By Eddie Gonzalez
It took Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm just three games to sweep the Las Vegas Aces and end the truncated and most unique WNBA season ever. The Storm dominated the playoffs and the WNBA Finals, capping their title run off with the biggest margin of victory in Finals history.
The league itself is within a landmark period of growth, with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this year and a 68% increase in viewership this season, even as television ratings are down across the rest of the sports world as a whole. Social media engagement was up 30% as well, and WNBA app downloads increased by 85%, all representing an increased prevalence of the league as a whole. In comparison, the NBA Finals, even with LeBron James headlining the series, has drawn a record low in viewership. The WNBA seems to be trending in the right direction, but where does it go from here?
As the league’s foremost star, Stewart’s absence from a torn Achilles was felt last season, but this year made it clear she has returned to her previous form. The newly-minted two-time Finals MVP averaged 19 points per game during the 22-game season, and increased that to 28 points per game in the Finals, including a 37-point outburst in Game 1. With Stewart back on the court and healthy, the league is in good, dominating hands.
But there’s an influx of talent being pumped into the league as well. This season’s MVP, A’ja Wilson, is just 24 years old, and elevated from Rookie of the Year to MVP in just three seasons. This year’s most anticipated prospect, Sabrina Ionescu, is just 22 years old, and despite her rookie season ending in just three games because of an ankle injury, the former Oregon star is slated to play in the league’s largest market as a member of the New York Liberty.
With a marked boon in the talent pool and viewership, suddenly WNBA players are more marketable in the branding space than ever before. Ionescu signed a multi-year contract with Nike that could involve a signature line, all shortly after being drafted and after a public courtship from Stephen Curry and Under Armour. Mystics star Natasha Cloud became the first WNBA player ever to sign with Converse this year, in a deal that saw Converse donate $25,000 to a Philadelphia-area racial justice organization on her behalf. WNBA legend Candace Parker re-signed with Turner as an analyst and commentator for their NBA on TNT, NBATV and NCAA coverage.
With the on-court product looking as promising as ever, and a newly signed CBA that pays the best players at least double what the previous agreement allowed, the business appears to be in order as well. But where the WNBA has truly shone is with its impact culturally, as a league unafraid to speak up, make statements, and take a stand against social injustice. While some leagues tip toe and stammer around their protests and political statements, the WNBA screams theirs. The NBA said Breonna Taylor’s name, the WNBA dedicated their season to her, put her name on every single jersey, donated the proceeds from those jerseys to the Breonna Taylor Foundation and set up a social justice council before the season in an effort to continue advancing their fight for social justice. When the NBA boycotted a game in the wake of Jacob Blake being shot seven times by a police officer in Wisconsin, the WNBA did too, with the Washington Mystics even showing up to the gym in shirts adorned with Blake’s name and seven bullet holes in their back.
This is all on the heels of a prolonged and ongoing fight by the player for equal rights, both on and off the court. While many misconstrued the players as fighting for pay equal to their NBA counterparts, they were instead seeking a better pay scale and an equally proportionate share of league revenue, a 50/50 split. They received that, with the caveat that the league must reach “revenue growth targets from broadcast agreements, marketing partnerships and licensing deals.” The fight for proportionate pay and improved amenities and benefits was to aid their effort in avoiding extending their time on the court with overseas play that affords them better pay and quality of living. It was during an overseas stint with Russian club Dynamo Kursk where Stewart tore her Achilles, further highlighting the need for the league to keep their players stateside and unburdened with the strain of an entirely separate overseas career to maintain their desired lifestyle.
On top of that, the players also received improved maternity leave benefits, which The Atlantic deemed the “real win” of the new CBA. Previously, players could receive as little as half their salaries while out on maternity leave, now they’ll receive their full salaries, along with a two-bedroom apartment provided by the league and a $5,000 annual stipend for child-care. Add that to the improved travel afforded by the league and the new CBA is seen as a massive step forward for the league and its players.
In some ways, that may be the future of the league, a progressive league of strong-willed and hard working women willing to fight for their equal rights and the causes they collectively agree on. That alone represents hope for many women who recognize that they’re underrepresented - and often disrespected - not only in the sports world but the world at large. It should not be lost on fans and viewers that while the sports world as a whole trended downwards, the women of the WNBA were, yet again, able to do more with less. While their bubble was relegated to the IMG Academy campus in Florida, rather than more expansive, amentity-filled Wide World of Sports facilities the NBA enjoyed, they too saw zero positive COVID tests in their own bubble, or “wubble” as it’s been labeled. While societal stigmas may prevent the league from reaching the commercial levels of its male counterpart, the cultural significance and the impact it has on its core fanbase may dwarf that of the NBA. As the league continues to empower women around the world to not only pursue excellence in their field - or court - but to demand equality and the rights that should be afforded to them regardless of their gender, that may be what the league’s legacy ultimately is.
Commercially, the WNBA continues to grow. On the court, it’s as promising as ever and growing each year, even as legends like Bird, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker and others gradually age out of the league, a new wave of outspoken, progressive and talented stars are ushered into the league ready to take on all the challenges ahead of them both on the court and socially. While some wonder if athletes should be tasked with that kind of weight and responsibility, WNBA players continue to relish that duty and thrive within those fights. The WNBA continues to fight and be unafraid to fight, and that alone ensures their long-term success, more than an increase in ratings and social media shares. That will be how they continue to win.