The 2024 WNBA Draft signals a transformative era for women’s basketball. It arrives against a backdrop of burgeoning interest in women’s sport, underscored by a surge in digital engagement and viewership.

In our recent SportOnSearch 2024 report, for example, search for EuroLeague Women and the Women’s National Basketball Association rose by 76% and 54% respectively last year.

New stars

Central to this wave of enthusiasm is a fresh generation of athletes, spearheaded by American college basketball player, Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes. She captivated audiences with her record-breaking season in which she became the all-time highest NCAA scorer (of both men and women players).

Clark’s influence extends beyond the court, her stardom contributing to unprecedented viewership numbers. Iowa’s matchup with South Carolina for the National title shattered previous viewing figures for a women’s college basketball game – an average audience of 18.7m with a 24m peak: +89% increase on 2023 and +285% on 2022. It was the first time ever that the women’s final gained more viewers than the men’s and more than either of the 2023 NBA Finals or MLB World Series.

Clark isn’t the only player from this year’s draft that the WNBA is counting on to help continue the league’s success. LSU Tigers star Angel Reese currently boasts 2.8m followers on Instagram, over a million more than Clark. And there’s Brazilian Kamilla Cardoso who helped lead South Carolina to two titles over the past three years. The 6’7” centre won the FIBA AmeriCup and was named tournament MVP for Brazil where fans of the sport have almost tripled in the past decade.

Commercial growth

The commercial implications on the trajectory of women’s basketball from these new stars is increasingly apparent. This can be seen with the rise in ticket sales and prices for Iowa games this season and that the Las Vegas Aces – reigning WNBA champions – have already stated they will move arena to accommodate 8,000 additional fans when they face Clark’s likely team, Indiana Fever.

WNBA CMO Phil Cook recently told SportsPro Media that Clark could be the next Tiger Woods. Akin to Woods making golf more exciting and accessible to a new generation of fans, Clark brings celebrity status to the league. Furthermore, she has signed multiple deals prior to her pro debut as Woods did with Nike.

Clark has been valued at $3.1m through her deals with the likes of Gatorade, Nike, State Farm and Panini. It’s the highest known value in women’s college basketball and dwarfs the salary she will make in the WNBA as a rookie – $76k.

Crossover events

In 2023, only 4.6m people tuned in to watch the NBA All-Star Game, a 20-year low. Meanwhile, the 2024 3-Point Contest (part of the All-Star weekend) between Stephen Curry of Golden State Warriors and Sabrina Ionescu of New York Liberty drew a peak audience of 5.4m – the biggest for four years. The event had a profound effect on social media with Ionescu’s Instagram gaining 89k new followers the day after the event (a significant contribution to her reaching 1 million).

The event challenged stereotypes, drew in audiences beyond the average basketball fan, and sparked excitement for next year with the potential inclusion of Clark. Pitting two of the best players – one male, one female – against each other is tantalising to rightsholders and league officials as it provides the opportunity to tap into a new market of fans and grow both WNBA and NBA audiences.

Key takeaways for rightsholders

• Focus on marquee events: use major events to build on increased interest/attention. Ensure momentum is maintained post-event to keep audiences engaged.
• Leverage star athletes: work with your sport’s greatest stars – they are an integral reason as to why fans are engaging with content. Aligning athletes with strong brand values/marketability can also boost your sport.
• Commercial opportunities: the growing movement towards a more prominent/profitable women’s sports industry underscores the potential for transformative change/strategic commercial initiatives
• Creative content strategies: create crossover events that break traditional barriers, e.g. male and female athletes competing together. Such initiatives draw in non-traditional audiences and help create viral content to entice new fans.