The WNBA is more popular than ever. During any game, Twitter is overtaken by complaints about the league's steaming platform.
WNBA League Pass has myriad problems that frustrate even the most ardent fans.
Highlights reels often favor white players, while the announcer regularly mispronounces players' names.
The WNBA is in its 25th season and more people are watching than ever.
But fans say that WNBA League Pass - the WNBA's streaming platform and app - is not doing the sport any favors.
Local games are blacked out so that, without a cable subscription, such that fans in New England, for example, can't watch the Connecticut Sun. Users have to repeatedly sign in to use the platform, sometimes multiple times per game, and can't be logged in on more than one device at a time. So, if someone logs in on their phone to check a score, it will log them out on their AppleTV app.
The volume of the highlight packages played during commercial breaks is so poorly balanced that it's 10 times louder than the broadcast itself. And the highlights don't automatically update, so - for first month of the season - fans were stuck watching the same few highlights. Those clips heavily featured New York Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu, a white player, reinforcing the league and the media's tendency to over-promote white players at the expense of the Black players, who make up the majority of the WNBA.
During any game, Twitter is overtaken by complaints about the platform.
"Hey @WNBA your league pass audio levels are a hot mess," a Minnesota Lynx fan account tweeted on July 3. "Every commercial break is twice as loud as the game. This has been an issue since the season started over a month ago."
"Between the Sabrina highlights and the jersey reveal, WNBA League Pass I am tired," another user said. "I can recite it at this point."
"I shouldn't need a subscription to Amazon Prime, CBS Sports, Bally Sports, and whoever else to watch all the games 'in my region,'" a fan from Houston told Insider.
-Desiree Vega (@DrDVega) July 1, 2021
For anyone who cares about the WNBA, which has long fought against sexism to be seen as more than playing second fiddle to the men in the NBA, the problems that plague League Pass speak to a larger issue. The league is exciting, the players are fun, and the quality of play is superb; there are a lot of reasons to love this league, but you wouldn't always know it based on the way it is promoted and supported.
This season, which runs from May to September, over 100 games will be nationally televised-the most in league history. For the first five games aired on ESPN this year, viewership was up 74% over 2020 and up 45% from 2019, while, on ABC, numbers are up 28% from last year.
The remaining games, which are not airing on a national platform, are available on League Pass, which costs $16.99 for the season.
Just before the start of the season, League Pass relaunched a huge redesign: fans could watch up to four games at once, statistics appeared on the screen, and there was a library of games going back to 2015.
But the overhaul failed to address several key user experience issues, including volume balance.
There's also evidence of sloppiness: The version of the app that runs on AppleTV app displays a lot of the old Cyclone font branding and even the old Seattle Storm logo - both of which have been retired by the league. "Things like that, which are as simple as an artwork asset swap before an update, feel like sloppy oversights," said Eric Schwarz, an Indiana Fever fan from Indianapolis.
When Schwarz complained to customer support about the volume issue, the response was less than satisfying: "We ask to please bring the volume to low when the game is about to go on break."
For a sport that is desperately trying to grow the game and garner the respect it deserves, the quality of League Pass is a glaring oversight.
"The fact that nothing gets fixed, how do you expect to keep your new fans if every time they watch League Pass they are locked out, their screen goes black, they get signed out, or they have an issue where they can't watch the games?" WNBA writer Drew Ivery said on a recent episode of the Leading With The W podcast. "If I were a new consumer, it would be hard to keep me."
On its website, Turner Sports - which owns NBA Media Ventures and League Pass, and is a division of WarnerMedia and AT&T - says it is "giving fans the best content and experiences on the best platforms in sports."
"WNBA League Pass is an integral part of the WNBA's multimedia landscape," Phil Cook, WNBA Chief Marketing Officer, told Insider. "As it relates to our digital footprint, we have a longer-term road map to transform our digital offerings and to continuously improve the fan experience."
The league declined to answer specific questions about who is responsible for managing League Pass and addressing user issues, or how large the team who works on the platform is. A source within the league acknowledged that the league is aware that "the commercial break highlight experience could be improved" and also said the WNBA is working "with the appropriate resources" to create more highlights and to fix audio issues.
The viewing experience is so bad that some fans said they've stopped watching games that air on League Pass - or they'll wait until the games are available on-demand.
"I have a disorder that comes with a sensitivity to sound, so if I have a game on and I don't get to the remote in time, I get overstimulated and overwhelmed pretty much immediately when those loud commercials come on," said Christine Salek, a freelance sports writer. "This season especially, if I see a game is on League Pass, it's gotten to the point that I'll just not watch. It ruins the experience for me to have to be on alert at all times just to watch a game unscathed."
And it's not just that the highlight packages are too loud; they're also incredibly repetitive.
For the first month after the season kicked off on May 14, fans were subjected to the same few clips over and over again, all from the first two weeks of the season. Fans that wanted to relive the six buzzer beaters in the first month of the season were left watching multiple clips that focused on a single player, Ionescu.
This might have simply been frustrating, but Black players are routinely promoted and written about at a lower rate than their white teammates. According to an analysis published in May in the Sports Business Journal, Black WNBA players won 80% of postseason awards, including Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year, and make up 80% of the league. Yet the three players most mentioned in media coverage are all white.
After the first month, League Pass did switch up the highlight packages, featuring a much larger and more diverse range of players, but the same package plays back-to-back.
The announcer who reads League Pass' "Top 5" countdowns regularly mispronounces the players names-one recent clip bungled the names of both the Dallas Wings' Satou Sabally and the New York Liberty's Betnijah Laney. It's bad enough when the mispronunciations come from broadcasters; it's even worse when it's happening on the league's own streaming platform.
Despite the major user experience issues on the streaming platform, there are a lot of things fans like about the service. The flat rate of $16.99 is a huge selling point, making it accessible to more fans.
Fans and media members are doing what they can to make sure League Pass is available to the ever-growing fanbase. Subscriptions to The Next, an independent newsroom dedicated exclusively to women's basketball, comes with a League Pass subscription.
Terrika Foster-Brasby, the espnW Around the Rim podcast host, teamed up with Alexis Robinson, the owner of One Brand Agency, on a "pay it forward" campaign to give away League Pass subscriptions to fans who couldn't afford it. As Foster-Brasby told ESPN in May, "people find it hard to find or access the games" and "would watch more WNBA if they knew where the games were airing." In the end, they gave away over 350 subscriptions.
Some fans mentioned they'd be willing to pay more for a better quality app, or other features like a way to stream games on AT&T U-Verse, like they can for NBA games, or on other apps or consoles like X-Box, Roku, or Firestick-which NBA League Pass is also compatible with, and would make it easier for fans to watch the games on a TV rather than a computer or tablet.
"The WNBA could definitely attract more eyes if they made it easier on us," Travis Ostrander, an Indiana Fever fan living in North Carolina. "Furthermore, I'd be able to entice friends to watch if I just had it on the TV during game nights or cookouts."
At this point in the league's existence, fans are ready for more.
As Schwarz, the Indiana Fever fan, puts it: "I'm getting a little sick of the 'well, it's great they're being broadcast' attitude that some fans have. With the player name misspellings, mispronunciations, using the wrong photos, it just makes it seem like no one running the whole thing actually watches the games."
"And, it sucks being a fan who cares and I would hope the people getting paid also care."
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