During opening weekend in 2021, WNBA viewership soared 25% versus the prior year. Just two weeks later and five games in, WNBA ratings climbed even higher to 74% year over year growth.
The WNBA capped off its historic 25th regular season by delivering its most-watched season since 2008 for its television partners – ABC, CBS, ESPN and ESPN2 — viewership was up 51% over the 2020 season. And the 2021 WNBA Finals Game 2 was the most watched Game 2 since 2003, peaking with 1 million viewers. The league also reached several milestones including new sponsors, merchandise, distribution, and technology.
Furthermore, as part of the WNBA raising capital, they had outside advisors come with an analysis showing that their viewership is on par with the NHL, NASCAR, and MLS. Yet their media rights fees are five-to-15 times the WNBA’s. “How do you get that bias out of that valuation model? That part’s crazy to me. I’m not going to rest till I fix that.” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
“Our data would show we have about 30 million fans who interact with WNBA content in any given year. I want to get that to 100 million. And I think that’s definitely achievable.” she continued.
So today, we’ll take break down the league’s growth. We’ll reveal WNBA viewership by year. We’ll explore average WNBA attendance, and share attendance results by team. Plus, we discuss some fun attendance facts that might surprise you, and what led to 69 million social media impressions for the league this year.
In 2021, there have been 24 telecasts, compared to 37 broadcasts in 2020 and 16 in 2019. Digging into just the ESPN family of networks, regular season games broadcast or streamed averaged 306,000 viewers per game in 2021. That is a 49% increase compared to 2020 and 24% increase to 2019.
During 2021 opening weekend, Sky-Mystics WNBA regular season game averaged a 0.39 rating and 611,000 viewers on ABC, and a rematch of that Storm-Aces final later that day averaged a 0.39 and 598,000 on ABC – both securing a place in the top three records of the league’s largest regular season audience in nine years, at that time. Also viewership for the season’s opening weekend rose 325% in Canada.
Later in the season, the league also delivered its most-watched regular-season game since 2012, with ABC averaging 755,000 viewers for a matchup between the Seattle Storm and Chicago Sky on Aug. 15. It was the first WNBA game post All-Star Game and Olympic break airing in the afternoon on ABC. The Chicago Sky emerged victorious, winning 87-85 in overtime at their home court.
As for the WNBA post-season, it was the most viewed since 2014. For specifically the WNBA Finals in 2021, the first game of the series (Chicago Sky vs. Phoenix Mercury) peaked with 547,000 viewers, making it the most-viewed opening game of the Finals since 2017. Game 2 was the most watched Game 2 since 2003, peaking with 1 million viewers. And the entire Finals series averaged 548,000 viewers, making it also the most watched since 2017.
Meanwhile, across Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok, the WNBA set records for social media engagement with 135 million video views and 14.5 million actions. The drop of new jerseys alone yielded over 69 million impressions on drop day.
Back in 2020, the WNBA and the Women’s National Basketball Player’s Association signed a landmark collective bargaining agreement. As part of the agreement, the league established a new platform, WNBA Changemakers, to attract corporate investment in the league.
The league started the 25th season by introducing its new official game ball by Wilson Sporting Goods through a new multiyear global partnership. The WNBA also welcomed Google as its newest WNBA Changemaker, joining AT&T, Deloitte and Nike – and the tech company sponsored 25 games on ESPN as part of the partnership. In addition, DICK’S Sporting Goods became the largest national retailer for WNBA merchandise.
Spurred by sales of the new Nike H.E.R. system, which features three uniform editions for each of the 12 teams, WNBA merchandise on The WNBA Store saw record growth this season with a 50% increase over last year. The Seattle Storm led the league in team merchandise sold. New York Liberty (No. 2), the Las Vegas Aces (No. 3), the Phoenix Mercury (No. 4), and the Chicago Sky (No. 5) followed. This season represented the first time the Sky were represented in the top team merchandise rankings since 2016 — that’s the Candace Parker effect!
Meanwhile, Sabrina Ionescu led the league in jersey sales. Sue Bird (No. 2), Diana Taurasi (No. 3), A’ja Wilson (No. 4), and Breanna Stewart (No. 5) followed Sabrina on the list of top five most popular jerseys. The Orange WNBA Logo Hoodie was the best-selling item on The WNBA Store for the second consecutive season.
And the 2021 WNBA Finals winners, the Chicago Sky, sold more merchandise on Fanatics since their WNBA title win – over just two days – than any other prior WNBA champ has sold in the first 30 days following a title victory.
A multi-year deal with Amazon Prime Video made the WNBA the first women’s professional sports league to be streamed on Prime Video, with Amazon receiving exclusive streaming rights to 16 WNBA games each season. And Buzzer began featuring live content and WNBA League Pass games on its mobile platform in the company’s first foray into women’s professional sports.
For the first time in league history, the WNBA used in-game wearables by KINEXON and optical tracking technology by Hawk-Eye to generate 3D immersive highlights, which were used in real time during Prime Video’s broadcast of the inaugural WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game.
In addition, the league teamed up with Dapper Labs, the company behind NBA Top Shot and the Flow blockchain, to launch the first WNBA NFTs. WNBA Moments on Top Shot gave fans the ability to own dynamic in-game moments from WNBA players and legends.
According to Statista, the average TV viewers of the WNBA regular season in 2016 was 224,000 and grew to 246,000 in 2019. The WNBA’s Covid-disrupted 2020 regular season averaged 205,000 viewers across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. Which was a drop of 16% on the previous year.
However, the average viewership for the 2020 finals increased 15% to 440,000. “You can’t ask for anything better than to have a 15% increase (for the Finals) when the NBA Finals is down 49%,” John Lewis of Paulsen Sports Media Watch said.
Numbers were significantly impacted by the pandemic this year, as many teams only allowed severely limited attendance until after the Olympic break. According to Across the Timeline, average WNBA attendance per team during the regular season in 2021 was 2,388 fans. The highest average was the Phoenix Mercury with 5,849 and the lowest was the Los Angeles Sparks with 1,144. Here is the average WNBA attendance by team for the 2021 regular season:
Total WNBA attendance by team in 2021 was led by the Phoenix Mercury with 93,585 fans. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the Los Angeles Sparks reported just 18,319 attendees in 2021.
In terms of how team attendance was trending prior to the pandemic, the Chicago Sky, Dallas Wings, and Los Angeles Sparks had regular season attendance averages that were trending up over the previous three years (2017, 2018, 2019). Meanwhile, the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury mostly held steady. And the Las Vegas Aces, Connecticut Sun, Seattle Storm, Washington Mystics, New York Liberty, and Atlanta Dream all were on a decline.
How about how many people were willing to leave the comfort of their homes and hit the arena? The late 90s and early 2000s had some of the highest regular season game best attendance averages to date.
And average league-wide attendance tends to be heaviest in August each year.
See more fun WNBA facts here.
Interest in women’s basketball is on the rise. The WNBA is being searched more on Google in the past 5 years than the prior 15, indicating increased awareness.
Furthermore, the 2021 NCAA Women’s Final Four pulled some of its highest viewership numbers ever. The showdown between UConn and Baylor in the Elite Eight round was the most-watched NCAA Tournament game in 10 years, excluding Final Four matchups, reported Forbes.
And the new-age distributed sports network and brand, Overtime, reported that in 2021, OT WBB, their TikTok handle focused on women’s basketball was in the top 25 of all sports media accounts on TikTok.
Perhaps WNBA expansion is in the future.
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