Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark, #22, drives to the basket against Atlanta Dream guard Destanni Henderson, #33, during a WNBA preseason game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana, on May 9, 2024.

Brian Spurlock | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

The Women’s National Basketball Association regular season opens Tuesday night with breakout star Caitlin Clark making her debut as point guard for the Indiana Fever. The game will be streamed on Disney+, the service’s first live sports event.

As the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer for both men’s and women’s basketball, Clark helped draw a record 18.9 million viewers to the Women’s March Madness National Championship game last month. The former Iowa star was drafted as the No. 1 pick on April 15, which alone led 2.45 million viewers to tune in, surpassing the league’s previous high for a draft by 307%.

Following Clark’s debut at 7:30 p.m. ET against the Connecticut Sun, Disney+ will stream the Phoenix Mercury vs. Las Vegas Aces matchup. Disney+ has previously streamed animated simulcasts of sporting events using cartoon characters in place of the athletes, but Tuesday’s doubleheader is the first instance of a live sports game streamed on the platform.

Disney nearly turned a profit in its streaming unit for the first time during its fiscal second quarter, the company reported last week. The entertainment giant has been increasingly leaning on sports streaming to drive viewership.

Disney’s ESPN is planning to launch a full direct-to-consumer streaming product in fall 2025 that will allow consumers to subscribe to ESPN without cable.

It is also partnering with Warner Bros. Discovery and Fox Corp. to offer a sports streaming service that they expect to launch this fall, the companies announced in February.

Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery’s exclusive TV rights for NBA games is currently under negotiation.

The WNBA’s existing media rights deal expires in 2025. The deal is reported to be worth roughly $60 million, and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she expects that to double when the rights are renegotiated.

Patrick Rishe, director of the Sports Business Program at Washington University’s Olin Business School, said the WNBA debut on Tuesday could be a “watershed moment for the league,” and the choice to have the game on Disney+ will be critical for the league’s “key demographic” of families and younger people.

“They covet younger fans, and this is how younger fans view their sports these days — it is through streaming,” Rishe told CNBC’s “Worldwide Exchange” on Tuesday.

“I certainly see some parallels between the potential of Caitlin Clark and her power in terms of increasing the reach of the WNBA and Lionel Messi, of all people, and what is going on with Apple TV,” Rishe added, in reference to the soccer superstar’s 10-year deal with Major League Soccer, and the league’s streaming deal with Apple TV.

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