WNBA growth focused on digital and social, revamping live events

WNBA Chief Strategy Officer Richard Barbier is all about collecting data to better assist players and improve fan experience. While speaking on day one of the Horizon Summit hosted by SportTechie, the San Francisco 49ers and the Sports Business Journal at Levi’s Stadium, Barbier shared some of the WNBA’s best strategies for laying the groundwork for a sustained growth.

“At the end of 2019, we’ve seen three straight seasons where our attendance has dwindled,” Barbier said. “At the same time, the number of matches covered domestically was also on a downward trajectory. Basically, we saw fans leaving our arenas and we didn’t make it easy for them to find us at the broadcast. … We knew a challenge was on the horizon.”

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Barbier explained that one of the first steps in the overall growth of the WNBA began with increasing its workforce in league offices.

“Our headcount has more than doubled in less than 12 months. We’re talking about creative leads, content leads, data analytics staff and, most notably, our first-ever WNBA commissioner, Cathy Engelbert.”

The growth of WNBA employees has coincided with more partnerships (Sylvain Labs, MIT, Deloitte Consulting) to help focus the league’s storytelling on players, the fan experience in the arena as well as improving the digital engagement.

For the pandemic-delayed 2020 season, the WNBA was one of the first leagues to return to play. “By the nature of being one of the first leagues to return to play in 2020, we have received tremendous support from several of our broadcast partners and approximately 33% of our regular season games have been broadcast on the networks. Disney and CBS,” Barber says. “What that helped us achieve immediately was a 68% increase in average viewership for our regular season games.”

In 2021, the WNBA had its best regular season viewership on ESPN networks since 2009.

The growth in WNBA viewership is due, Barbier says, in part to the amplification of player voices regarding the political and social challenges facing the country.

“We didn’t know how it would play out, but ultimately our fans, our fans saw a level of authenticity among the WNBA that immediately struck a chord.”

Going forward, Barbier explained that the league’s continued growth will focus on “unique WNBA experiences,” such as revamping fan events like the WNBA All-Star Weekend Fan Festival, WNBA Draft and competition during the season, of the commissioner Cup.

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