How the WNBA Set New Records with Caitlin Clark and Rookies Leading the Charge

7 minute read

The WNBA was already entering the 2024 season, which tipped off in May, with plenty of momentum. Viewership was up 21% year over year in 2023, giving the league its biggest audience in more than two decades. Attendance reached a 13-year high. Then came Caitlin Clark. The Indiana Fever selected Clark, who broke the all-time NCAA Division 1 scoring record—for any gender—at Iowa, with the first pick in April’s WNBA Draft. A stunning 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 rookies, including Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso of the Chicago Sky, and Cameron Brink of the Los Angeles Sparks, who developed strong followings as college stars. Thanks to Clark and her cohort, interest in the league will only intensify. For the first time in league history, three teams—the defending champion Las Vegas Aces, Dallas Wings, and Atlanta Dream—announced season-ticket sellouts. With valuations, attendance, and viewership rising across all women’s sports, the WNBA has positioned itself as the standard-bearer. “We’re building something big here,” says Cathy Engelbert, the league’s commissioner.

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

What’s been the key to the positive WNBA growth we’ve seen over the last few years?  

It's the confluence of a lot of positive elements on both the basketball and business sides. We've got a lot of capital flowing in. Our owners are investing in practice facilities and player experience. These generational players are coming with these big followings. That cannot be understated. They represent incredible talent. You need three things to drive viewership: household names, rivalries, and games of consequence. That's why people watch sports. That's why 24 million people watched the NCAA Women's final [between South Carolina and Iowa] at peak because there were household names or rivalries coming off of last year's National Championship. There were huge games of consequence all throughout.

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

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

While the WNBA has no doubt benefitted from a talented crop of young players, Caitlin Clark stands on her own. Her WNBA debut on May 14 drew 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 game 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 threes, the way she sees the court, but I also think about last year's National Championship with LSU and her rivalry that was built with Angel Reese. Iowa didn’t win, but they beat undefeated South Carolina in the Final Four. Then click to the following year, they’re playing LSU in the Elite Eight, they play UConn on that Friday night then they play undefeated South Carolina on that Monday. It made for great storylines. She raises the whole level of play for everybody. Social media helps get the storylines out, get the messaging out. She just brings a huge fan base that knows basketball. She's helping lift the profile of all of these players. 

Is it your desire to see Clark named to the Paris Olympic team? Will you play any role to facilitate that? 

If Caitlin performs well in the W she'll be considered 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 assessing the team right now. There’s a committee. There are people from the league, not just the league office, but some of our teams, represented on that committee. I'll tell you, the decisions that they're going to make are going to be hard decisions on every player, not just whether it's Caitlin or not. There's so much talent in the U.S. right now.

Since the WNBA draft, have any new cities reached out expressing interest in obtaining a WNBA franchise? 


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

No specific timeline because as soon as I get one something will happen. These are negotiations. The tough part about basketball is you need an arena. You need a practice facility. You need all the things for player experience. You need long-term committed owners. Seattle just opened a practice facility. Phoenix has announced they're building one just for the W team. Vegas did one. Chicago just raised capital. All of our owners know we're in growth mode and the opportunity is now. I can't wait to see how this all plays out over the next few years.

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

To have the tech center of your country not represented with a W team, that makes no sense. It brings a big market, big corporate partners who are all invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion. That's what the WNBA team there will represent. Corporate partners couldn't be more fired up about supporting that team. Fans have been waiting for the team for a long time there. And they'll step up. [Valkyries owner] Joe Lacob has already thrown out that he wants to win a championship in the first five years. There are a lot of Fortune 500 and Russell 2000 companies based there. The Bay Area is very accretive for the WNBA brand.

We just saw the NBA ban a player for life due to violating gambling rules. Given the discrepancies between NBA and WNBA salaries, is there a concern that a WNBA player could be a target for unethical actors in the gambling world and potentially compromise the integrity of games? 

That’s always a concern. But we have a lot of touch points with our players, a lot of training for our players and our team staff, coaches. Our players know that integrity is a really important part of who they are and who they will be over however long they play in WNBA. I have full confidence that our players understand that. 

In your words, why do you think the WNBA belongs on a list of the most influential companies in the world? 

When I joined this league in 2019, we soon hit COVID. We were surviving. Now we're thriving as a sports media and entertainment property. One of our owners describes us as a growth stock. And I think that's why we're so influential right now. The storylines of our players 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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