The WNBA came into existence in 1996 with play starting the next summer. The announcement in April came just before the Atlanta Olympics. The USA team led by Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and Rebecca Lobo won the gold medal. The USA Women’s Team went undefeated but it was not like the men’s bracket. The USA had a close call in the first knockout round against Japan; the international talent level could help support an American league. The women’s game was being celebrated more in Europe more than it was being supported in America. (Granted, the NBA an increasingly European influence as well.)
Though there was some marketing behind the team the only relevant storyline lines from those Atlanta Olympics are of the lives lost. The rest was just sports. However, those runs from Michael Johnson still inspire today. Sure Swoopes, Leslie, and Lobo inspired tens of thousands of young girls but the Johnson point is: It takes less than a minute to watch those Johnson sprints. It takes a lot longer to watch those old USA women win on the hardwood.
And watching those games would only serve so much of a purpose. Nostalgia, sure. But to scout and be ready for the modern game? Not really beyond the fundamentals and that is a good thing that could also be said of the men’s game. The game has evolved in both leagues and will continue to do so. According to Candace Parker, we will be seeing drop step dunks in the WNBA very soon.
The WNBA looks different when viewed from the top down with a business mind. The diversity of ownership is drastically different. Renee Montgomery played for the Atlanta Dream. Now she owns the team. In the WBNA’s first season the ownership was as follows:
Utah Starzz (Larry H. Miller, also owned the Jazz)
Cleveland Rockers (Gordon Gund, also owned the Cavaliers)
Houston Comets (Leslie Alexander, also owned the Rockets)
New York Liberty (CableVision/MSG/James Dolan, also owns the Knicks)
Los Angeles Sparks (Jerry Buss, also owned the Lakers)
Phoenix Mercury (Jerry Colangelo, also owned the Suns)
Sacramento Monarchs (Maloof Family, also owned the Kings)
Charlotte Sting (Robert L. Johnson, Black Entertainment Television)
The Comets were later sold to local furniture store salesman before the WNBA took over for a year then folded the team. The Monarchs, Comets, and Starzz all met the same folded franchise fate. However, the WNBA also found new markets in Detroit, Minnesota, Washington, and Orlando. Then came Indiana, Miami, Seattle, and Portland. Not all of those franchises survived but those that did boast strong foundations for the future. All leagues suffer these setbacks and the WNBA can learn not only from its own mistakes but those of the WPS, NWSL, MLS, and USL-W. Then perhaps most WNBA teams can create the same gameday atmosphere as the Portland Thorns.
Soccer and basketball are intertwined within clubs overseas. There might not be quite the same connection as within the Real Madrid setup but the marketing and business methods provide plenty of models for success to apply to the American game. There is a reason most WNBA players still play in European Leagues as well. A few years ago, some even sat out the WNBA season at the behest of the European clubs. So much has changed, including the diversity in WNBA board rooms.
The number of teams has only grown to 12 from 8 in 25 years however there are many risks to expanding too fast too soon. Now that more than half of the WNBA’s teams are profitable and not heavily subsidized by the NBA, I’d expect the WNBA to grow to at least 14 teams within the next four years and to have at least 20 teams competing when the 50th season rolls around.
Why? Because of the view from the grassroots fans. There is so much more respect and attention given to women’s sports in general than in the 1990s. Women are supporting women in sports more than ever. Men have become attuned to the nuances of the women’s games. (Also, gamblers will gamble on anything then cheer or bemoan the action passionately.)
Beyond those basics, the bottoms up, grassroots attendance, and viewership have been on the rise. The WNBA has broadcast deals with both ESPN and CBS as well as having games on NBA TV and WNBA League Pass. This will give the WNBA more airtime than ever to market their players to a wider audience than ever before. After the WNBA’s activism during the pandemic, they deserve it for more than just their play. Should the viewership numbers continue past 250,000 viewers per game on average, the WNBA is in line to renegotiate the broadcast terms again beginning in 2022.
Mask mandates are being lifted. WNBA teams can still hold vaccine events before games for those who are still in need of a shot. Attendance to all sporting events should return to is not rise above pre-pandemic levels. For major sports, sellouts will again be the norm. For those teams that used to be looking to fill seats for cheap (if not free tickets to a game), there will be an opportunity to recruit new fans for life. The WNBA is well-poised to take advantage because their season overlaps with the reopening of the country. Drawing an average of 10,000 per game would be a 30% increase from pre-pandemic averages, but it is attainable. It would also mean millions more going to the players and support staffs that make a game day possible.
In this 25th season, more space should be spent learning about how dynamic and diverse the WNBA really is off the court as well as on. Those efforts will help to grow the game and get rid of all the nonsense that sometimes pops up in conversations concerning women’s sports. Nonsense like Shaq’s comments about lowering the rim which Candace Parker shut down like the Defensive Player of the Year she is. (Take the surprise outcha voice Shaq!)
Do not be surprised if this season does not go exactly to plan. None of the previous 24 did either, especially the last one. But also do not be surprised to look up after the season and see the WNBA has grown more financially sound, thriving with more fans than ever before. The players showed the vision and determination during the pandemic to grow the game and be a force far behind the court. The new boardroom leaders can connect with the players and have shown the intuition to grown the game in a responsible manner.
And I suspect in a few months the Seattle Storm will again be crowned champions.