Ionic Bond: Analyzing WNBA’s new television pact with Ion Television

With a month to go until the tip-off of the 2023 WNBA season – the longest WNBA season in history that will see each of our 12 teams take to the court for 40 regular season games – the league itself made a bit of news. 

Our timelines are about to be flooded with a flurry of W news over the ensuing few weeks with training camps beginning on April 30. The news that came directly from the league was that it inked a deal with yet another television partner. 

That television partner is a channel called Ion Television that mostly airs reruns of recent shows that aired on one of the big 4 networks. 

Ion is owned and operated by E.W. Scripps, but once upon a time, Ion Television was once PAX TV (Paxson Communications). That was a channel that used to be known for re-airs of old game shows such as Shop ‘Til You Drop and Supermarket Sweep as well as programs tailored to Christian audiences. 

A sizable number of Ion’s broadcast affiliates have “PX” in their call letters – these include WPXN-TV in New York City, WCPX-TV in Chicago and WPXA-TV in Atlanta. After doing a bit of digging, we found out Ion Television has an affiliate on a main channel in all 12 WNBA markets. 

The “PX” in the calls of many of the Ion Television affiliates is, of course, is an ode to when these stations were affiliates of the old PAX TV. Scripps closed the deal for Ion Television in the early portions of 2021. 

E.W. Scripps’ CEO and President is Adam Symson – a graduate of UCLA and who previously worked at stations in Los Angeles and Chicago. He and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert were the two main executives pictured when the WNBA sent out the release of the deal to press.

The deal will run for the next few years through the 2025 season – when the WNBA’s current television deal with ABC/ESPN is also set to expire. It is the first foray for Scripps into sports and one can surmise that a successful pact with the W could set Scripps up to expand its sports portfolio even more. 

With the deal, that means Ion becomes part of the WNBA’s laundry list of media rights partners. These include ESPN/ESPN2/ABC, CBS/CBS Sports Network/Paramount+, NBA TV, Amazon Prime, Twitter and Facebook Watch in addition to TSN and SportsNet in Canada.

One element of the deal that is sure to have fans jazzed is the idea of a broadcast network giving an entire Friday night window to the WNBA. In addition, according to the league, there will be a pregame show with the league continuing to handle production of games. 

The plan is for a grand total of 44 games to be shown on Ion Television with the name of the package being called “WNBA Friday Night Spotlight on Ion.” 

Ion’s coverage of the WNBA is slated to begin on May 26. Two games are set to air that evening. The first is set to feature the Washington Mystics at the Chicago Sky and the Dallas Wings at the Seattle Storm. Both of those are also Commissioner’s Cup games. Every regular season game listed on a Friday (outside of May 19 when the season tips off) is listed as an Ion broadcast per the WNBA’s website. 

Interestingly enough, a lot of the reaction to the news appeared to be mixed. Many fans and media within the WNBA family appeared to give their thumbs up to the deal while a few players seemed to shrug at the news. A reason for this could be that Ion Television airs programs that may not appeal to the demographic of the average WNBA player. 

That is the strategy that Engelbert and the league are going after with this deal. By putting the W on a non-sports network that caters to a demographic outside of what one would assume is the league’s core (or P1 in radio speak) audience, it is hoping to draw new fans to the W. 

Those players that are giving their thumbs down to the deal were probably hoping that the WNBA would have done something with a channel such as BET. More WNBA players are likely more familiar with BET than with Ion Television given that roughly 75-80% of players are Black women. Also BET is part of the CBS/Viacom/Paramount family of channels. 

But one must also keep in mind that the WNBA in its earlier days had television partnerships with Oxygen and Lifetime, meaning a hypothetical arrangement with BET may not be all that farfetched.

How the presentation will look on Ion Television is still yet to be seen but if it is one thing WNBA fans will no longer tolerate is a network pledging to put real resources into coverage only to give fans a low-budget presentation. Presentability is very important to WNBA fans and hopefully that will be reflected in how games are aired on Ion Television. 

There is no doubt that this is a power play by Engelbert to broaden the league’s reach as it wrestles with other hot-button topics such as expansion and chartered flights. As we are nearing the start of the WNBA’s new 3-year relationship with Ion Television, the W, Scripps and fans are all hoping that the agreement for everyone results in a net positive. 

Ion Television affiliates in WNBA markets:

WPXN-TV 31 – New York

WHPX-TV 26 – Hartford (Connecticut)

WPXW-TV 66 – Washington, D.C.

WPXA-TV 67 – Atlanta

KPXD-TV 68 – Dallas-Fort Worth

KPPX-TV 51 – Phoenix

WCLJ-TV 42 – Indianapolis

WCPX-TV 38 – Chicago

KPXM-TV 41 – Minneapolis-St. Paul

KMCC-TV 34 – Las Vegas

KPXN-TV 30 – Los Angeles

KWPX-TV 33 – Seattle