WNBA All-Star Game, Wimbledon finals see big audience gains: Sports on TV

We’re officially in the sports TV summer doldrums.

Not that there aren’t plenty of solid competitions on the old boob tube. There are. Baseball, tennis, auto racing, WNBA, soccer, the Tour de France and NBA Summer League, UFC, bowling, cornhole, etc.

Just nothing that draws huge audiences, even by the atrophied standards of the cord-cutting and pandemic eras. A year ago, the NBA Finals had been forced into July because of the pandemic’s schedule havoc, but in 2022 things are closer to pre-pandemic normal.

The biggest live sports audience average last week? Fox’s Saturday night baseball games (Yankees-Red Sox and Giants-Padres) averaged 2.63 million. The NASCAR race in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon averaged 2.62 million on USA Network for a close second.

A little down the list was an intriguing event when it comes to sports TV audiences: The 26th WNBA All-Star Game aired live at 1 p.m. on Sunday from Chicago’s Wintrust Arena and averaged 734,000 viewers on ABC, with a peak of 768,000. Team Wilson’s 134-112 victory over Team Stewart earned the league its best viewership since 2015.

While pro sports All-Star Games have generally lost viewership as part of the wider trend of overall audience declines — and perhaps fan apathy and network/league over-tinkering — the WNBA’s improved numbers fall in line with women’s sports making overall gains with viewers, networks, and advertisers.

WNBA All-Star Game viewership 2010-22

Year Network Viewership

2022

ABC

734,000

2021

ESPN

470,000

2020

No game*

2019

ABC

508,000

2018

ABC

709,000

2017

ABC

606,000

2016

No game*

2015

ABC, ESPN

746,000

2014

ESPN

475,000

2013

ABC

791,000

2012

No game*

2011

ABC

756,000

2010

No game**

*No game, Olympics
**No game, FIBA World Championship for Women

Peak viewership for the W’s mid-season showcase was 1.44 million in 2003 — a very different era of television. And that number didn’t include Nielsen’s out-of-home viewership (bars, restaurants, etc.) until summer of 2020, meaning older broadcasts likely had larger audiences than what was measured at the time.

The All-Star Game also edged just over 1 million viewers in 2005 on ABC. The first WNBA All-Star Game aired on ESPN in 1999 and averaged 975,000 viewers, per Sports Media Watch.

While viewership growth is a positive, the WNBA remains a very young league compared to its legacy peers, and the league is still sorting out its growth — The Athletic’s Chantel Jennings lays out concerns here.

An example of that on the media side is this year’s WNBA skills and 3-point competition on Saturday had been initially set to air live on ESPN but were bumped to the far less visible ESPNU channel to accommodate the Wimbledon men’s doubles tournament running long, per the New York Times. Hard to imagine the NBA’s equivalent getting bumped to, say, The Ocho.

That said, things appear to be moving in the right direction for the WNBA as a business — it remains split between NBA and private ownership as a league and with its teams — under commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s business growth-oriented strategy launched when she took the helm in 2019. Part of that plan is increasing the regular season to 40 games per team next season, up from the current 36 games played by the dozen clubs.

The WNBA averaged 317,000 viewers on Disney’s ESPN channels headed into the break, per Sports Media Watch, and that’s up 5 percent over last season’s similar point. Data wasn’t immediately available for the league’s games on CBS networks.

The ESPN media rights deal is up after the 2025 season. A report last month from The IX, a site that focuses on women’s sports, said that the ESPN deal paid the WNBA $27 million last season and will end with $33 million in the deal’s final year. The site attributes the numbers to internal league documents it had viewed.

While the NBA commands more eyeballs and ad dollars, expect to see the WNBA improve financially from its next round of media rights. Its games currently air or stream on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ABC, CBS, CBSSN, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, NBA TV and WNBA League Pass.

The W doesn’t have to match the NBA, nor does anyone expect it to. But it does fill viewership slots and meet demos that certain advertisers crave — which is why every sport including football exists anymore. And networks and leagues have begun to realize that women’s sports have been undervalued, so there are a lot more dollars to unlock.

Major League Soccer’s new $2.5 billion deal with Apple signals that live sports properties remain coveted by companies that want to get into that space or bolster the value of its current airwaves and streaming services. The Apple-MLS deal illustrates that the W has options on how it negotiates its next rights deal or deals.

While a lot can happen before any contract is signed, don’t be shocked if the WNBA at least doubles its fee with ESPN. Or more than doubles.

BASEBALL: Speaking of All-Star Games, the MLB version airs at 7:30 p.m. on July 19 on Fox from Dodger Stadium. The network also will air the first round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft at 7 p.m. on Sunday, and on Monday the network will carry the Home Run Derby at 8 p.m. (with coverage also on ESPN2). Check back next week for a full recap on the audience numbers.

TENNIS: Wimbledon wrapped up this weekend with the events that draw the biggest TV audiences — the men’s and women’s singles finals. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, chasing Rafael Nadal’s career titles record, carded his 21st Grand Slam on Sunday morning by beating Australia’s Nick Kyrgios in four sets.

Their match averaged 2.24 million on ESPN, and then another 1.02 million for a replay at 3 p.m. Sunday on ABC. The morning live viewership bested Djokovic’s 2021 finals win that averaged 1.56 million, but is a far cry from 2019’s Djokovic’s five-set win over Roger Federer that averaged 3.32 million viewers. Sunday also out-paced 2018 (1.05 million, Djokovic vs. Kevin Anderson) and 2017 (1.39 million, Federer vs. Marin Čilić), per Sports Business Journal data.

Nadal had previously withdrawn from Wimbledon because of an injury.

One the women’s side, it was a pair of players seeking their first title on the grass of the the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The Russian-born Elena Rybakina, who in recent years acquired Kazakhstan citizenship and federation backing, beat Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur in the women’s final in three sets on Saturday.

Their showdown averaged 1.21 million viewers for ESPN on Saturday morning and another 838,000 for an afternoon replay on ABC. The live audience was up from last year’s 729,000 and is on par with 2019’s final that included the iconic Serena Williams.

The tournament’s overall viewership was trending upwards heading into the finals, but numbers are not yet available.

GOLF: Live coverage of the British Open — formally the 150th Open Championship, for the Shivas Irons purists reading along — from The Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland begins at 4 a.m. Thursday and Friday on USA Network, running until 3 p.m. On Saturday, live third-round coverage is from 5 to 7 a.m. on USA Network and then from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on NBC and Peacock.

Sunday’s final round airs from 4 to 7 a.m. on USA followed by 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on NBC and Peacock. There also will be live featured-group Peacock streaming coverage from 1:30 to 4 a.m. and 3 to 4 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.

Whew, that’s a lot to keep track of. Welcome to the streaming age and overseas start times!

This is the first Open Championship at golf’s birthplace course since 2015, and expectations are for record in-person attendance despite a rail strike. Will that translate also into big U.S. TV numbers? We’ll find out soon enough.

The British Open certainly attracts casual golf followers as one of the four majors and for its history: The tournament is golf’s oldest, being first played in 1860. Before he died in 1994, my golf-obsessed maternal grandfather accomplished his dream of visiting St. Andrews in person — the course holds a special place in the minds of many golfers.

How much that legacy gooses the TV numbers is hard to quantify.

A year ago, NBC’s final-round coverage averaged 4.17 million linear and streaming viewers for Collin Morikawa’s two-stroke win over Jordan Spieth at Royal St. George’s in England. It wasn’t held in 2020 because of you-know-what, and the 2019 tournament averaged 3.72 million (not including out-of-home viewing baked into Nielsen data since summer 2020) for Shane Lowry winning at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

British Open historic TV data is limited, per Sports Media Watch, and the known peak U.S. final-round audience was 8.6 million in 2000 for Tiger Woods’ first victory in the tournament and fourth win at a major overall.

Woods is playing at St. Andrews this week, which certainly won’t hurt viewership, and his politely spicy comments about the Saudi-funded rival LIV Golf tour may fuel a little bit of drama that could move the TV needle. But we shall see. My guess is Sunday averages around 5 million viewers, perhaps more if Woods is in contention.

(And a personal gripe: The Open is a United Kingdom event that’s been staged in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, but never Wales – which has an excellent course in Royal Porthcawl in Bridgend, from where my Welsh family hails. The R&A, which organizes the British Open, apparently is content with its links rotation. Dewch â’ch act at ei gilydd, Yr R&A!)

All viewership data is from Nielsen and Adobe Analytics, and other metrics via the TV networks, Nielsen, Sports Media Watch, ShowBuzz Daily and the leagues. All times Eastern unless otherwise noted.

(Photo of Candace Parker: David Banks / USA Today)

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