How The WNBA Can Cash In On The Caitlin Clark Effect

The probability has never been higher that the person reading this sentence also watched the Women’s Final Four. An average of 18.9 million people were glued to the Dawn Staley-led South Carolina Gamecocks completing a 38-0 season by beating Iowa in the national championship and ending Caitlin Clark’s mythological college career. Did a decades-long appetite for the women’s game breed this moment? Yes. Was the women’s game home to transcendent athletes before Clark? My word count restricts me from listing them all. But widespread fascination has hit an apex — if you need further visual proof and happen to be in Columbia, South Carolina, just look up to see an outsized MiLaysia Fulwiley on Curry Brand billboards — and now, the opportunity is here for the WNBA to benefit from a perfect storm.

Next week, the WNBA will welcome a potentially trajectory-altering draft class featuring Clark, LSU’s Angel Reese, Stanford’s Cameron Brink, South Carolina’s (and Women’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player) Kamilla Cardoso, Syracuse’s Dyaisha Fair, Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson, and UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards. But miss the WNBA with any rags-to-riches undertones.

Increasingly, NIL makes it easier for women’s college basketball players to develop into mainstream faces before shouldering the weight of professional franchises. The general public is obsessed with perpetuating the myth that college stars harm their earning potential by going to the W, but the discourse should redirect to understanding the upside because of the exposure the league is in a position to provide at this particular time.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert seems aware of the stakes. In part, she told CNBC that she expects to “at least double our rights fees” when the league’s current media rights deals with ESPN, CBS, ION, and Amazon Prime expire. Although the W recently extended with CBS and Prime Video, it’s possible that the league’s media rights will be up for grabs again in 2025, the same year players can opt out of the current CBA. Plainly, players cannot reap the full rewards of the league’s growth, including a record number of corporate sponsorship dollars, without renegotiating.

As a general rule, the NBA shouldn’t be the measuring stick for the WNBA, but the NBA’s 1990 media rights deal with NBC feels like relevant context here. At the time, NBC shelled out $600 million to take over for CBS, which had previously broadcast the NBA on a four-year, $176 million contract. Twelve years later, ABC, ESPN, and TNT were so eager to get in on the NBA that their collective media rights offer was worth up to $4.6 billion.

In 1990, the median NBA salary was $650,000, and the max was Patrick Ewing’s $4.25 million. In 2002-03, the median salary had ballooned to over $2.2 million, and Kevin Garnett was that season’s top salary earner at $25.2 million. (Obviously, in the two decades since, those benchmarks have continued to rise.)

These dollar amounts aren’t directly comparable, of course, but this aspect of the NBA’s past informs what a game-changing media-rights deal would do for ensuring a sustainable, thriving WNBA future. Engelbert acknowledged as much: “We’re setting this league up not just for the next 3-5 years with this next media-rights deal, but for the next 30.”

Los Angeles Sparks guard Lexie Brown provided a player’s perspective to Uproxx, saying, “You can’t support something that you’re never able to see. So, this negotiation period is going to be key to our growth globally and in the United States. I remember when I was in college [at Duke and Maryland], you had one channel for eight games. Depending on where you were in the country, that was the game you had access to. Now, everyone has a chance to be on TV and have their own stage to perform.”

While the lopsided attention paid to Clark’s performances is a point of contention, Brown believes the die-hard devotion to monitoring Clark’s every move will inevitably lead to exposure for all the players and teams deserving of the same energy.

“Every Caitlin Clark game should be televised,” Brown says. “Let’s not be dumb. That’s what the NBA did with [San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama]. That’s what you should do with a star like that. If there’s ever a future where there will be multiple WNBA games on TV at once, I’ll lose my mind. But that takes investment, engagement, and genuine care.”

Brown is close to getting her wish. The Indiana Fever will surely draft Clark with the first pick to pair with 2023 No. 1 overall pick (and NIL-to-WNBA success story) Aliyah Boston, who oozes charisma in her own right and is the reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year. Not-so-coincidentally, the WNBA announced that 36 of the Indiana Fever’s 40 regular-season games in 2024 will be nationally televised — the most in the league, followed by the reigning back-to-back champion Las Vegas Aces (35) and 2023 runners-up New York Liberty (31).

The Fever’s ubiquitous visibility will be new in 2024, and the Clark phenomenon is an undeniable launching point, but countless women have steadily built this rocket ship. Last season was the WNBA’s most-watched regular season in 21 years, with a 21 percent spike from 2022. According to Bloomberg in April 2023, the W was projected to earn between $180 million and $200 million in combined revenue last season — up from $102 million in 2019. Yet, misconceptions about the WNBA’s viability persist because well-intentioned casual fans and misogynistic haters alike fixate on players’ salaries maxing out at $240,000.

“This downtrodden charity case persona that has followed the WNBA for so many years needs to be debunked, and I think we’re on our way to doing that,” Brown says. “I had to sit down with myself one day and be like, ‘Am I really letting these people make me feel bad about making six figures to play basketball?'”

The Aces have built perhaps the most well-rounded case for debunking that narrative. They just became the first-ever WNBA franchise to sell out season tickets because people will always crave proximity to dynastic dominance — fueled by one-of-one stars like A’ja Wilson, Candace Parker, Kelsey Plum, or Jackie Young. But irresistible appeal isn’t exclusive to Vegas. New York Liberty beat reporter Myles Ehrlich witnesses it covering the “Big Three” of Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu, and Jonquel Jones.

“Sab and Stewie are good examples in the New York market,” Ehrlich says. “They both had signature sneakers come out last year — with Nike and Puma, respectively — and it just goes to show that their brand is not negatively affected by having a WNBA platform rather than a college one. In fact, they’ve got more time without school or classes to pursue any extracurricular interests, and we’ve seen this more and more as players around the league have been taking on roles coaching or doing TV analyst work during their W offseasons.”

It’s an organic formula for habit-forming and sustainable cultural relevancy. Theoretically, players proactively introducing themselves to new audiences during the offseason prompts those people to want to invest time in watching their teams during the season. While the offseason still sees some playing overseas — not “to make ends meet” financially but more so to stay in game shape, according to Brown — more and more players are generating visibility through Athletes Unlimited and endorsements. WNBA players do the legwork, and it’s time for corporate and media magnates to show the same commitment.

“Our game has lacked star power — not because we don’t have stars, but because we didn’t have the machine behind it,” Brown says. “As soon as the WNBA understands that there can be more than one star, then the league is really going to take off. There will always be one or two faces of any league, but there are other stars and personalities [worth investing in].”