Thursday, May 23, 2024

Caitlin Clark’s Schedule: A Gauntlet of Challenges for WNBA’s Top Rookie

HomeSports NewsCaitlin Clark's Schedule: A Gauntlet of Challenges for WNBA's Top Rookie

When Caitlin Clark electrified the Indiana Fever faithful with her scintillating home debut on Thursday night against the New York Liberty on Amazon Prime Video, it marked the start of a high-octane, two-week stretch of nationally-televised games featuring the league’s brightest stars.

The Fever’s clash with the Liberty, led by reigning MVP Breanna Stewart, is just the opening salvo in a dizzying barrage of marquee matchups for Clark. Less than 48 hours later, the Fever and Liberty reignite their budding rivalry on ABC. After a Monday night rematch with the Connecticut Sun, Clark embarks on her first WNBA West Coast road trip, including a showdown with No. 2 pick and fellow rookie Cameron Brink in Los Angeles’ Crypto.com Arena on Ion and a titanic tussle with the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces on NBA TV.

This early-season gauntlet of star-studded matchups and visits to the nation’s two largest media markets is likely a fortuitous convergence of strategic planning and serendipity, as the league unveiled its schedule back in December – well before Clark’s decision to declare for the WNBA draft on Feb. 29.

For the WNBA, crafting a compelling TV schedule is a delicate dance involving months of collaboration between the league and its media partners, meticulously matching available time slots with tantalizing matchups.

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“We see that it is a priority for them to maximize these TV windows as judiciously as possible,” CBS Sports EVP for programming Dan Weinberg said.

But the WNBA faces numerous obstacles in assembling a flawless slate. With the draft occurring mere weeks before opening night, there is scant time for adjustments. Additionally, this year’s schedule – which starts a week earlier and ends a week later to accommodate an Olympics break – forces the league to compete more directly with the NBA playoffs in the early going and the NFL juggernaut later in the season.

Clark’s debut on Tuesday drew a staggering 2.12 million viewers on ESPN2, the WNBA’s most-watched game in 23 years. Those eye-popping numbers likely would have been even gaudier if not for the Indiana Pacers’ Game 5 matchup with the New York Knicks on TNT.

Meanwhile, the WNBA debuts of Brink and Angel Reese did not air nationally on Wednesday. Brink arrived for her first contest donning a shirt that cheekily asked, “got league pass?”

Reese and the Liberty will take center stage next Thursday as Amazon continues its Prime Video focus. Ion has staked its claim on Friday nights, aiming for weekly doubleheaders – a strategy enabled by the league’s willingness to schedule Central time zone games at the viewer-friendly hour of 8:30 p.m. local time.

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Next week, however, there is only one Friday game on the docket – Indiana at LA. Originally slated for Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid, the game has since been relocated to the glitzy confines of Crypto.com Arena following the completion of renovation work that was likely expedited by the early playoff exits of the venue’s NBA co-tenants. With no preceding game, Ion plans to fill the void with an hourlong pregame show.

Moving forward, the network will lock in a nationally broadcast game 16 days in advance, with other matchups airing on a regional basis. Ion will have the option of showcasing up to eight Friday night Fever contests.

“It affords us the flexibility to capitalize on hot teams or a compelling game that stands out as a must-see event,” Scripps Sports president Brian Lawlor said. “We’re truly excited about the matchups and the consistent visibility of every team on our schedule.”

In general, ABC and CBS have prioritized coveted weekend timeslots, where programming flexibility abounds. CBS has eight games on tap this year, including a WNBA Finals rematch on the league’s first Saturday after the Olympics, while this Saturday’s doubleheader brings the first of ABC’s eight WNBA windows this regular season.

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“The schedule-building process, whether it’s in the WNBA or other leagues, is an intricate puzzle,” ESPN VP for programming and acquisitions Matt Kenny said. “We worked hand-in-hand with the WNBA to construct the most compelling schedule from start to finish.”

Securing premier TV placement has been a rallying cry for advocates of women’s sports. The NWSL championship match, for instance, moved to primetime for the first time in 2022 and became the most-watched game in league history.

Strong ratings performances then beget additional prime inventory in a virtuous cycle. Just this week, Fox touted its upcoming Southern Cal-Connecticut women’s basketball matchup during a recent presentation to advertisers. That game, part of the network’s burgeoning Saturday night college basketball showcase, will also benefit from a Steelers-Ravens lead-in on Dec. 21.

With advancements in data-driven scheduling software and a new round of WNBA media deals on the horizon before the 2026 season, even more high-profile matchups in marquee primetime slots seem like an inevitability – much like the meteoric rise of Caitlin Clark.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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