No excuse for the WNBA to keep selling itself short in its third decade | Opinion




Instead of getting the spotlight it deserves, the WNBA gets the one it's willing to accept.

ESPN released numbers for the just-concluded season Tuesday, and they are as impressive as you'd expect for a league that's been on a sharp trajectory the last few years.

Ratings for the full WNBA season were up 22 percent over last year. Ditto for the postseason, with the semifinals alone up a whopping 45 percent. The All-Star Game was the most-watched in seven years, up 53 percent. The draft saw a 20-percent increase and was the most watched in eight years.

Notice anything missing here? The WNBA Finals, perhaps?

Three of the first four games in the Finals aired in direct competition with the NFL, with Games 1 and 4 going up against the Sunday afternoon slate of NFL games. The results were about as predictable as you might imagine.

Game 1 drew an average of 555,000 viewers, second-fewest of the series, despite being on ABC. Game 4 did the worst, drawing an average of 396,000 viewers on ESPN.

Overall, the four-game series that ended Sunday with the Las Vegas Aces winning their first-ever championship averaged 544,750 viewers. That's down from the average of 548,000 for last year's Finals, which also went four games.

"We have to steer clear of the NFL. That's obvious," said Cheryl Reeve, who has led the Minnesota Lynx to four WNBA titles and is coaching Team USA at the FIBA World Cup that began Wednesday in Australia.

Now, the WNBA does not get to decide when or even on which Disney property its games air. The folks at ESPN and ABC do, and they're going to give first dibs to college football and "Monday Night Football." The Finals also were played about three weeks earlier than usual because the season was compressed so as not to conflict with the World Cup. ESPN has the media rights to the World Cup games, as well.

Aces forward A
Aces forward A'ja Wilson celebrates with coach Becky Hammon after winning the WNBA championship on Sunday.  

But in its 26th year, when signs abound of the huge opportunities that exist in women's sports, the WNBA still operates as if it should be grateful for every crumb it gets. Instead of demanding treatment befitting a major professional sports league - you think Adam Silver would have been OK with an NBA Finals game taking a backseat to the Premier Lacrosse League, as happened Sunday with Game 4? - the WNBA often acts as if it's still worried the league is going to fold.

"It's hard when you put us up against 'Thursday Night Football' or 'Sunday Night Football,' " Breanna Stewart said. "When the TV deal is up, making sure that we're a priority, that we're not competing with people for TV (is imperative).

"People should want us on TV and people should show us on their main platforms," Stewart added. "Make sure we're valued. And that these companies know our worth. That they know how big the WNBA is and how much people should invest in it."

While Title IX opened the gates of arenas and playing fields to girls and women 50 years ago, equality did not automatically follow. As any woman who has ever played a sport, gone to school or held a job - heck, even tried to offer her opinion in a roomful of men - can tell you, the fight for acceptance and visibility continues to this day.

Women want the next generation to have it better. Easier. So often we've taken the small gains, deciding something is better than nothing. But in doing so, we run the risk of limiting ourselves, settling for what we are given rather than insisting on what we have earned.

Thankfully, that's changing. In the last decade, women -- young women in particular -- have stopped politely waiting for their turn. The U.S. women finally sued U.S. Soccer after decades of fighting for equal pay. Women athletes publicly ridiculed the NCAA over disparities between the men's and women's basketball tournaments in 2021.

Now it's time the WNBA flexed some of that muscle.

OPINION: Aces title heralds new era for franchise and, perhaps, entire WNBA

More: 'Where the heck are the women?' Why women's sports could see financial boon in future TV deals

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The WNBA has had three consecutive years of double-digit growth while ratings in other sports have stagnated or made marginal gains. The decisive Game 4 of the Seattle Storm-Las Vegas Aces semifinal series drew 905,000 viewers on ABC, peaking at 1.4 million.

Oh, and according to ShowBuzz Daily, Game 2 of the WNBA Finals just happened to be the top show on cable that day for men ages 18 to 49.

"You put us on, you put us on where people can find us, you put us on a good network and people are watching," Reeve said.

The WNBA's current media rights deal with Disney runs through 2025, but there's no reason commissioner Cathy Engelbert can't take a harder line before that. Silver should also be bringing the weight of the NBA, since it owns half of the WNBA.

Demand more games be shown on ABC, including any that could decide the WNBA champion. Ask for a Finals game on Friday night. At the very least, insist the WNBA get priority over everything besides "MNF" and Power 5 football.

If the league's broadcast "partner" won't agree, well, there's sure to be somebody in 2025 who will.

The WNBA has proven its worth. It's time the league started acting like it.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: WNBA isn't a minor sport. The league must stop acting like one.

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