It’s hard to imagine now, but the NBA in the late 1970s was a mostly ignored sport. Sure, there were a handful of superstars and storylines, but generally speaking, the NBA didn’t move the needle. So much so, most of the time, the NBA championship games were shown on tape delay — at 11:30 at night.
Then came Larry and Magic and Michael, and before you knew it, the NBA started to become what it is today, which is the third most popular sport in the nation, and one that is certainly nipping at the heels — if it hasn’t passed it already — of Major League Baseball.
I bring this up to point out the obvious: Sometimes, it takes a while — the NBA was founded in 1946, after all — for a sports league to capture the hearts and minds of America.
So with that in mind, welcome to the 25th anniversary year of the WNBA, a year where the league is getting a little more attention as usual — can you say Breanna, A’ja, and Jonquel? — and it’s showing at sportsbooks.
“It’s definitely grown,” said Robert Walker, the director of sportsbook operations for USBookmaking and a longtime fan of the league. “And as far as betting is concerned, betting will always be driven by television, and the WNBA has more games on TV this year, and there’s easier access to games on Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon.”
As a result? Betting on the WNBA is up across the nation.
Straight across the board
“As we continue to grow as a company and expand into new jurisdictions, our overall year-over-year handle has seen a huge increase across all sports. That said, the WNBA is a league to specifically call out as it continues to attract more and more action,” said Mike Korn, an analyst at PointsBet. “There are multiple factors that contribute, with one being the WNBA has an advantage in terms of the league’s timing. The fact that the majority of the season takes place in the dog days of summer, essentially only competing with the end of regular season MLB, is a unique advantage and favorable window for the sport to operate in.”
Over at Rush Street Interactive, which runs the BetRivers and SugarHouse sportsbooks, handle and action are up month-over-month and year-over-year. In fact, according to the company’s media relations contact, Matthew Chaprales, the raw percentage numbers are slightly staggering.
“Month-over-month is up through the first two months of the season: A 33% increase in June handle versus May, and nearly an 80% increase in bet count versus May,” said Chaprales.
BetMGM is seeing the same heightened interest in betting on the sport.
“Wagering is up compared to previous years,” said Darren Darby, an oddsmaker for BetMGM. “Games being broadcast on national television is driving interest. Of course it is also helped by being live in more states, but average bet size is up too.”
For some reason I'm betting WNBA 3rd quarter props 🤣🤣 pic.twitter.com/itqCclOqfN
— GoonerBets (@Goonersportsbet) June 25, 2021
And in a first for the league, the Phoenix Mercury and Bally’s announced a partnership that will include retail and digital sportsbooks in Arizona. With the deal, Bally’s now has market access in 15 states, and the Mercury is on the cutting edge of growing sports betting around women’s sports.
Now: Things are better for the WNBA when it comes to sports betting action. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
“Although the handle is up 2x over last year, the WNBA should never be confused with the NBA for handle and wagers taken,” said Johnny Avello, the director of DraftKings Sportsbook.
And a quick look at some “big bets” across the board confirm Avello’s words. For instance …
- Rush Street has a $500 wager on Breanna Stewart to win MVP at +160.
- Also at RSI: Someone put $500 on the Chicago Sky to win WNBA title at +1100.
- DraftKings has a $304.28 bet on Sabrina Ionescu to win the WNBA MVP at +600 and someone got down $1,000 on the Las Vegas Aces to win the title at +275.
Not exactly bank-breaking numbers, but that’s because the books do keep the limits on the WNBA action rather tight.
While Avello rightly pointed out the money wagered is nowhere near the NBA handle, he also did agree the league’s arrow is pointing up.
“The NBA and NHL playoffs dominate the scene right now, but after the women win their seventh straight Olympic gold medal this summer, we expect action to increase substantially,” Avello said.
Three ways to grow the league
Even more television, Gen Z, and expansion: Those are the three legs that Walker sees as the driving forces that can — and will — turn the WNBA into a much more popular sport.
On TV: “Television drives everything. You have a way to get to it. Now practically all the games are on. It might take some effort to find it, but you can find it. There’s more games on ESPN and ESPN2 than ever before. Right now the only thing is consistency, getting viewers to know where to go.
On Gen Z: “The younger generation is ready to embrace womens’ sports. Some people just won’t give it a chance. This generation will.”
For WNBA fans hoping to get into sports betting, or fans of betting hoping to get into the WNBA, that means opportunities — if you know where to look.@everettcook on betting + the WNBA: https://t.co/nuahbQ3uVE
— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) June 21, 2021
On expansion: “The next step is to expand. They have to get to 16 teams. Just expanding the geography would get more people involved. I always say it’s the best league in the world from top to bottom, because there’s only 144 roster spots. You see these first round draft picks getting cut each year. The league needs to grow.”
There are currently 12 WNBA teams across the country.
And of course, with growth will come more betting opportunities. Right now, the menu, along with the limits, are relatively limited.
“A little more time, a little more acceptance, and you’ll see that betting handle will grow,” Walker said.