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Why are the Minnesota Lynx — the WNBA's best team — so hard to find on TV?

President Barack Obama and the Minnesota Lynx
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
President Barack Obama posing during an event to honor the 2015 WNBA Champions Minnesota Lynx basketball team at the East Room of the White House last month.

Anyone who follows the Minnesota Lynx even casually knows the basic details about the team, one of the WNBA’s glamour franchises. The three championships in five years. The four U.S. Olympians on the roster. This year’s signature accomplishment: a league record 13-game winning streak to start the season.

But here’s something you may not know, and probably shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with women’s sports in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market: The WNBA’s defending champion owns one of league’s weakest local television deals. 

Eight of the league’s 12 teams will see more of their games on local TV this season than the Lynx, according to figures compiled by the WNBA. Los Angeles leads with 25 telecasts, followed by Chicago with 20 and Dallas with 18. These totals don’t include games broadcast on ESPN or NBA TV. 

The eight Lynx broadcasts scheduled on Fox Sports North (FSN) – six at home, two on the road — are fewer than all but Connecticut (seven), San Antonio (six) and, surprisingly, 2014 league champion Phoenix (six). FSN aired nine Lynx games in 2014 and ’15. ESPN, meanwhile, plans to show the Lynx six times, more than any other team. 

The lack of televised games flamed into a social media issue among Lynx fans late last month, when FSN declined to show any of the home-and-home series with the then-similarly undefeated Los Angeles Sparks. Neither game — one on a Tuesday afternoon in L.A. and another on a Friday night here — was on FSN’s original broadcast schedule.  

A Twins-Yankees telecast conflicted with the Friday game, but why not put the Lynx on FSN Plus? That’s what that channel is there for, right? 

Not this time. FSN senior vice president and general manager Mike Dimond told the Star Tribune, “…we are not in a position to absorb the additional cost of producing the game.” So FSN Plus aired drag racing.  

That didn’t sit well with some folks, including the woman who coaches the team, Cheryl Reeve. 

After my pal Howard Sinker of the Star Tribune, a Lynx season ticket holder and an adjunct professor at Macalester, stirred the pot on his StribSports Upload blog, the Lynx coach weighed in via Twitter.

Reeve told me she wasn’t calling out FSN, just asking a general question that bugs her: What’s it going to take to see more Lynx games televised? “When I’m out and about, I hear a lot of people wanting more, wanting to see us more,” Reeve said. “I think our fans deserve more, and we have to find a way to make that happen. Because that is what’s going to move the Lynx forward, the WNBA forward, and women forward. I simply would like to see our community, as we have on so many occasions, be a leader in this area.”

FSN guards its contract details like the nuclear codes, but Timberwolves and Lynx president Chris Wright confirmed the network holds exclusive rights to T-Wolves and Lynx games under one deal. In other words, even if the Lynx paid for airtime and production costs, no one else locally can show their games without FSN's permission. Wright declined to disclose the length of the contract or when it expires. 

(Every WNBA team produces a live broadcast at each home game, available via the League Pass app or live-streamed on WNBA.com for a fee, $14.95 for the season.) 


Dimond wouldn’t talk to MinnPost — that’s a story in itself — but industry sources say the Twins’ lousy season may be the biggest impediment to adding Lynx telecasts.

Sports events in summer, other than major-league baseball, rarely draw big ratings because most people are out doing summer things. A game telecast done right, in high definition with graphics, costs $25,000 to $50,000 to produce. Given the niche audience for the Lynx, it’s hard for FSN to charge enough for advertising to make money. Hard, but not impossible.

But here’s the thing: Advertisers for Twins games were promised a specific TV rating, a standard industry practice. If that rating falls short — which, given the Twins historic ineptitude, is almost certainly the case — networks usually offer clients “givebacks,” or free ads, to compensate. With FSN taking an unexpected beating on the Twins, the network can’t risk losing any more money. That’s the subtext behind Dimond’s explanation to the Strib, and bad news for the Lynx. 

But are Lynx broadcasts that much of a gamble? The Lynx-Phoenix season opener on ESPN, on a Saturday night in May, drew the highest regular-season overnight rating for a WNBA game on that network since 2011, and the 1.6 rating in Minneapolis-St. Paul topped all U.S. markets. Diana Taurai’s return to the Mercury was the big draw nationally, but certainly there’s enough interest here in the Lynx to merit a closer look.   

So why don’t the Lynx and T-Wolves tell FSN they’re going take their basketballs elsewhere? Because there’s nowhere else to go. Lack of competition in the market means FSN calls the shots, and the T-Wolves and Lynx need FSN’s cash to keep the lights on. 

And the FSN monopoly might last a while. Industry sources say FSN staggers its deals with the Timberwolves/Lynx, Twins and Wild so no two expire in the same year. That prevents the Twins and T-Wolves, for instance, from joining forces to form their own network and put FSN out of business, as the Twins attempted solo with the ill-fated Victory Sports One in 2003-04. So unless another cable giant like Comcast enters the fray, FSN will continue calling the shots.

Wright said the FSN deal could be renegotiated to include more games if the team and FSN find more corporate sponsors to cover costs. FSN bumped up its Timberwolves coverage to 75 games from 50 in 2013-14, though it’s not clear if that was an amended deal or a new one. "We're at a stage of massive growth for our incredible league," Wright said. "We have incredible fan support. But in the end, you need major corporations to support you as well. They've got to buy into television advertising. We have some great sponsors — Verizon, U.S. Bank, Target — but we need more of them to take this league where all of us want it to go."

None of this satisfies Reeve, who is understandably tired of waiting her turn. She coaches the most successful franchise in the Twin Cities since the 1950s Minneapolis Lakers. The Lynx drew 13,003 for that Sparks showdown on June 24, bring in 7,000 solid every game night, and will likely finish among the top two in the WNBA in attendance for the fifth consecutive year.

The Lynx win more than anyone else around here. Their fans love them. When men and boys show up to games in Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus jerseys, something’s going on. Would it kill FSN to pick up a few more road telecasts from Fox affiliates in Phoenix, Dallas and Atlanta, which saves on production costs, or let Fox 29 produce one or two locally? 

“I want to continue the conversations,” Reeve said. “I want solutions. I want problem-solving. I want decision-makers to find the importance of taking that very, very big step, changing minds, opening minds. I think there is a missed opportunity when it comes to the Lynx.”

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Comments (7)

Renovation

If this is a really important issue, my thought is that public money for the Target Center renovation should be withheld until a more satisfactory resolution of the TV rights issue for the Lynx is reached.

There is always a way. The question is, do we want to take it?

My 2¢

In a society largely built on corporate greed, the answer(s) to the rhetorical question of the headline should be obvious: look at the team photo.

The Lynx are a women's team. Women draw smaller audiences than do men, even when they're playing the same sport by the same rules. Yeah, there are some performance differences, but those are largely a smoke screen. Basketball, for example, is not more graceful or better-played because there are some 7' giants in the NBA who regularly dunk the ball in a basket 10' off the floor. I don't know the statistics (someone does, and perhaps will share them here), but my guess is that a substantial majority of television sports fans are male. Networks know this. They also know that most male sports fans will not watch a female team. That's why the advertising for most sports events is heavily skewed – often almost exclusively directed – toward a male audience. Smaller audiences mean smaller revenues, and whether it's FSN or ESPN or NBC, none of the networks broadcast sporting events is a charitable enterprise. They broadcast games to make money, and there's not nearly as much money in broadcasting a Lynx game, even if they're the winning-est team in town, as there is in broadcasting a game played by the woeful Twins.

There's also the matter of comparing apples and oranges. Baseball venues, whether Target Field or CHS Stadium, typically have much larger fields, and thus larger physical facilities for seating people, than do basketball teams. The issue might be more interesting if there were a professional women's baseball league (it's been tried without success) to compete for public attention and dollars with the Twins. If they played at Target Field on the dates when the Twins were out of town, and vice-versa, we'd be looking at apples vs. apples, and the comparison might be constructive.

As it is, we have the Lynx, who seem to win more than they lose, and the Timberwolves, for whom that statement doesn't seem to apply. My rhetorical answer to Mr. Borzi's rhetorical question is: Because it's a women's sports team. Does that imply sexism and gender stereotypes on the part of both network executives and the viewing audience? Yes. Yes, it does.

League Pass

Having been a Lynx fan for the last seven years and a subscriber to League Pass for almost as long, I was even more disgusted when trying to watch that Sparks-Lynx game in L.A. only to discover it was blacked out in this area despite the fact it wasn't a local game. Responding to my rather angry email, the powers that be said they had the right to not air the game if covered buy a major broadcaster. Huh? The game was carried by NBA TV. After the game, League Pass did stream but that was after the game was completed.

An 'about time' writing, Pat

Thank you.

Fox and male dominance.

Fox has been in the news for its condescending attitude toward women? Is Fox Sports any different? Maybe not. And let's look at the local reality. The Lynx are the best pro sports team in town - consistently doing better than the Vikings, Twins, Wild and T'wolves. They were created to fill the Target Center in the summer, a time when people's first thought is not on basketball.

Add to that male sports journalists (many who have been dismissive of women's sports) and the male ownership and management of local sports team, who don't want to admit that sometimes do it better, motivated by the love of the game rather than fame and big bucks. Why would any of the sports establishment want to allow women's sports to flourish? Very similar to college sports before Title IX. Women's basketball and soccer have special interest to young adults,who grew up in families where boys and girls played at high levels of competition. And the one woman's sport, tennis, that has been competitive, the most mix of female athletes and their style of play have changed.

Of course, executives doing basic things like TV scheduled lack a sense of the direction of society. Just as fewer young men are playing football and baseball, participation in competitive women's basketball has and continues to increase / and considering TV contracts and salaries for men's sports, pro women's basketball is affordable.

Deals

It's an interesting question why, when in engaged in negotiations with sports teams over various issues, that things that are important to fans aren't brought to the table. Asking for the televising of Lynx games would have been a pretty small thing when negotiating the renovation of Target Center, but nobody, for whatever reason thought to make it an issue. When we built the Metrodome, part of the deal was that all home Vikings games be televised. That was a pretty small thing to ask on behalf of the taxpayers who were paying for the building. But no one thought to ask it when the new Vikings stadium was built.

Stadium building is entering a lull in Minnesota. The only immediate project left on the agenda is the soccer stadium, and maybe a lacrosse stadium after that. I expect it will be ten or even 15 years before the Twins start agitating for a new stadium, and a few years after that for the Vikings. But when they do, I think we need to put more thought to whom the government brings to the table for such discussions or any discussions about what these highly lucrative sports teams want and whose interests they really represent.

One quibble...

...with Ray's comment: More men watch WNBA games than you think. I see plenty of men at Lynx games at the Target Center, and ESPN notes the largest demographic among its TV audience is African-American men. That's a significant demographic in L.A., Chicago and Atlanta, where many more games are televised than here. Also worth noting: In Atlanta, the local Fox affiliate carries Braves baseball yet televises almost twice as many WNBA games as FSN (15 to 8).