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  • Writer's pictureSarah Kichula

The WNBA Draft: The Arrival of a New Era in Professional Women’s Basketball

By: Sarah Kichula

April 29, 2024

Photo Credit: StadiumLive App on X

The landscape of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) is undergoing an immense shift, propelled by the huge success of the 2023-2024 NCAA Women’s Basketball season and subsequent March Madness Tournament. From record breaking viewership to several lucrative NIL deals for top athletes, women’s basketball has emerged to the forefront of sport news. The WNBA draft was nationally broadcasted on ESPN on Monday, April 15, and all eyes are on how the league will incorporate the starpower of this year’s rookie class into marketing its product.

Cathy Engelbert, the Commissioner of the WNBA, confirmed that the league is looking to double the fee on their next media rights deal, which makes sense given the growing popularity and emerging stars in women’s basketball. The WNBA currently earns about $60 million annually from their media rights deals with Disney/ESPN, ION, CBS, and Amazon. As of early March (preceding the women’s March Madness Tournament), the league was already pushing for a new deal worth between $80 million and $100 million annually. Furthermore, there is talk of the league potentially breaking away from their traditional joint negotiations alongside their parent company, the NBA for a separate, more lucrative deal. Notably, the recent NCAA-ESPN media rights deal is worth an average fee of $115 million annually, with $65 million of that figure tied to the women's March Madness tournament alone. Additionally, the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) recently secured a successful four-year media rights deal worth $240 million. These developments provide benchmarks for these upcoming negotiations and indicate a clear trajectory for the WNBA to increase the value of its product.

As the biggest face of college basketball and the top pick in the WNBA draft, Catilin Clark has had her own personal impact on the league. During her time in the NCAA, Clark has generated over $82.5 million for Iowa City’s economy. Before she has even set foot on a WNBA court, Clark’s immediate impact can be seen in a variety of ways. Since landing Clark, ticket prices for her new professional team, the Indiana Fever, have skyrocketed. The current average price of an Indiana Fever ticket on Vivid Seats is $140, up 133% from last year’s $60 average, and some tickets are worth over $500. No need to worry if you cannot manage to buy tickets or make the trip to Indiana, as 36 of the 40 Indiana Fever regular season games will be nationally televised (split between ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, CBS, Amazon Prime Video, and NBA TV). Last year, only one Indiana Fever game was broadcasted on national television.

This year’s draft forecasts a bright future for the WNBA, and the event itself was a huge success, as 2.45 million viewers tuned into the broadcast (naturally, a new record). For reference, the viewership numbers for the two previous years were 572,000 (2023) and 403,000 (2022). However, the player salaries in the WNBA fail to mirror the significant evolution happening in women’s basketball. Clark’s four-year rookie contract is worth a total of $338,056; in comparison, the top pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, Victor Wembanyama of the San Antonio Spurs, signed a four-year rookie contract worth $55.2 million. While endorsements can enhance earnings, most notably Clark’s eight-year, $28 million deal with Nike, the potential for a more substantial media rights deal and revenue stream is the key to impact the players' fixed pay. The stage is set for a transformational period in women's sports, ascending to new heights of recognition and praise. As these rookies prepare to step into the spotlight and the league’s teams prepare to redefine their strategies accordingly, this year’s WNBA Draft represents a change of trajectory for the league itself.

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