The biggest name of the WNBA playoffs first round was a bench player. And woo, indeed.
It was Sophie Cunningham who lit up the first round of the 2021 WNBA playoffs and proved the difference in an instant classic. It was her name, not Diana Taurasi nor Skylar Diggins-Smith, who elicited screams from a packed arena, even if it wasn't their own, and Twitter variations of "omg," even if fans had to dig to find it on ESPN2. It was her name people, including the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, wanted on jerseys.
— Phoenix Mercury - X (@PhoenixMercury) September 24, 2021
Except that's not how this works in the WNBA, where frustrations abound at every turn. Here, the Arizona Cardinals were thinking they could click Shop Pay and be done. Sure, maybe if it were DT. But nope. Welcome to the world of W fans, folks. Search for the channel, seek out the gear, hopefully see it soon.
Because as much as the league has promoted its growth over the past week in terms of merchandise and TV ratings, that data is incomplete and misleading. It's great on the surface, but deeper down is a marketing minefield. So while new fans finagle the WNBA Store to DIY a jersey, we'll start where the conversation always does: TV ratings.
Why WNBA TV ratings increased so much this season
The league announced last week that its 25th anniversary season of 2021 was the most-watched regular season since 2008 and viewership was up 51% over 2020. Upon first glance in the inbox, it's an incredible number. That's especially true when you think about the broadcast oddities, like scheduling four games on one night that all tip at the same time.
So what happened in 2008 and what makes this season comparable? It didn't take long to figure out. It was the number of available games on big networks and the lack thereof in the 12 seasons sandwiched between.
There were 100 games aired on national TV broadcasts in 2021 between the ESPN networks, NBA TV and CBS Sports Network. (It doesn't include some on Amazon Prime, as well.)
The last time the total number was that high was in, you guessed it, 2008 when 81 games aired on national TV. In the three years after 2008, there were 70 national TV games in a year, but it never hit that high until the 2020 bubble season and CBS Sports Network's entrance.
It's not only that they aired, it's where they aired. There were nine games this season that aired on ABC and the WNBA made sure to note that one of them, Storm vs. Sky directly out of the Olympic break, was the most-watched regular-season game since 2012.
The last time there were more than three was in 2008, when there were eight regular-season games airing on the main broadcast network. In the 12 seasons between, only nine games total were on ABC, with three in 2019 and two in 2020.
Even the number of games on ESPN networks are similar between the two seasons, and vastly drop off to half in the seasons in between. (Note: The 2020 season had 37 games aired by ESPN networks, but it comes with an asterisk since they were the only cameras there in the bubble.)
In 2007, it was the same way with six games on ABC, 22 on ESPN networks and 69 on NBA TV for 91 national-televised regular-season games. Increased postseason viewership and overall fan attendance that season is what prompted the sides to extend their broadcast agreement, with ESPN paying a league rights fee for the very first time.
It was heralded by then-president Donna Orender as a "tremendous affirmation and validation of the league." And then the company stopped validating it, stopped affirming a commitment to grow the game and its pockets, by pulling it off ABC entirely some years and airing fewer games overall.
And now we're supposed to celebrate the league is growing? No, what we should be saying is it's growing back. Despite the confusing TV schedule, the poor league marketing, the too-basic merchandise and the poor coverage.
Official merch options lack accessibility, creativity
The product is too good for that. Cunningham and all of the playoff teams showed that in force. And for the fans who did tune in all the way down on ESPN2, who now want to buy jerseys and apparel, where do they turn?
The WNBA Store is probably first stop, but as Alex Azzi detailed so well at On Her Turf, it's not as simple as it should be. There are fewer than 20 players with jerseys on the site, and to get anyone else's jersey, a fan has to pay an upcharge for customization to add the name and number themselves. And expect a long wait time for it to arrive as many who ordered in April didn't get anything until well past first tip in mid-May.
How about a trip to Dick's Sporting Goods? The WNBA announced the company as its official sporting goods retail partner on Tuesday, a move that seems curiously long overdue. Items are available online, but only stores in-market will carry merchandise, a league spokesperson told Yahoo Sports. The iconic orange hoodie and new Wilson ball will be available in all.
That's well and good, but the league's marketing and merchandise needs to meet fans' demand for better, less-drab items. Those who are deeply invested sold out creative director Jasmine Baker's Atlanta Dream collection after drooling over the Liberty shorts she designed for an influencer box.
Every award season, team PR and marketing shill for their players and many send out boxes with swag. The Seattle Storm's campaign for Breanna Stewart put her on a queen's throne, trophy in hand, in a well-designed petite box that included the same photo on eight playing cards — all queens — placed two to each side. Under it read, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most valuable of them all?”
It was perfection and WNBA marketing at its finest. Imagine a Storm or Stewie fan opening that surprise.
The pieces to the WNBA's success are all there, but sometimes the league and its partners can't seem to help themselves. The confusing TV schedule, the poor marketing, the basic merchandise, the lack of quality coverage. We're left to celebrate the smallest gains because we have to, even when that growth could and should be so much more.
At least for four hours of incredible basketball, we can put it all aside and watch another Cunningham breakout in the semifinal series. Cheers to finding the channel every night and building another jersey together afterward.