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Womens Basketball League Unrivaled Seeks Streaming and TV Deals

Womens Basketball League Unrivaled Seeks Streaming and TV Deals

In 2014 John Skipper, then the president of ESPN, and David Levy, then the president of Turner, signed the paperwork with the NBA to extend its TV deals with TNT and ESPN into 2025.

A decade later, and the veteran sports media executives are now teaming up to try and sell a new basketball league to TV networks and streaming services, one that they are betting will serve a fast-growing sector of the market: Women’s sports.

Skipper and Levy are among the investors in Unrivaled, a three-on-three women’s basketball league co-founded by WNBA stars Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier. Unrivaled will launch in January 2025, and Levy and Skipper will spearhead its media rights and sponsorship deals.

“We’ve known each other for years, and we’ve been competitors, but we’ve been peers and friends as well, and we’ve done a lot of business together over those times,” Levy told The Hollywood Reporter in a joint interview with Skipper.

“You know, having two guys that have ran two of the biggest media companies in the world is always advantageous to have as someone you can call,” Unrivaled president Alex Bazzell says. “They’re both incredible guys, but this isn’t a charitable cause for either of them, this is a business, and I think they see the upside and want to help, and certainly they know there’s a mission behind that.”

Unrivaled on Thursday announced a sizable slate of investors (aside from Levy and Skipper), including U.S. soccer stars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, NBA legends Carmelo Anthony and Steve Nash, LPGA champion Michelle Wie West, former Warner Bros. chief Ann Sarnoff, entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, and actor and veteran investor Ashton Kutcher, among others.

But Skipper and Levy will be focused on taking it to market, where they are confident there will be interest, particularly given the women’s sports boom that has taken hold over the past year or so, with the NCAA women’s basketball tournament drawing record-shattering ratings that seem to be trickling over to the WNBA.

“I would think that every major company that has a sports media component will want to look at this, we’ll take advantage of that to get in and present it, and David and my job is to find the best combination of rights fees and marketing support and even emotional and spiritual support,” Skipper says. “As I’ve always said, if you have one more bidder than you have packages, you have a robust market. I believe we’ll have a robust market.”

“I do believe there’s going to be a lot of interest from multiple parties,” Levy added. “Everybody’s got to kick the tires now, because you’re seeing growth in viewership and ratings, both in the NCAA as well as in the WNBA. And I’m not talking single digit growth, we’re talking double and triple digit growth on certain aspects of it, you’re also seeing attendance rise, ticket sales, sponsorship sales, because brands are shifting dollars.”

It’s a rise in interest that even caught the Unrivaled team somewhat by surprise.

“If you would have told us six months ago the space would be where it was, yeah, I would say ‘that’s maybe a little far fetched,’ but we knew it was growing,” Bazzell says. “So I think we’re pleasantly surprised that the space has really evolved off the heels of college season and now it’s kind of carried over so much of the WNBA as well.”

Unrivaled is also hoping to fill a need for advertisers, many of whom have committed to increase their spending on women’s sports. GroupM, for example, says it intends to double its ad spending on the category.

“If you talk to the media executives that are managing their their businesses … they want women’s sports on their networks, because they’re hearing brands are starting to spend there,” Levy says. “If you’re in the advertising business, you want advertising, it’s hard to sell if you don’t have any content.”

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And Unrivaled is betting that its fast-paced, one-hour games (each broadcast will be about two hours) will be attractive to both media partners and advertisers. The league is built around three-on-three competition on a compressed court, in purpose-built arenas.

And the league has one more ace up its sleeve as it begins to lock in talent. In the past, WNBA stars would travel to Europe in the offseason to earn extra income (WNBA starting salaries are about $77,000), but Unrivaled is offering the “highest average salary in professional women’s sports leagues,” but also equity for all participating players.

It’s a move that Levy believes will attract some of the “best names” in women’s basketball. “I think we’re going to be a little bit ahead of the game because of the athletes that we have,” he says.

Unrivaled says it has already secured commitments from “reigning WNBA All-Stars.”

“This is going to be a league for all players and that’s why the ownership perspective is really, really valuable for us,” Bazzell adds. “To do anything, you have to have a few first movers, but I think after that then it’s getting the collective group attached and knowing that they have an equal share and are part of helping this thing grow, and will have voices into how this thing grows as well.”

“I think there was a movie at one point called A League of Their Own,” Skipper added, referencing the classic 1992 film about a women’s baseball team. “This is literally a league of their own.”

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