The WNBA really wants you to watch women’s pro basketball.
Earlier this month, the league released an ostensibly costly new commercial showing NBA superstars like Stephen Curry praising female players, adding to its “Watch Me Work” ad campaign that is running for the second year in a row. Visit the WNBA’s website and it looks like a game guide for its historic 21st season, while just last month, the league announced that it would become the first women’s sports league to stream its games on Twitter.
OK, so we should all watch the WNBA. But the question then remains: What’s the best way to watch?
The answer is actually a lot more complicated than it should be.
The easiest way to watch is using the WNBA’s League Pass, which allows fans to stream nearly every game live and after broadcast. The pass is relatively simple and inexpensive: Viewers sign up for an account, paying either $16.99 to watch the entire season or $9.99 to see one team’s lineup. There are plenty of added features too, including play-by-play overlays and multiple-game viewing for diehard fans who want to see up to four games at one time.
But just like how not all NBA fans like to use the men’s league pass to watch games, not all WNBA fans want to either. And there’s another big hiccup: Thousands of viewers (and probably many potential viewers) don’t even know that the League Pass exists.
For these people, there is always network TV—that is, for those who still subscribe to network TV. Last month, the WNBA announced that ESPN Networks will televise 16 regular-season games this season. Sounds pretty good, right? Not exactly. With 12 teams in the league and each competing in 34 regular-season games, that’s 204 games total. Sixteen out of 204 means less than eight percent of all games will be broadcasted. Not fabulous statistics.
Additionally, not every team gets a fair cut of that eight percent. While teams like the Los Angeles Sparks, the 2016 WNBA champions, or last year’s runner-up, the Minnesota Lynx, will be featured in seven of the 16 broadcast games, including two against each other, others such as the San Antonio Stars and the Indiana Fever will not have games aired on ESPN at all.
It's a shame people won't get to watch the San Antonio Stars on ESPN. They've got a great team…oh yeah and the #1 pick too 🙃#WNBA
— Diana Taurasi's Bun (@DT3sBun) April 28, 2017
The WNBA did announce this week that NBA TV, a channel many do not have, would televise an additional 45 women’s games this year. However, along with the ESPN games, 61 total televised games is still just under a third of the league’s regular-season games.
So where can you watch the rest of the games if not on network TV? Well, there’s always local television. But what kind of coverage you can get depends on which teams you follow. If you’re a fan of the Seattle Storm, New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks or Chicago Sky, you’re in luck: All four teams have remarkable local coverage due to partnerships with various networks, including Q13FOX and JOEtv (Storm), MSG Network (Liberty), Spectrum Sportsnet (Sparks) and U Too (Sky). And while seven of the Lynx’s games will get ESPN coverage, another 17 will air on local networks, too.
[More from Excelle Sports: MSG Networks announces New York Liberty telecast schedule]
Yet other teams have abysmal coverage. Only 10 of the Phoenix Mercury’s 34 games will be broadcast locally or on ESPN, even though the team arguably features the best player in the league, Diana Taurasi. And only a mere five of the San Antonio Stars’ 34 games will be aired on the local FOX Sports Southwest station—add that to their zero games on ESPN.
So the League Pass has its limitations and network TV is hardly a sure bet. So is there another option? Why, yes, there is.
On May 1, the WNBA made major headlines when it announced that it will live stream 20 regular-season games for the next three seasons on Twitter—the first professional women’s sports league to ink such a deal. As part of the deal, any games shown on Twitter will not be broadcast on local TV or ESPN. That means the Stars and Mercury will get a lot of Twitter time while the Sparks will enjoy only one Twitter game.
— Renee Montgomery (@Da20one) May 3, 2017
— Seattle Storm (@seattlestorm) May 5, 2017
[More from Excelle Sports: BREAKING: WNBA to live stream games on Twitter]
Add this new social media element to the broadcast puzzle, and suddenly it looks like fans can watch almost all of the WNBA. Yet there’s an important caveat to emphasize here, and it’s the word puzzle. With a game over here on this local network, another over there on NBA TV and still another on social media, it’s not easy for fans to follow, especially in a time when the WNBA is desperately striding for better viewership, ratings and game attendance.
What are the long-term consequences of this disjointed broadcasting schedule? It’s not that difficult to determine: The more confounding it is to watch, the fewer people will tune in. And while streaming on Twitter is certainly a way to make the puzzle easier to riddle for a mass audience, there are still hurdles and hiccups to securing the kind of fan base the NBA enjoys with ease.