The Time Has Come for WNBA Fantasy

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Austin Kent thought he had missed his chance.

A basketball writer for most of his career, he’s become more of a coder since 2012, when he took over fantasy basketball site Sports.ws. He first looked into adding WNBA functionality in 2015 as a possible way to keep his roughly 10,000 players active through the summer and attract new users. But game data proved too expensive, and his still growing programming knowledge too limited to make it happen.

This winter, seeing the growing online buzz around women’s basketball, Kent decided to take another shot. Bleacher Report, Slam, The Athletic, and other publications have invested in WNBA coverage, while the league signed a new broadcast deal with CBS Sports, doubling its national TV exposure. But a mainstream fantasy option remains unavailable.

“Sadly, four years later it still hadn’t been done,” Kent said. “I’m happy to be able to be the first person to do it, but as a fan I’m sort of amazed the other ones didn’t jump on it.”

A spokesperson for Yahoo! Sports, which runs the NBA’s official fantasy game, did not respond to a request for comment. As for the WNBA’s top broadcast partner, an ESPN spokesperson said the company doesn’t base product decisions on gender. They also cited ESPN’s NCAA Women’s Tournament Challenge and the inclusion of WNBA options in the website’s long running Streak game. Work has been done on the underlying fantasy platform to allow for easier development of smaller sport offerings—such as esports, UFC and the WNBA—going forward, the spokesperson added. For now though, when it comes to traditional season-long fantasy options, the two sites combine to offer 10 products, all geared around men’s leagues.

Kent has spent three months building the WNBA contest and is still bug-hunting before the season tips off on Friday. He’s also still searching for the right data provider. No matter which service he chooses, it seems the data for a few hundred WNBA fantasy teams will likely cost more than the NBA stats license he has. Add to those challenges another: competition.

Less than four months old, Alt Fantasy Sports has already outlived its original purpose for being. Professional software developer Brian Wentzloff launched the site to offer Alliance of American Football fantasy games, drawing 20,000 participants before the league folded in April.

Helping companies handle online regulations by day, Wentzloff enjoyed the foray into sports, and started looking for other niche leagues to support. “All the people that were AAF fans,” he said, “they just seem to be of that mentality that they are looking for more sports to consume, so these other leagues are a pretty easy sell.” The WNBA provided an obvious opportunity, though once again sorting out the data component proved far more difficult than with the AAF, which publicly provided its stats feed. “That was one of the few things they did right,” Wentzloff said.

Daily fantasy sites have also picked up the ball. After launching WNBA games midway through the 2017 season, DraftKings saw an 86% uptick in free and paid entries during the 2018 season. FanDuel, meanwhile, was truly the first site to offer fantasy WNBA, launching as an official partner at the start of the ‘17 season. It drew one million entries in its first six weeks and a company official confirmed that total entries were up in ’18 over ’17, despite the increased competition from DraftKings.

Considering previous FanDuel research found that entrants consumed 40% more sports content after playing on the site, those increased participation numbers likely contributed to increased overall interest in the WNBA last year.

Still, the league has a ways to go. On ESPN last spring, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said, “We’ve got to figure out how we can do a better job connecting to young people and how they could become interested in women’s basketball.” WNBA commissioner-to-be Cathy Engelbert, meanwhile, has said, “I see tremendous opportunity to bolster visibility for the sport of women’s basketball, empower the players and enhance fan engagement.” In the game for the first time, Kent and Wentzloff are doing their part.

SCREENSHOTS

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