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.
— Cheryl Reeve (@LynxCoachReeve) June 22, 2016
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.”