“[W]hy would a subscriber-based sports medium that claims ‘full access to all sports’ limit its earnings potential by not covering women’s sports??” Reeve tweeted. “The Athletic does just that...and it’s bad business.” She added a hashtag: “#tiredofthebias.“
This summer, more than 20 years into the WNBA’s existence, the league’s visibility seems to be on the upswing, whether because of audience demand, broader interest in women’s pro sports or pointed critiques such as Reeve’s.
Ahead of the start of the season in June, the Athletic announced an expansion of its WNBA coverage, hiring 15 writers — beat reporters for each of the league’s 12 teams plus three national writers. The writers are not full-time staffers, but they represent a new commitment to the WNBA that appears to be part of a wider trend this summer. Slam magazine launched new coverage of women’s basketball, and Bleacher Report created a vertical for women’s sports, with one of its focuses being the WNBA. The Chicago Sun-Times also announced that a local hospital would sponsor its expanded coverage of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky.
This week, the video game franchise NBA 2K announced the introduction of WNBA players for the first time. The league itself signed a deal to air 40 games on CBS Sports Network, and ESPN has already put a few extra games on ESPN and ABC instead of ESPN2.
The increased media exposure prompts several questions, from what took so long, to why now, to whether this increased coverage represents a business opportunity, changed editorial judgment or simply the right thing to do. Then there is the age-old chicken-and-egg debate: Has the historical lack of coverage of professional women’s sports in the mainstream media been driven by editorial bias or audience preferences?
“I think it’s business-driven to the point that we’re in the business of covering sports and this is an audience we think we can serve,” said Dan Kaufman, the editorial director of the Athletic. “As for what’s driving it, I don’t necessarily think it’s black and white, that this is a cold and businesslike decision or it’s altruism. I don’t think about it that way, and we don’t grade our decisions on a scale like that.”
That doesn’t exactly placate Reeve, who said in a recent interview, “I think what the Athletic is saying is, ‘Let us start with men and then let us see if we can take on more’ — and that’s an antiquated mind-set.”
The WNBA, which began play in 1997, has fought for oxygen for most of its existence. The league came of age as newspapers, facing economic difficulties, were scaling back, another hurdle preventing local coverage from gaining traction. But this season, league executives believe the WNBA has turned a corner, because of a confluence of factors — including marketing that presents the enterprise as a cause as well as a basketball league.
“We’ve done a full rebrand,” WNBA Chief Operating Officer Christy Hedgpeth said. “We wanted something more edgy, something more modern, and I think both fans and the media have responded to that. We want to tell stories about our players — their fashion, their musical and political interests.”
She added: “It’s a false choice to think of coverage as [being smart business] or not. I think our partners see an opportunity to invest in something that’s going to grow and that aligns with their values of gender equity and diversity.”
This season’s increased exposure has been successful by some metrics. Last month’s All-Star Game in Las Vegas credentialed 41 percent more media members than in 2018 and 81 percent more than in 2017. For the handful of games the league streams on Twitter, average viewership is up 244 percent. (The league declined to share total figures.)
And on Disney’s networks, helped by more games on ESPN and ABC, viewership is up 31 percent from last season. (CBS Sports Network is not Nielsen-rated.)
Bleacher Report and Slam say their initial efforts have been well received on social media, with LeBron James sharing some of Bleacher Report’s WNBA content on Twitter. After Slam put out a cover featuring Las Vegas Aces stars A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage this summer — which James also tweeted — the magazine produced a T-shirt with the cover image and nearly sold out of its inventory.
“A lot of the big brands we have relationships with value women’s basketball and are moving marketing dollars into the space,” said Adam Figman, Slam’s editor in chief. “And it’s a social thing first, so it’s a way to grow the brand. And we’re seeing it resonate, especially among girls who are 12 to 21.”
Added Camille Buxeda, who is leading the coverage for Slam: “I don’t know if there’s a moral imperative; I just think everyone is trying to help the game grow and help these women. That’s why I took this position. And I really do think this is a full culmination of what we’re seeing in society.”
The decision to create women’s-themed verticals can also be complicated.
“My fear is that we will always be pushing women’s stuff onto a women’s vertical and that reinforces the idea that women in sports is a niche thing,” said Natalie Weiner, who writes often about the WNBA for SB Nation. “But I never want to say investing in this stuff is bad.”
According to one person with knowledge of the financial arrangement, writers are paid between $100 and $150 for each WNBA story. The amount is illustrative of a paradox for writers: It’s on the lower end of the Athletic’s freelance rates (and comes without benefits), but the arrangement offers consistent work and pay to cover the league, which has sometimes been difficult to find.
“Every place we have coverage, we pay fairly and competitively, including the WNBA and NBA,” Kaufman said. (He neither confirmed nor denied the specific figures.) “That’s one of the reasons writers like working for us.”
For her part, Reeve has spent years working overtime to increase coverage of the Lynx. In addition to lobbying the media, she has held film sessions with reporters, painstakingly going over video so they can better inform readers about what’s happening on the court. And she isn’t satisfied yet.
“When you’re sending more people to the NFL combine than you have covering our whole league, you know it’s not treated the same,” she said. “I know it’s growing, and that’s a good thing, but I’m not going to celebrate little bones.”