It was bound to be difficult to match the television ratings for the 2009 WNBA Finals after a thrilling five game series last year between the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever that was widely considered as the best ever.
Nevertheless, the league still saw growth in television ratings in Games 2 and 3 of the Seattle Storm's three game sweep of the Atlanta Dream despite a small decline overall.
Games 2 and 3 were on ESPN2 and averaged 422,000 households, up 15 percent from Games 2 and 3 on ESPN2 last year (Indiana vs. Phoenix) and up 79 percent from those two contests on ESPN2 in 2008 (Detroit vs. San Antonio), according to the WNBA.
Last night's Game 3 garnered a 3.8 overnight rating in the Seattle market, the highest local WNBA rating on ESPN or ESPN2 for any market since a 4.0 in Hartford on September 15, 2005. It was also a marked increase over last season according to Sports Media Watch.
Sports Media Watch: WNBA Finals Down on ESPN2
Thursday's Game 3 drew a 0.38 and 545,000 viewers, up 31% and 40%, respectively, from Mercury/Fever Game 3 last year (0.29, 389,000) and the most-viewed Game 3 of the WNBA Finals since 2007 (Shock/Mercury: 646,000). Last year's Game 3 aired on a Sunday afternoon.
However, Game 1 struggled to compete with Week 1 of the NFL - including Pete Carroll's regular season home debut locally. It drew the lowest rating ever for a WNBA Finals on broadcast television, supplanting the previous low set by the 2005 WNBA Finals.
Sports Media Watch: WNBA Finals Gets Off To Poor Start on ABC; ESPN2 Ratings Even
Sunday's Dream/Storm Game 1 drew a 0.33 final rating and 450,000 viewers on ABC, down 11% in ratings and 19% in viewership compared to Fever/Mercury Game 1 on ESPN2 last year (0.37, 555,000) but up 27% and 29%, respectively, from Shock/Silver Stars Game 1 on ESPN2 in 2008 (0.26, 348,000).
The Game 1 problem should not necessarily be seen as a persistent problem in the future: the league started early this year due to the upcoming FIBA Basketball World Championship for Women. With the league moving back to a later starting date next year - June 4, 2011 - this challenge might be avoided in the future.
As an interesting footnote, none of these WNBA Finals games was the best of the year -- that distinction belongs to Game Two of the Western Conference Finals in which Sue Bird capped off a late game comeback with a game-winning three point shot. Yet the WNBA has focused on the male demographic in the last few years and reports that all the key male demographic groups showed impressive double-digit growth, led by M18-34 (+90 percent).
After last season's increase in ratings, Sports Media Watch asked, "how much progress has really been made?" and concluded that the league is on the right track. This season's Finals ratings arguably support that -- while we cannot disregard the Game 1 numbers entirely, the WNBA should be under no pretense that they can compete with the NFL at this stage in its development or the near future.
However, the fact that Games 2 & 3 in a three game sweep by a team that was presumed to be a heavy favorite saw an increase over what was deemed the greatest series in league history last year is an encouraging sign for the league.