Why ESPN thinks the WNBA is worth watching

Mar 29, 2013
Center left: John Skipper, ESPN president. Center right: Laurel Richie, WNBA president.

FORTUNE -- The WNBA is getting some prime-time love from ESPN. For the first time ever, the network will broadcast the league's draft, which is taking place April 15 at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN2.

Along with the WNBA draft news, the WNBA and ESPN announced on Thursday that they have extended their partnership though 2022. John Skipper, ESPN president and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks (dis), and WNBA President Laurel Richie announced the deal at ABC's Good Morning America Studios in Manhattan. Richie also introduced the WNBA's new logo -- it is orange, matching the color scheme of the WNBA's signature ball. Instead of dribbling, the woman on the logo is going up for a layup.

The logo lady looks strong, which is a relatively new development in women's sports. Historically, consumers have had a difficult time accepting the perceived conflict between women athlete's femininity and athleticism. There are fewer sports with professional women’s leagues, and fewer viewers.

And yet, “There’s nothing more important to us in women’s sports than this deal at this moment,” said ESPN’s Skipper.

In a way, the cold business of it is heartening: This deal wouldn't have taken place if it wouldn't work financially. Three of the league’s twelve teams were profitable last season, as was the league as a whole. Plus, the WNBA does have loyal fans outside of ESPN’s young male target. In an interview for a Fortune story, Sex, muscles, basketball: How do you sell an athletic woman?, the NBA’s vice president of marketing Hilary Shaev mentioned African-Americans, lesbians and youth as key groups within the WNBA’s fan base.

At Thursday’s announcement event, Richie nodded to the diversity of the league's viewers. She said one could look across the stadium and think, “How the heck did they all get in there together?” But the WNBA has researched its seemingly eclectic fan base, and the unifying theme, she said, is that “they all have a very progressive view on the role of women in society.”

To draw in more fans, ESPN and the WNBA are launching a "3 to See" campaign, which is capitalizing on the stories of three soon-to-be WNBA players -- focusing on their transition from college to the pros. The "3 to see" are Elena Delle Donne from Delaware, Skylar Diggins from Notre Dame, and Baylor’s Brittney Griner.

Baylor player Griner stands out. During her final home game on March 27, she dunked three times and scored 33 points. Griner stands at a towering at 6’8”, and she’s young. She doesn’t bring the marketing triple threat of someone like Candace Parker, who is a model, mom, and athlete. But she's damn good. Hopefully, that will be enough.

Following the draft, ESPN is showing a double-header featuring the Washington Mystics against the Tulsa Shock and the Chicago Sky versus the Phoenix Mercury.

While this is a milestone for the women’s league, the WNBA draft broadcast will not get the same play as the NBA. But comparing the WNBA to the NBA is not quite fair, says Skipper, who argues that the league is young, and “should be viewed on its own terms and the terms of its success.”

The mainstream media has not traditionally devoted much time to coverage of women’s sports. In fact, as of 2009, a study by sociology professor Cheryl Cooky suggested that the amount of airtime the mainstream sports outlets devoted to women’s sports had actually declined since 1989.

Yet ESPN seems to think that these three rising athletes have enough of a potential fan base for it to devote its resources to tell their stories and broadcast their games.

Women are becoming more athletic, and it appears to be growing more socially acceptable. Either way, female athletes are more visible. Chicago Sky forward and Olympic gold medalist Swin Cash put it best. She said, during Thursday’s announcement, “We have 132 women who are ready to ball. And with Britney Griner coming in, dunking three times, it’s time to get your game up.”

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