And not when the WNBA raised $75 million in capital two years ago, money Engelbert said the league has used to bolster its marketing efforts. That one marketing person is now 25. The WNBA did its first ad buys during the NCAA tournament, and the league and teams were promoting around Clark and the other rookie stars even before the draft.

One of those ads during the tournament? It featured Stewart eating “Rookie O’s” cereal.

“We’re just doing a lot of different things we haven’t done before. But it really does come down to marketing the stars,” Engelbert told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re just blessed to have generational talent − and not just this class. Next year with Paige, two years after with JuJu. It’s why we can be bold around expansion, bold around marketing dollars, bold around everything we’re doing.”

This is the WNBA’s Magic-Bird moment, and it cannot afford to waste it. Especially with a new media rights deal looming.

The WNBA’s current deal is up at the end of 2025. Not only does the league need to be fairly valued, after three decades of the opposite, it needs to have more say in when and where its games air. The WNBA is not filler programming, and the new deal needs to reflect that.

But Engelbert won’t have the leverage to demand what the WNBA deserves if the league allows Clark, Reese, Cardoso and Cameron Brink to fade to the background like Stewart, Ionescu, A’ja Wilson and so many others have when they got to the league.

“I tell my team every day, the bold will win,” Engelbert said. “This is not setting us up for the next three to five years. It will hopefully set us up for decades.”

As if she needed any reminder of the stakes, Engelbert was at the Masters last week and someone told her they’d seen eight people in Clark jerseys walking around Augusta National. While the green jackets were no doubt horrified at that breach of etiquette, it’s a sign of how much the perception of women’s sports has shifted in this country.

“I don’t really get offended when people say, `I never watched women’s basketball before,’” Clark said after the NCAA title game. “I think, one, you’re a little late to the party, yes. But, two, that’s cool.

“We’re changing the game. We’re attracting more people to it.”

The WNBA has a golden opportunity right now. It better not blow it.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

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