ESPN's partnership with the WNBA critical to 're-imagining' the league for continued growth

Photo by USA Today Sports.

ESPN's renewed commitment to the WNBA is as not merely a business partner but a partner in helping to shape and realize the league's vision is critical to the continued growth of the league.

ESPN and the WNBA announced a new branding package and television deal in a webcast moderated by Hannah Storm at WNBA.com.

Alongside Storm was WNBA President Laurel Richie and ESPN President John Skipper who emphasized that the announcement was not only about announcing a financial deal but also reaffirming their commitment to the league and helping it move forward by "relaunching" the relationship.

"We, like you, think there's going to be continued development and we want to be active participants in that development," Skipper said in his opening remarks. "And we're not just announcing an extension and a continued business relationship. What we want to do is take advantage of this moment in time with these three transcendent superstars coming into the league to sort of relaunch and even restart what we're doing."

As described during the event, the deal is the result of an ESPNW summit in which re-imagining the WNBA was a major topic of discussion. They summit resulted in a whole host of new initiatives, according to Richie, but this is the beginning.

"That ESPNW summit was really a groundbreaking day for us," Richie said. "We, from the WNBA perspective, we left that summit and went back and said we're going to set on a course of re-imagining the WNBA. We really want to take advantage of the draft class that we think and hope is coming into our league. We have looked at almost every aspect of our business."

Most importantly for those concerned about the vitality of the league, the announcement is yet another sign that the rumors of the league's demise are a bit premature: neither ESPN nor the league's other financial backers would invest in the league unless they saw something promising in the numbers.

"We're thrilled with where the league is and how it's doing," said Skipper. "I go to the arenas and I see very happy fans, I see skilled athletes playing well. I see appropriate ratings for where the league is right now and I see growth. I think it's mostly people wanting to compare it to men's sports and saying, 'Gee, is this the same as the NBA?' One thing I like about the logo is that it distances itself a little bit from the WNBA. It's not an appropriate comparison right now: it should be viewed on its own terms and it should have the terms of its own success."

To Skipper's point about viewing the league on its own terms, the announcement also indicated a clearer definition of who their audience is, even if it's still somewhat broad. This is no longer a league responding to the ignorant claims of haters or begging people to "Expect Great" but a league confident that there's a natural audience out there for it if they can raise visibility and present them with the quality the product has to offer.

"What we have learned through some good and in-depth research is the single unifying factor is that (WNBA fans) love sports but on top of that they have very progressive views on the role of women in society," Richie said. "So that's what brings such a wonderful mosaic, a cross-section of America, into the arenas and to the TV and online and everything else to view and support the WNBA."

Yet while acknowledging the progressive views of the league's fans, Richie was careful to also avoid positioning the league as exclusively valuable to girls.

"It's not just about the young girls of the next generation - it's about the young boys too," Richie said. "I think that they benefit as much from recognizing and seeing what the women of the WNBA and the athletes of the WNBA do and what they bring on a daily basis."

To have a partner like ESPN sending a strong public message that they are committed to collaborating as "active participants in continuing to grow the league" with the league to actually help push things forward rather than idly stand by as the fate of the league unfolds is huge and shows that they're paying more than lip service to women's sports.

"We of course, as you know, are very bullish on the growth and the importance of women's sports," said Skipper. "And today is we're putting a financial commitment, we're putting commitment to have the game on the air, a commitment of our executives, a commitment of our company to continue to help grow women's sports in this country."

What are your thoughts on the direction of the league in light of this announcement? What kind of improvements would you like to see to push the league forward? Discuss it in the comments.

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