WNBA Tip-Off 2024: Scripps Sports Constructs New Studio for Second Season of WNBA Friday Night Spotlight on ION

Rush Media, a production partner of the WNBA, will handle live game coverage

The WNBA season rolls along with the State Farm WNBA Friday Night Spotlight on ION, which begins tonight with Washington Mystics vs. Connecticut Sun at 7:30 p.m. ET and Seattle Storm vs. Minnesota Lynx at 9:30 p.m. ET. Scripps Sports, who will be producing a total of 43 regular-season games in their second year of coverage, is supplementing their live studio programming with a brand-new space within their facility in Atlanta.

“We decided to put all of our financial and operational resources into our new studio and doing that well,” says Brian Lawlor, president, Scripps Sports. “With new talent and five hours on Friday night, we’re really excited to get it launched.”

A Home for Programming: New Studio Ties Friday Night Broadcasts Together

From 7 p.m. to 12 a.m. ET, sports fans will be locked into all things WNBA on ION. For those first 30 minutes, the new studio space will highlight the night’s doubleheader matchups and other topics that are circulating around the league. On the tangible front, this studio space is geared purely for sports programming, including the integration of multiple monitor walls and ample touchpoints for real-time telestration. These elements will not only allow for in-depth previews, but also become a destination for fans to enjoy content at halftime and in between both games. When it comes to understanding pacing and timing, the biggest challenge will be readying the crew for long nights or diversions from the schedule if either game goes into overtime.

“It’s the beauty of sports because everything looks great on paper when we start the night, but anything can change,” says Nicole Denne, executive producer, Scripps Sports. “That’s what makes [this industry] so fun because you’re figuring out how to keep these fans invested into each game if the first one runs over.”

As for the live games, the WNBA has contracted the services of Rush Media to produce these broadcasts on ION. Lawlor and his team, which also includes VP, Broadcast Operations, Quinn Pacini; Director, Sports Content Management, Alystia; VP, Revenue and Sponsorships, Tony Lamerato; and Senior Director, Revenue, Jim Spadafore, conduct pre-production meetings with the live-services provider to iron out what they’d like to see every week. The two entities will continue a similar workflow that was seen last season. These broadcasts will also include a new graphics package that was developed during the offseason.

President Brian Lawlor and Executive Producer Nicole Denne are leading Scripps Sports’ coverage of the WNBA.

Players’ Off-the-Court Stories: Space Allows for Original Storytelling, Expert Analysis

The biggest positive of building a new studio is the possibility of showcasing the original storytelling that has been put together. Many followers of the league understand the utter dominance and engaging personalities of stars like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink, and others, but this space could be reserved for telling more human-interest stories about the other 141 athletes. Scripps Sports’ storytelling muscles have already been flexed during their first two months of National Women’s Soccer League coverage. Some examples from the NWSL include the special bond between Racing Louisville defender Carson Pickett and a young fan, North Carolina Courage midfielder Victoria Pickett and her connection with her late brother, and a ton more.

“These are the types of beautiful stories that we’re trying to tell,” says Lawlor. “Scripps is a 145-year-old media company, so we want to show our ability to bring the same passion and craft that we’ve had with newspaper, radio, and television to professional women’s sports.

The production strategy should feed increased viewership on both ends: coming for live games will allow fans to learn more about these players’ off-the-court lives and learning these compelling stories will persuade casual fans to stay for the live game.

“When you see a story about a player and then watch them play the sport, you’re more invested and want to cheer them on,” adds Denne. “We’re interested in introducing the viewers to all of the players and not just the headliners.”

Aside from creative storytelling, the studio will become a hub for breakdowns and intriguing insights. For top-tier commentary, the network has brought in high-quality voices to complement their coverage. The trio in the studio, which includes host Larry Smith and analysts Autumn Johnson and Meghan McKeown, brings their own broadcast experience and pedigree. Smith is a longtime veteran of the industry with a resume that includes 12 Final Fours, seven NBA Finals, six Super Bowls, and four Olympics as well as hosting duties for NBATV’s Gametime, and the MLB postseason with Turner Sports. Johnson has contributed to women’s college basketball on ESPN and Big Ten Network throughout her career. McKeown is seasoned to the television spotlight as the current analyst for the Connecticut Sun, a former analyst for the Indiana Fever, a former color commentator for the Chicago Sky, and has been seen on NBC Sports/Peacock, Big Ten Network ESPN, and FOX Sports. For this brand-new studio show, Scripps Sports’ creative liberty will allow this programming to embody the spirit of their talent and mix it with their analysis.

“We’re looking at an audience that includes die hard basketball fans and a new group of fans that are coming in, so it’s really about the ability to talk to both,” adds Denne. “You can already feel the energy and the excitement of our crew, but it’s ultimately about not only showcasing the X’s and O’s of the game, but the personalities of our team and the personality of the sport.”

Building the Portfolio: WNBA, NWSL Highlight Scripps Sports’ Growing Sports Partnerships

Heading into their sophomore season, there were lessons learned after their first year in the WNBA in 2023. Most of their priorities moving forward is to spotlight the game, but also make these games a lot more availability to sports fans around the nation.

“We knew that the interest was growing in the WNBA and the challenge that fans were facing was that it was really hard to find WNBA games on television,” continues Lawlor. “The biggest goal for us is that if we can make it easy for fans to find the games and allow them to find them with more consistency, we could develop a level of loyalty.”

Add the work done to bolster their WNBA coverage to the inclusion of the NWSL, and Scripps Sports is staring to compile an impressive sports portfolio at a national and local level. To continue this upward trajectory, the team that’s surrounding Lawlor at the company is lifting the network’s profile even higher. For example, Moore has become a key force that has sustained the network’s relationship with the WNBA as it heads into this Friday night and throughout the year.

Larry Smith, Autumn Johnson, and Meghan McKeown will be in the studio for all WNBA games. (Photo: Zach Wolfe/Scripps Sports)

“Prior to tipping off last year’s WNBA season, Scripps Sports only had two people, but today, our we’re now up to 14 people with the support of a 5,000-employee company behind us,” says Lawlor. “With the infusion of new talent, we’ll be taking a different look at the game with fresh eyes. We take a lot of pride in that.”

Slowly but surely, the network is building a legacy for themselves. For the WNBA viewing audience, the elements seen in Week 1 will change by Week 10, and down the road, even further progress will be made.

“I think the most encouraging thing is that this year will be our foundation,” says Denne. “What we do this season will evolve and improve, but when you imagine what it might look like 10 years from now, it’s super exciting to think about.”

WNBA Friday Night Spotlight on ION continues with four more games in May, including Indiana Fever vs. Los Angeles Sparks at 10 p.m. ET on May 24 and a tripleheader of Las Vegas Aces vs. Atlanta Dream, Dallas Wings vs. Connecticut Sun, and Washington Mystics vs. New York Liberty at 7:30 p.m. ET and Phoenix Mercury vs. Minnesota Lynx at 9:30 p.m. ET on May 31. The Chicago Sky will make their debut on the network against Seattle on July 5 at 10 p.m. ET.

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