How the WNBA Finals ended up on ESPN

How a nation ended up seeing a WNBA Finals game.

UPDATED with comments from ESPN: 12 a.m. ET, Saturday, Sept. 8

ESPN has certainly endured a week of criticism for some scheduling decisions regarding the WNBA playoffs.

Some of it was fair, like Sunday’s snafu, but some of it was beyond their control, like Seattle’s arena issue that forced the game to get bumped from ESPN2 to ESPNNews.

But a golden opportunity dropped into their lap on Friday night and ESPN made the mutually-beneficial decision to simulcast the second half of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on the main ESPN channel.

“We were pleased to be able to serve the sports fans tonight across a wide variety of sports,” ESPN’s Vice President of Women’s Sports Programming and Acquisitions Carol Stiff said in an email. “US Open tennis, college football, and, of course, the WNBA Finals Game 1, especially after having to move the game from last night to tonight due to building availability issues.”

Game 1 was originally scheduled for Thursday night on ESPN2, but KeyArena in Seattle had a previous commitment, forcing the game to be moved to Friday. ESPN already had the U.S. Open men’s semifinal matches on ESPN, as they had on Thursday night with the women’s semifinal matches.

But Friday night saw ESPN2 already have a college football game scheduled between Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University, scheduled to kick off at 8 p.m. ET. Given the contractual commitments are much stronger for college football than for the WNBA, ESPN was forced to bump Game 1 over to ESPNNews, which is on considerably fewer cable packages than ESPN2.

The U.S. Open men’s semifinal matches started at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN and were expected to go until 11 p.m. ET. But the first semifinal ended after just two sets, when Rafael Nadal retired to Juan Martin Del Potro. Then the second semifinal ended in straight sets, as Novak Djokovic defeated Kei Nishikori.

The Djokovic-Nishikori matched ended shortly after 9:30 p.m. ET, with direct match coverage ending about 10 minutes later. In television, having 80 minutes of air time suddenly open up and not have the previously-scheduled programming to carry it can be a nightmare for programmers.

But Stiff said that ESPN had a preparation team look at the possibilities for Friday night’s slate of events a few days prior, which she said is “not unusual.” That team runs through a litany of potential situations and sees how the company would respond in them, including if the contracts allowed for them to move games to ESPN.

So, with 80 minutes of airtime until the 11 p.m. ET scheduled SportsCenter on ESPN, the Storm-Mystics game was winding down the final few minutes of the first half. Having the post-match show only go 20 minutes is infinitely better for a television station than going 80 minutes, and the top of the 10 p.m. ET hour would line up nearly perfectly with the beginning of the second half in Seattle, where ESPN could make the switch.

Making that decision was something ESPN was prepared for, and ended up being a bonus for all parties involved. It filled an hour of unexpectedly available air time for ESPN and got the WNBA onto a larger platform than what the league gave itself on Friday. That was what Stiff took away from the way the evening.

“Above all, it was about servicing the sports fan,” Stiff said. “US Open tennis ended so quickly that we knew we could bring the WNBA game over to ESPN with WNBA Finals action.”

From lose-lose Sunday to win-win Friday. Kudos, ESPN.