In 2019, the WNBA began a rebranding effort focused on both a refreshed image and revived cultural relevance. The mission made an impact from the start—last season’s ratings were up 31% year-over-year, early season viewership saw a 64% increase over 2018 despite a dip during playoffs—but it paid even greater dividends during an unprecedented 2020 bubble season, affectionately called the ‘wubble,’ in Bradenton, Fla.
“When we launched our rebrand, we really focused on telling the stories of our players and presenting our brand as a really modern, edgy sports brand that’s culturally relevant and has multidimensional players,” said Christy Hedgpeth, WNBA COO. “That’s something people want to be associated with.”
Cultural relevance is arguably even more pertinent today than when the league first put it into focus in the spring of 2019. WNBA players, and the league itself, have long played a role in social justice movements and equality efforts, but they spoke even louder this season as protests swept through the nation. In a season dedicated to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name movement, players pushed for police reform, social justice initiatives, voter registration and in one case, directly advocated against an incumbent, U.S. Senator and Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler. The league has become the outward face of the current socio-cultural conversations in sports and—throughout it all—found momentum, continuing to watch its audience and business grow.
Viewership for ESPN’s coverage of Game 3 of the Seattle Storm’s championship sweep was up 34% year-over-year—for an average of 570,000 viewers—even though the game was a blowout win for Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart’s squad. The 2020 Finals’ total audience was up 15% over 2019’s series, despite competing for attention in a crowded media landscape that has seen its brother league, the NBA, struggle to earn eyeballs.
Average viewership during the regular season also spiked, increasing by 68% across the 48 of 87 nationally televised games rated by Nielsen. ESPN picked up a record 36 of those games, 20 more than last year, across its flagship network, ESPN2 and ABC. In the second year of its partnership with the league, CBS Sports, which saw significant increases in viewership for its NWSL coverage this season as well, broadcast 40 WNBA contests, including one on its main network. A first-ever virtual reality partnership with Facebook Watch and Oculus aired another 20 games, while social media streams on Twitter and airtime on NBA TV provided additional access.
Social media interactions spiked by 30%, while mobile app downloads almost doubled year-over-year (increasing by 85%). Between league, team and player accounts, the WNBA now boasts more than 21 million followers across its social platforms. The orange hoodie that went viral supported a quadrupling of WNBA.com merchandise sales from last year. That momentum, even in merchandise, is something the league will look to continue to capitalize on in 2021—through additional retail partners and continued growth online, Hedgpeth added.
Fresh off a new collective bargaining agreement that upped player salaries, increased benefits and included additional league support and amid a global pandemic, the WNBA took 2020 by storm (pun intended)—and not just in the ‘wubble.’
Even after a shift to virtual, the WNBA’s April draft marked its most-watched since 2004. Viewership increased 123% year-over-year. The league added a new class of corporate sponsors through its Changemakers initiative, announced in conjunction with the new CBA in January, in hopes of elevating player experience and increasing support of what the league describes as its “business transformation.” The WNBA brought Deloitte on board for the initiative alongside existing partners AT&T and Nike.
The league maintained all of its corporate partners through the COVID-caused economic crisis, finding new ways to meet its obligations and ensure full value for sponsors. AT&T, a longstanding marquee partner of the WNBA, became the playoffs’ presenting sponsor this year as YouTubeTV filled the same role during the Finals for the third straight season. It all paid off with a bubble season success that Hedgpeth attributes to the rebranding efforts that started the summer prior and, of course, to the league’s ability to do the ever-important pandemic pivot.
“The pandemic has forced everyone to reexamine their business model. You look at a sports league and something like a bubble, you’re basically shifting your business on a dime and doing something completely different,” Hedgpeth said. “And, with everything going on in the world in 2020, social justice was one of the primary issues on people’s minds. Athletes—and WNBA players in particular—have helped give victims a voice and demonstrated their leadership during this time. Fans have been exposed to our players [through that]. People have seen how compelling, dimensional and substantive our players are. This season has connected fans more to a longstanding commitment our players have made to social justice and equality more broadly.”