Few sports leagues have been maligned like the Women’s National Basketball Association.
“The pace is too slow.” “They don’t score enough.” “The game just isn’t as good.”
Daily, it seems, a vocal section of basketball fandom can be heard putting down the league and its players in Reddit threads, tweets and day-to-day conversations.
It takes years, often decades, for leagues to find their proper footing. They need dedicated ownership, team superstars, style and culture; but the WNBA hasn’t been given the same opportunity by fans to make that leap, unlike its brother league.
In the 1960s, the NBA had Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, but the league didn’t truly find its place in the public eye until the Johnson–Bird rivalry of the 1980s and, of course, Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
But in 1955, the NBA only had nine teams, and it took two decades to have 12 organizations that didn’t fold. They didn’t break 20 teams until the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. It took years for the league to find popularity and stability.
After over 75 years, the NBA is stacked with stars, champions and legends, but the WNBA hasn’t had that same time to grow.
The mid-1900s were a time for leagues to develop and expand, but in 2023, women’s basketball has to compete in a global environment, where each league around the world has things to offer. Despite its comparatively small market share, the WNBA has created a home for the game of basketball and strives to encourage women in the sport.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has been spearheading the league since 2019. Under her tenure, the league has navigated its way through issues like chartered travel, competitive pay and improving the league’s financial position. Through all her trials, Engelbert has been the steady hand in a sea of uneasiness, and her work is finally coming to fruition.
The league celebrated its 25th birthday in 2022. The 2023 season was the most watched in WNBA history — with the schedule increasing from 36 games to 40 and attendance jumping by 16%. Two weeks ago, the league announced that a 13th team will be located near the Golden State Warriors in 2025 with eyes on adding at least one more team by then. The league hadn’t expanded since 2008.
“The goal is to keep growing the business and building the league to grow this legacy of these players, and for the next generation of players in the longest-standing, most-tenured women’s professional sports league in the country,” Engelbert said during a public address before the 2023 WNBA Finals.
Meanwhile, on the court, ESPN calculated before the 2022 season that the WNBA’s pace of play has skyrocketed over the past decade, thus leading to more points, three-pointers, assists and rebounds, as well as fewer turnovers.
That progress has resulted in the 2023 season — one of the most electric in league history.
Before the season, two-time MVP Brianna Stewart and all-time league assists leader Courtney Vandersloot left their career franchises, the Seattle Storm and Chicago Sky respectively, and joined superstar Sabrina Ionescu’s New York Liberty. One-time MVP Jonquel Jones was added to the squad after a trade with the Connecticut Sun.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Aces added two-time MVP Candace Parker in free agency to a roster coached by Hall of Famer Becky Hammon and led by two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, reigning Finals MVP Chelsea Gray and two-time All-Star Kelsey Plum. Parker only played 18 games before fracturing her foot. The Aces still finished with the best record in the league.
During the season, superstar Alyssa Thomas carried her Connecticut Sun by setting records for most assists (316), defensive rebounds (314) and triple-doubles (6) in a season. Ionescu set the record for most three-pointers in a season with 128. Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd is now second in WNBA history in points per game with 24.71, while Wilson tied for the record for points in a single game with her 53-point performance against the Atlanta Dream.
This year culminated in the superteam showdown between the Aces and the Liberty in the WNBA Finals, easily the greatest matchup in women’s basketball history. The series ended with the Aces winning their second straight championship in a 3-1 series and Wilson adding her first Finals MVP to her ever-increasing trophy cabinet.
Were these two teams predicted to make the finals by just about everyone? Yes! Is it fun to watch the best players in the league duke it out in a five-game series? Absolutely!
Women’s basketball is a growing sport, and fans are living right in an explosion of talent the league has never seen. The WNBA should be encouraged as it evolves and championed as it improves.
Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings and Sue Bird were the WNBA’s Baylor, Chamberlain and Russell. Wilson and Stewart are their Johnson and Bird. It’s only a matter of time before the WNBA finds their Jordan ... maybe they won’t need one.
The WNBA isn’t the NBA, and it shouldn’t be. Let the league grow.