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How the WNBA set new records with Caitlin Clark and Rookies in the lead

TThe WNBA already entered the 2024 season, which started in May, with a lot of momentum. Viewership rose 21% year-over-year in 2023, giving the league its largest audience in more than two decades. Visitor numbers reached the highest level in 13 years. Then came Caitlin Clark. The Indiana Fever selected Clark, who broke Iowa’s all-time NCAA Division 1 scoring record – for any gender – with the first pick in April’s WNBA Draft. A whopping 2.45 million viewers tuned in to the draft, more than four times the previous record set in 2004, and a 328% increase from 2023. Clark leads a talented roster of newcomers, including Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso of the Chicago Sky, and Cameron Brink of the Los Angeles Sparks, who gained a strong following as college stars. Thanks to Clark and her cohort, interest in the competition will only increase. For the first time in league history, three teams – defending champion Las Vegas Aces, Dallas Wings and Atlanta Dream – announced season ticket sales. With ratings, attendance and viewership rising across all women’s sports, the WNBA has positioned itself as a standard-bearer. “We’re building something big here,” said league commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

TIME spoke with Engelbert, who became Deloitte’s first female CEO in 2015, about the keys to the league’s recent success, the WNBA’s expansion and the power of Caitlin Clark.

What has been the key to the positive WNBA growth we’ve seen in recent years?

It’s the convergence of a lot of positive elements on both the basketball and business sides. A lot of capital is flowing in. Our owners invest in practice facilities and player experience. These generational players come with a large following. That cannot be underestimated. They represent incredible talent. You need three things to attract more viewers: household names, rivalries and important games. That’s why people watch sports. That’s why 24 million people were watching the NCAA Women’s Finals (between South Carolina and Iowa) at its peak, because there were some familiar names or rivalries coming out of last year’s National Championship. There were huge games of significance all the time.

After the Indiana Fever selected Caitlin Clark on April 15, much was made about her relatively low salary. The players have the option to end the current CBA in October 2025, around the same time the league’s current media rights deal expires. Are you confident that the WNBA will increase its media rights revenue in the next deal, which could contribute to higher player salaries?

We have prepared for this moment. The confluence we talked about helps. We are very optimistic that we will get a good deal. We think we’ll have compelling content and compelling storylines for a long time. I am so blessed to be in women’s basketball now. It’s not just about Caitlin. They are Angel Reese, Cameron Brink, Rickea Jackson, Kamilla Cardoso. And then it’s the next generation of players. Paige Bueckers and her class. And then Kiki Rice at UCLA and Juju Watkins at USC and Hannah Hidalgo at Notre Dame. So I think we’re really going to see the benefits of strong beginner classes. You have to start with a high quality product on the field. And everyone who sees their games or comes to our games is convinced of the quality of the game. It starts there. Now we’re going to bring that to the market. That will really come in handy as we negotiate the next round of media deals.

While the WNBA has undoubtedly benefited from a talented crop of young players, Caitlin Clark stands on her own two feet. Her WNBA debut on May 14 attracted 2.1 million viewers across platforms, making it the most-watched WNBA game in 23 years. It was the most watched WNBA game ever broadcast on ESPN. Her first match on ABC in a Fever uniform drew 1.7 million viewers, making it the network’s most-watched WNBA game ever. Why do you think fans are so invested in her?

It’s the way she plays the game. The logo is three, the way she sees the field, but I also think about last year’s national championship with LSU and her rivalry built with Angel Reese. Iowa didn’t win, but they defeated undefeated South Carolina in the Final Four. Then click to the next year, they play LSU in the Elite Eight, UConn on that Friday night and undefeated South Carolina on that Monday. It made for great storylines. She raises the whole level of play for everyone. Social media helps get the storylines out and get the message out. She just brings a huge fan base that knows basketball. She helps improve the profile of all these players.

Is it your wish to see Clark named to the Paris Olympic team? Can you play a role in facilitating that?

If Caitlin performs well in the W, she will be eligible for that team. She couldn’t go to that Team USA selection camp during the Final Four because she was in the Final Four. USA Basketball is currently evaluating the team. There is a committee. There are people from around the league, not just the league office, but some of our teams, represented on that committee. I will tell you that the decisions they are going to make are going to be tough decisions for every player, not just whether it is Caitlin or not. There is so much talent in the US right now.

Since the WNBA draft, have there been any new cities that have expressed interest in acquiring a WNBA franchise?

Yes.

You announced that the WNBA will expand from 12 to 16 teams. The Valkyries of the Golden State will start playing next year, and on May 23 you announced that Toronto is getting a team. Is there a timeline for announcing the other two teams?

No specific timeline because as soon as I get one, something will happen. These are negotiations. The hard thing about basketball is that you need an arena. You need a practice facility. You need everything for player experience. You need long-term committed owners. Seattle just opened a practice facility. Phoenix announced they are building one specifically for the W team. Vegas did one. Chicago just raised capital. All our owners know that we are in growth mode and that the opportunity is now. I can’t wait to see how this all develops in the coming years.

What does being in the Bay Area bring to the WNBA?

It makes no sense that the technology center of your country is not represented with a W team. It brings with it a large market, large corporate partners who are all investing in diversity, equality and inclusivity. That’s what the WNBA team will represent there. Corporate partners couldn’t be more excited about supporting that team. Fans there have been waiting for the team for a long time. And they will go a step further. (Valkyries owner) Joe Lacob has already put it out there that he wants to win a championship in his first five years. Many Fortune 500 and Russell 2000 companies are based there. The Bay Area is very valuable to the WNBA brand.

We just watched the NBA banning a player for life to violate the gambling rules. Given the discrepancies between NBA and WNBA salaries, is there concern that a WNBA player could be a target for unethical actors in the gambling industry and potentially compromise the integrity of games?

That’s always a concern. But we have a lot of contact moments with our players, a lot of training for our players and our team staff and coaches. Our players know that integrity is a very important part of who they are and who they will be no matter how long they play in the WNBA. I have complete confidence that our players understand that.

Why do you think the WNBA, in your words, should be on a list of the most influential companies in the world?

When I joined this league in 2019, we quickly encountered COVID. We were surviving. Now we are thriving as a sports media and entertainment company. One of our owners describes us as a growth stock. And I think that’s why we’re so influential right now. Our players’ storylines are very influential. The business side is very influential right now. And the basketball side is great. That’s it, in a nutshell.

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