The WNBA, the American women’s basketball league, is doing well. Viewing figures, spectator numbers, shirt sales; Basketball players are breaking records in almost everything this year. The relatively young competition, in its 27th season, wants to continue growing in the coming years. However, she still finds the necessary obstacles in her way.
For a long time, the WNBA was primarily the butt of bad jokes. Comedian Norm MacDonald quipped: “Great news.” Saturday Night Live When the league expanded in 1998. “It’s a shame the games are still played by women.” The WNBA is now being taken seriously. In the United States, where women’s team sports are largely under-exposed, competition remains in the shadow of American football, baseball and the men’s NBA, but “The W” is catching up.
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Koen van der Velden describes De Volkskrant About sports in the United States. Lives in New York.
When the balance was determined recently midway through the season, the numbers were rosy: the number of spectators had increased by at least 67 percent compared to last season, and, on average, the number of spectators in the stands had increased by almost a quarter.
Jerseys are in demand for players like Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart (both New York Liberty), A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces) and rookie Aliyah Boston (Indiana Fever). The league’s rise is driven by star power. The WNBA has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent seasons to better promote its best players.
The current rivalry between the New York Liberty and the champion Las Vegas Aces, the league’s top two teams, helps boost the WNBA’s appeal. The return of Brittney Greiner (Phoenix Mercury), who returned from Russian captivity, is another interesting story. Its first game of the season was the most watched in 24 years. Griner is still one of the best players.
The WNBA wants to differentiate itself with innovation: a recently played All-Star Game, a demonstration game with the best players, a four-point line test, a twenty (instead of 24) second shot clock, and the elimination of free throws in the final two minutes. Another news: During the regular season, ten games count toward the Cup tournament.
When the WNBA was founded by NBA club owners in 1996, women initially received second-class treatment. The New York Liberty played for years in a remote stadium with only a few thousand seats. For owner James Dolan, who is also president of the New York Knicks basketball club, women are clearly not a priority. That changed when the club fell into the hands of Chinese billionaire Joe Tsai and his wife Clara Wu in 2019.
In New York, but also elsewhere, significant investments are now being made in the WNBA. The Tsai family invested millions in renovating the facilities and expanding support for Liberty players. The businessman had the “super team” of Ionescu, Stewart, Jonquil Jones and Courtney Vandersloot secretly traveling on a private jet in 2021, something banned in the NBA due to high costs and competitive balance. Laughing, Tsai paid the half-million-dollar fine.
The ban on private flights is a thorny issue in the WNBA. The league has relaxed its rules by making an exception for the playoffs, but during the regular season, basketball players still typically travel on commercial flights. The league came under fire when Greiner was attacked by a right-wing vlogger in a crowd at a crowded Dulles airport.
According to WNBA leader Cathy Engelbert, her league is facing critical years. The broadcast rights will be sold again in 2025, and two years later players and clubs will sit down for a new employment contract. “In the coming years, the course will be set for the next 30 or 40 years,” Engelbert said.
Benefit from growth
In the long term, players will also have to benefit from growth, as this rarely happens at the moment. The average salary in the WNBA is $113,000, and the maximum salary is $234,000. So far, basketball players have not noticed any increase in ticket or T-shirt sales. In the NBA, half of the revenue goes to the players, but women only get a small share if a certain target amount is reached. So far, that has not happened. “I don’t get a dime,” famed Kelsey Bloom (Las Vegas) said about selling T-shirts bearing her name.
To earn extra money, basketball players play in foreign competitions in the winter – and that’s how Greiner ended up in Russia. This will become more difficult starting next season. Players who must miss the start of the NBA season will no longer be allowed to play at all. No alternative has yet been found for the lost income.
Another problem: The NBA, with its 12 clubs, only offers room for 144 players. Fifteen of the 36 players selected in the annual draft in April have already earned a contract. Partly for this reason, the WNBA has its sights set on expansion, perhaps to two new host cities. “This is a transformation of what used to be a minor league,” Engelbert said of the WNBA’s recent growth. So this should also take physical form in the coming years.
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