Brittney Griner's return to court in Mercury-Sparks season opener draws historic audience

Brittney Griner was met with a warm welcome from fans and fellow players in Los Angeles when she returned to the court on Friday. What she couldn't see, was the historic audience that tuned into the game at home.

The late-night Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury matchup was the most-viewed regular season WNBA game on cable in 24 years, ESPN announced.

The broadcast peaked at 1 million viewers and had 683,000 average viewers, despite the 11:20 p.m. ET start.

The game's average viewership saw a 103% increase compared to last year’s WNBA Opening Night broadcast on ESPN platforms. It's the most-viewed WNBA Opening Day on ESPN in 11 years.

The Sparks beat the Mercury 94-71 in the season opener. Griner led Phoenix with 18 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists. She shot 7-of-9 from the field in 25 minutes after spending 600 days away from the league and spending time in a Russian jail.

“At the end of the day, I’m at work. I have a job to do,” Griner said after the loss. “I can’t get caught up in the moment. Kind of feel it, but put it to the side for a little bit and feel it later.”

Friday definitely wasn't a normal day on the job for Griner, who received a standing ovation at the road game. Celebrities and notable figures, including Vice President Kamala Harris, were also in attendance.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 21: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury reacts after hitting a three-point shot against the Chicago Sky during the second half of the WNBA game at Footprint Center on May 21, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Brittney Griner is back on the court for the Phoenix Mercury. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Griner was arrested in February 2022 in a Moscow airport after officials there found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She spent the next 10 months jailed in Russia, and was classified as “wrongfully detained” by the United States government. Finally, Griner returned home in December in a prisoner exchange.

Hers wasn't the only notable return Friday. Sparks' Dearica Hamby also took the court, less than three months after giving birth and fresh off of a difficult trade from her longtime Las Vegas Aces. Hamby played 15 minutes in the win, recording 9 points and 3 rebounds. The league suspended Aces head coach Becky Hammon for two games without pay for pregnancy discrimination against Hamby, which Hammon denies.

The audience for women's basketball keeps growing. Last year, viewership of the full WNBA season on ESPN was up 22% from 2021. April’s WNBA Draft on ESPN garnered 520,000 viewers, the most-watched WNBA Draft since 2004. There's been a boom at the college level, as the LSU-Iowa NCAA Championship game on ABC scored 9.9 million viewers in the most-watched women’s college basketball game ever.

Per ESPN, the average viewership of 589,000 over the course of four games on ABC and ESPN over the weekend marked a 199% increase over the 2022 opening weekend shown on ESPN and ESPN2. Saturday's Las Vegas Aces-Seattle Storm matchup on ESPN averaged 684,000 viewers, the most-viewed opening-weekend game of any kind in 11 years.

Week 2 of WNBA hoops tips off Tuesday with two games: the Connecticut Sun versus the Washington Mystics, followed by the Atlanta Dream versus the Minnesota Lynx.