ESPN highlighted the WNBA on its opening weekend by airing every game on its two main networks.
It paid off. The four-game opening weekend averaged 401,000 viewers, up 63 percent from its 2019 average viewership. It also had the most-watched WNBA opener since 2012 with Los Angeles Sparks defeating the Phoenix Mercury. And the most-watched season opening game on ESPN since 2016.
ESPN’s viewership up 63 percent over 2019
The average four-game viewership of 401,000 was up from its 2019 regular season schedule that aired almost exclusively on ESPN2. The 12 p.m. ET games on Saturday and Sunday aired on ESPN, beginning with Sabrina Ionescu’s debut in the season opener.
That Seattle Storm vs. New York Liberty game averaged 419,000 viewers, making it the most watched season opener on cable since 2016, per ESPN. That was a Saturday night game between the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury in mid-May.
The Storm-Liberty game peaked with 526,000 viewers from 12:30 to 12:45 p.m. ET. It had a 1.2 average rating in Seattle-Tacoma. The Storm are favorites for the title.
The late afternoon games aired on ABC. The first between the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury on Saturday was the most-watched ABC opener since 2012 with 539,000 viewers. It peaked at 619,000.
The second on Sunday was a rematch of the “Hamby Heave” in the 2019 playoffs when Dearica Hamby’s final-seconds long 3-pointer sent the Las Vegas Aces over the Chicago Sky. It averaged 433,000 viewers, peaking at 646,000 for the down-to-the-wire finish.
ESPN expands coverage after opening weekend
ESPN announced expanded coverage of the league on Monday morning. It added 13 games to its original 24-game broadcast schedule, including five games on ABC from Aug. 8-29.
The NWSL also had a big weekend with its best-ever broadcast viewership for the Challenge Cup final on CBS. The Sunday afternoon game overlapped with the Connecticut Sun vs. Minnesota Lynx game that drew only 202,000 viewers on ESPN.
The numbers show there is a market for women’s sports and if they’re put on networks that are in more households, and easier to find, viewership will increase. The 2020 WNBA draft is another example of that. A flurry of free agent moves in the offseason and fans yearning for sports to return also helps.
ESPN’s coverage continues on Thursday with Seattle at Washington and Connecticut at Los Angeles. CBS Sports Network also holds broadcasting rights.
How do I get that WNBA orange hoodie?
The WNBA’s orange logo hoodie was everywhere over the weekend.
Just a few of the stars who showed support for the WNBA's tip off yesterday 🧡 pic.twitter.com/2oBe6gMrYU— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) July 26, 2020
It was part of ESPN’s “In It For Good” WNBA marketing campaign. Notable stars such as LeBron James, Rebecca Lobo, Trae Young, Julie Foudy, Naomi Osaka and Dare Ogunbowale, brother of Dallas Wings star Arike Ogunbowale, shared photos in the orange hoodie on social media channels.
It resulted in 16,400 mentions on Twitter and more than 623 million potential impressions, the league said. The hoodie was the top selling item on Fanatics, which is “not rocket science” as explained by New York Liberty star and WNBPA vice president Layshia Clarendon.
.@wnba orange hoodie is top selling item on fanatics = not rocket science. Its exposure. This is the opening weekend and the most National TV games we’ve had. So we’re getting coverage. Our stories told. And the hoodie is dope. Women ARE capable of selling in high numbers!— Layshia Clarendon (@Layshiac) July 26, 2020
The season continues on Tuesday night after taking a day off Monday.
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