The WNBA is exploding. But for TV rights, the NBA is still in charge.

FILE - Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark signs autographs for fans before the start of WNBA basketball game against the New York Liberty, Saturday, May 18, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray, File)

The good news for the WNBA can’t stop. The league’s TV ratings are setting records seemingly every night. Players, long shunted to the background of popular sports culture, now have shoe deals and starring roles in commercials. Caitlin Clark is the most-talked-about athlete in America (for better or worse, but mostly better).

And there’s more to come.

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The league is set to receive a windfall for its broadcast rights, which expire next season and are valued at around $60 million per year, according to people familiar with the figures. The NBA, which owns roughly 60 percent of the women’s league, is in the process of negotiating that deal, which Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal reported will be worth more than $7 billion per year for both leagues, up from around the $2.7 billion the NBA gets per year in its current deal.

The WNBA’s share could be transformative, with several media executives predicting the league could triple its annual rights revenue to somewhere between $180 and $200 million, or more. But there’s a quirk: Media companies won’t decide how much the WNBA’s media rights are worth. The NBA will.

The NBA is soliciting one total bid from media companies that does not separate the values of the NBA and the WNBA rights, according to people familiar with the process, and some media companies involved in the bidding are not assigning a specific rights figure to the WNBA rights. That means the NBA’s massive deal could be rocket fuel for the WNBA - or that the WNBA’s increased popularity is more of an afterthought. It also could be a bit of both.

“If you’re not getting a number from the media companies, then you are hanging on to the NBA,” said Laura Gentile, an industry consultant and ESPN’s former chief marketing officer. “You’re saying it’s a rounding error in the grand scheme of business. Maybe that’s the case, but it doesn’t help the ecosystem grow. Women’s sports wants accountability; they want their growth projections to matter.”

The concern is not necessarily that the NBA will undervalue the WNBA’s rights. One media executive with knowledge of the ongoing talks suggested media companies recognize the increasing value of the WNBA regardless of whether they ascribe a specific figure to its rights. But some wonder what that strategy potentially says about the league’s future growth.

“Even if the money is less, I would rather have independent money,” said David Samson, the former president of MLB’s Miami Marlins and host of the “Nothing Personal” podcast, “because then you have a real business. … If a media company says we value the WNBA at X, that’s a real value of what the WNBA’s rights are. Otherwise, it’s like buying social media followers: perceived value but not real.”

In interviews, several WNBA executives said they did not share those concerns. As long as the money arrives, they said, it’s not important how it gets there. And regardless of the accounting, there are other reasons the leagues should partner, many of those people said. The leagues share resources and cross-promote, and the NBA can leverage its larger fan base to demand more exposure, better time slots and other support for the WNBA.

“It’s a huge advantage to us to go to market with the NBA,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The Washington Post. “Especially with streaming services who rely on a 12-month subscription model. If we’re only there for 4½ months … how attractive is that? But we and the NBA are maybe the only sports properties that can give 330 days of live programming - almost the entire year. That’s hugely valuable to a subscription platform.”

Added William Mao, a vice president in the media rights consulting division at Octagon: “There is value to the leagues and the media companies to have this overall halo effect around pro basketball.” He added that he expected the WNBA would “get the same multiple” of its current deal whether negotiating alone or with the NBA.

Independent of the media deals, the new burst of attention has plenty of stakeholders around the WNBA hoping to make sure its governing and business structures are ready to capitalize. Some of that has to do with how much to lean on the NBA, the benefits of which can be obvious. Joe Lacob, owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, recently paid a $50 million expansion fee to secure the rights to a Bay Area WNBA team, which has used the Warriors’ existing infrastructure to launch. The Golden State Valkyries, a reference to a female warrior of Norse mythology, start play next season.

That investment is also crucial when WNBA revenue still lags far behind that of other American sports leagues. It was between $180 million and $200 million, Bloomberg reported last year - a fraction of the more than $10 billion the NBA earns. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in 2018 that the WNBA had lost an average of more than $10 million per year since its founding, which means the NBA has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the league since its inception. This year, the WNBA and its teams are still expected to lose around $50 million, according to two people with knowledge of the figures, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the league’s finances.

“The truth is, this league would be hard-pressed to exist without the NBA,” said one WNBA team executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the executive wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the league’s finances.

What remains confusing, even to some around the league, is how the ownership structure of the WNBA works. The NBA’s stake in the league includes its original investment in 1996, in addition to the owners who jointly own NBA and WNBA franchises. It also includes an additional percentage from a $75 million capital raise in 2022 by the WNBA - investors included Nike, some NBA owners and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

The amount of equity the WNBA sold, which not all league owners supported, was around 15 percent, people familiar with the figures said. That suggests the league was valued at around $500 million. (Teams were not included in the valuation. The money, Engelbert said at the time, was used for player marketing and fan engagement.)

Now, the league is in line for more cash infusions in addition to the media rights deal. Toronto is also set to get an expansion team, and another city - possibly Portland, Ore. - could soon follow, with each new team paying the league a hefty expansion fee. Engelbert has said she wants the league to have 16 teams.

Multiple people connected to the WNBA, however, cautioned that only around 40 percent of WNBA revenue actually reaches the league’s teams and players. The NBA gets around 40 percent, and the outside investors get a percentage, too. That, the people said, affects franchise valuations and the financial windfall from the new TV deal. (That’s a different setup from the NBA, where revenue is distributed equally among its 30 teams. The disbursements in both leagues come after league office expenses are covered.)

The WNBA currently has a salary cap of around $1.4 million for each team, which puts the average salary for each player at a little more than $100,000. Also hanging over the league: the expectation that the players will opt out of the collective bargaining agreement next year. In the past, the players have been frustrated by what they view as a lack of transparency about the league’s finances.

Another lingering question in WNBA circles is how league decisions are made. When Engelbert announced the league would pay for charter flights ahead of this season, plenty were pleased but didn’t understand what had changed or who ultimately signed off on the expense, which Engelbert said would cost $25 million per year for the 12 teams. Others around the league believed it was Englebert’s call.

The same questions arise around expansion, with some around the league unsure who approves expansion groups: the WNBA or the NBA. Engelbert reports to Silver, and the marketing and communications departments for the WNBA report to the NBA as well. (A WNBA spokesman referred all questions for this story to the NBA. An NBA spokesman declined to comment.)

The point, these people said, wasn’t that the relationship doesn’t work but that building an infrastructure to support the WNBA’s growth remains critical. To be sure, the WNBA has taken some of those steps, such as appointing a chief growth officer.

Ultimately, the WNBA’s growth is now plain to see. And person after person who spoke with The Post had another prediction: The WNBA is likely to have its own media rights deals whenever they are next negotiated.

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Kareem Copeland contributed to this report.

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