Brittney Griner was met with a warm welcome from fans and fellow players in Los Angeles when she returned to the court on Friday. What she couldn’t see, was the historic audience that tuned into the game at home.
The broadcast peaked at 1 million viewers and had 683,000 average viewers, despite the 11:20 p.m. ET start.
The game’s average viewership saw a 103% increase compared to last year’s WNBA opening night broadcast on ESPN platforms. It’s the most-viewed WNBA Opening Day on ESPN in 11 years.
The Sparks beat the Mercury 94-71 in the season opener. Griner led Phoenix with 18 points, six rebounds and two assists. She shot 7-of-9 from the field in 25 minutes after spending 600 days away from the league.
“At the end of the day, I’m at work. I have a job to do,” Griner said after the loss. “I can’t get caught up in the moment. Kind of feel it, but put it to the side for a little bit and feel it later.”
Friday definitely wasn’t a normal day on the job for Griner, who received a standing ovation at the road game. Celebrities and notable figures, including Vice President Kamala Harris, were also in attendance.
Griner was arrested in February, 2022 in a Moscow airport after officials there allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She spent the next 10 months in Russia, and was classified as “wrongfully detained” by the United States government. Finally, Griner returned home in December in a prisoner exchange.
Hers wasn’t the only notable return on Friday. Sparks’ Dearica Hamby also took the court, less than three months after giving birth and fresh off of a difficult trade from her longtime Las Vegas Aces. Hamby played 15 minutes in the win, recording 9 points and 3 rebounds. The league suspended Aces head coach Becky Hammon for two games without pay for pregnancy discrimination against Hamby, which Hammon denies.
The audience for women’s basketball keeps growing. Last year, viewership of the full WNBA season on ESPN was up 22% from 2021. April’s WNBA Draft on ESPN garnered 520,000 viewers, the most-watched WNBA Draft since 2004. There’s been a boom at the college level, as the LSU-Iowa NCAA Championship game on ABC scored 9.9 million viewers in the most-watched women’s college basketball game ever.