‘If you show it, they will watch’: The meaning of Year 28 for the WNBA

May 16, 2024 | Sports | 0 comments

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

How big stars, airtime, and fan consciousness are shaping the WNBA in Year 28.

When he was arguably America’s most successful football man, when his beloved Bears were defending champs and the NFL’s first dynasty, George Halas stood in his friend’s office and looked upon the technology that maybe, just maybe, held the key to survival for his still-fledgling league.

“There it is, George,” Chicago Tribune city editor Don Maxwell told the Bears owner and coach. “Television.”

The year was 1947, and the National Football League was entering its 28th season. For 27 seasons, I think it’s safe to say that no one had more faith in the NFL than George Halas — meaning no one was more in tune with its challenges. The NFL had several.

There was the All-American Football Conference, which played its first season in 1946 and immediately established itself as a formidable foe. There was the game-fixing scandal in the ‘46 NFL Championship Game, with two players coming under investigation for bribery.

There was the chaos of the player pool — World War II saw 79% of NFL players from 1941 to 1944 miss time, with players still making their way back in ‘46; the NFL had banned Black players from 1934 to 1945, ending in 1946 for regulatory reasons that became competitive ones; the AAFC was a new landing spot for college stars, players returning from the war and Black players; and young players were ending their NFL careers after just a few years because the salaries couldn’t justify the injuries.

All the while, there was the still-present challenge of winning consumer interest and dollars, with pro football still chasing college football and baseball among the team sports.

On the flip side, the post-war release valve unleashed a flood of sports fans to pro grid games in both leagues. The NFL had established its history and heroes, the foundation of the myth-making that fans and writers need. And TV was coming.

Around the time Halas was talking television at the Trib, the Basketball Association of America was finishing its inaugural season. The BAA played three years and merged with the National Basketball League, taking the “National” from one and the “Association” of the other to form the National Basketball Association for the 1950 season. The NBA eventually claimed 1947 as its first season, meaning its 28th season was 1974.

Like the NFL in ’47, the NBA in ’74 was a long way from the cultural and economic powerhouse it is today. It battled an influential competitor, the ABA, along with its own players union, which was suing the NBA to end the reserve clause. Unlike the 1947 NFL, the 1974 NBA had its championship televised, but tape-delayed. The Finals would remain tape-delayed for another seven years.

The 2023 WNBA Finals, meanwhile, set a 20-year viewership peak and rose 36% from 2022.

“We’re so young,” soon-to-be repeat WNBA champion Kelsey Plum explained about the state of the WNBA on the “All The Smoke” podcast during last season’s WNBA playoffs. “Where we are in our league versus where the NBA was … we’re technically bigger. So we have to give ourselves a little bit of grace.”

As the WNBA enters its 28th season, sports fans have noticed something: WNBA salaries are quite a bit less than those of their male counterparts. The good sign is a mass of fans noticing anything. That shows a young league’s emotional relevance, which increases during seismic shifts. The WNBA has experienced a few such shifts since COVID. And the media wave that George Halas foresaw in 1947 is in progress.

This is the path from entertainment to identity. This is the journey to “we.”

Inside Year 28

The 28th NFL season started with the largest crowd to ever witness a game with an NFL team, a record that would stand until 1994. On Aug. 22, 1947, 105,840 fans filled Soldier Field to watch not an NFL game, but the 14th so-called Chicago College All-Star Game between the defending champion — the Chicago Bears — and a college all-star team.

By this point, the NFL was holding its own with Major League Baseball for paying attendance. In six of eight seasons leading up to the end of World War II, the NFL’s single-game attendance leader out-drew their MLB counterpart in their shared ballpark.

Yet they still trailed the college game. Big-time college football stadiums were bigger than the Major League Baseball stadiums where nearly all post-war NFL teams played. In 1947, the Packers were the only NFL team playing in a stadium built for an NFL team. In December of ’47, over in the rival AAFC, the Los Angeles Dons saw 82,675 fans attend their game against the New York football Yankees at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, what the papers called “the largest crowd ever to see a professional league football game” and still over 23,000 fans fewer than the college all-star game four months earlier, in which the collegians toppled the 1946 champion Bears.

“Soldier Field was packed,” recalls Upton Bell, who was in August of 1947 the nine-year-old son of commissioner Bert Bell. Upton Bell attended the first five post-war all-star games, countless NFL games and many other sporting events.

“There was nothing like anything I had ever seen during that period like the Chicago all-star game,” he says. “The NFL needed that game each year to help their popularity. College football was king.”

During the NFL’s first four decades, commissioner Bell was one of the league’s great visionaries and a major proponent of television. In 1939, Bell owned the Philadelphia Eagles when the Eagles and Brooklyn Dodgers played the NFL’s first televised game.

“From that game on in, I can’t tell you how many times I heard my father say that the NFL was ‘The most perfect game for television’ and that that was their key to becoming the biggest thing,” Bell says. For the 1947 season, Halas signed the NFL’s first television contract, with WBKB paying the Bears $900 for each of the Bears six home games.

“The year 1947 was great in the back office,” Halas wrote in his autobiography. “Salaries exploded but we ended well in the black.” The NFL’s 28th season showed the league on increasingly stable ground. In 1948, the league signed a “game of the week” TV deal with ABC, the first league-wide network deal.

The NFL-AAFC player fights drove up salaries for both stars and role players. In ’47, rookie Charley Trippi drove a three-way bidding war between the NFL, AAFC and MLB to grab an unprecedented $100,000 deal from the NFL’s Cardinals (the equivalent of about $1.4 million today). One newspaper in 1948 estimated “benchwarmers” were making between $7,000 and $8,000, putting pro football closer to the established MLB, where in 1946 the average National League salary was $9,800 (about $157k today).

Yet the NFL game that historians commonly cite as the game that launched the league to the forefront of American consciousness was still a decade away in their 39th season: the 1958 NFL championship game, the Baltimore Colts beating the New York Giants 23-17 on Alan Ameche’s famed overtime touchdown, the only overtime game to decide an NFL championship until Super Bowl LI.

“I was there: the sudden death game,” Bell says. “That was on national TV, and from there, the NFL just soared.”

The NFL’s 41st season was 1960, the first year of the NFL’s newest challenger, the AFL. The NFL’s 47th season ended with the NFL-AFL championship game, AKA Super Bowl I. The two leagues officially merged for the NFL’s 51st season in 1970, the last time that a rival league had any success taking on the NFL.

Over in the NBA, the game was strong but the business was stuck. The NBA’s 28th season was 1974, the league’s fourth year of litigation with its players union, whose president Oscar Robertson was the lead plaintiff in an antitrust suit to block a potential NBA-ABA merger. The suit argued that considering the NBA’s reserve clause, a merger with the ABA would result in a pro basketball monopoly for the NBA.

In the AAFC years, “the best team I had seen of that period was actually the (AAFC’s) Cleveland Browns,” Bell says. The NBA in ‘74 had arguably a bigger problem: One of the two best players in professional basketball, Julius Erving, didn’t even play in their league. The two players who historians argue saved the NBA, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, were in high school. Their legendary NCAA Championship was five years away.

The NBA’s 35th season, 1981, was the final time the league broadcast the Finals on tape delay. Two years later, in Season 37, 16 of the league’s 23 teams were losing money. David Dupree of the Washington Post wrote a much-syndicated column about the NBA’s troubles; one newspaper ran it under the headline: “NBA heading towards financial ruin.” This was after three straight championships for either Magic and Kareem or Larry Bird, with Dr. J’s 76ers and Moses Malone’s Rockets as the three runners-up. The stars were bright in the NBA, and big TV money was starting to roll in, with the first season of a four-year, $88 million contract with CBS.

Yet the league was losing between $15 million and $20 million a year.

“We must face up to the fact that a few of our teams are in financial trouble,” commissioner Larry O’Brien said.

The player most responsible for helping teams go from red to black, Michael Jordan, came to the NBA in 1984 for its 39th season. The NBA’s television boom came in its 45th season with its groundbreaking NBC partnership. The league fully cashed in on the Magic-Larry-Michael triumvirate in 1992 with the Dream Team, the capstone to its 46th season. The next year, season 47, for the first time ever, the NBA Finals outdrew the World Series on TV. Three months later, the NBA and Turner Broadcasting announced a four-year extension of their cable contract, the final TV bump this new sports superpower needed to connect with fans.

“The addition of those games on TBS means that every playoff game will now be available on a national TV network,” commissioner David Stern said at the press conference announcing the deal. “We’re very pleased about that.”

The WNBA in 2024: Not behind, but ahead

When Caitlin Clark signed her debut four-year Indiana Fever deal that pays her $76,535 as a rookie, fans compared that figure to her No. 1 pick male counterpart, Victor Wembanyama, who earned $12.2 million. The wage gap is too great to ignore.

Yet viewed through the lens of a league’s 28th year, the WNBA looks much better. A constellation of superstars over the past decade became household names: Sue Bird, Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi and A’ja Wilson among them. These stars forged strong fan identities in a number of markets, while the 2021 Chicago Sky championship activated the Chicago fanbase to complete the much needed L.A.-Chicago-New York market power.

The NFL in 1947 was battling the AAFC and the NBA in ‘74 was battling the ABA; the WNBA has no rival league. While sports fans in 1947 were in the early stages of viewing pro football as the equal or even superior to the college game, sports fans in 2024 on a whole seem further along in viewing the women’s game both in line with the men’s and on its own terms.

Part of this is support from NBA players. While individual NBA players had friendships with individual WNBA players when the W launched in 1997, the past 10-15 years has seen a rise in widespread alignment between NBA players and WNBA players. NBA players attend WNBA games and shoot commercials together.

So when sports fans, especially male sports fans, see Steph Curry sharing a court with Sabrina Ionescu at the 2024 All-Star weekend, and the conversation is about hoops instead of gender, and they’re seeing Ionescu’s lights-out shooting skills against the player who rewrote all the rules around the three-point shot, it’s harder for them to sit in their prejudice.

“I tell fans all the time: Don’t come ‘support me’ — come watch me play,” Plum told former NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on the pod last fall. “Like, when you go watch Devin Booker play, you don’t say, ‘I’m here to support Devin.’ You’re here to see this man hoop.”

The past 12 months have felt to me like a shift among many American sports fans between “supporting” the women’s game and simply watching them hoop. A lot of that starts with college. The women’s NCAA National Championship game this year drew 18.9 million viewers, compared to just 14.8 million for the men’s title game, the first time ever that the women’s game had more viewers than the men’s.

Clark obviously played a huge role in that boom, but so did a collection of college stars including Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers, Juju Watkins, Cameron Brink and the undefeated champion South Carolina Gamecocks. When refs whistled UConn for a moving screen to essentially decide their Final Four game against Iowa, sports fans blew up in debate and discussion.

Not because they were watching women — because they were watching sports.

The momentum from the tournament led to a record 2.45 million viewers watching the 2024 WNBA draft. Clark’s arrival in Indiana gives that basketball-crazed fanbase one of the most marketable stars in sports today, while Reese and fellow recent MOP Kamilla Cardoso landed in Chicago to power the next stage of post-2021 Sky basketball.

It’s a crucial stage in a team’s, and a league’s, development. Crucial for the league because success is so much easier when fans in big markets are locked in. Crucial for the team because a championship creates identity. It penetrates. It creates obligation. For fans who came on board in 2021, this Reese-Cardoso club will be the first Sky team they’ll feel responsible for watching.

The 2021 Sky were hugely important to Chicago. With the city reeling from the endless Bears doom cycle and no city-wide title since the 2015 Stanley Cup, the Sky added a hometown hero in Candace Parker and captivated fans who just needed someone to cheer for. Chicagoans needed a champ. The Sky supplied one. Just as folks who didn’t care much about hockey sprayed champagne in 2010 because “We won the Cup!”, folks who didn’t care much about the Sky — only in their 16th season, the equivalent of the pre-Jordan 1982 Bulls — started texting each other with, “What time are we on?”

The key, of course, is that they have to be on.

“If you show it, they will watch”

Charles Silverstein loved the Black Hawks.

His son, yours truly, merely appreciated them.

Television was a big part of the reason.

My father was born in 1950 and grew up in the Budlong Woods neighborhood of Chicago. That year, Arthur Wirtz became Hawks co-owner. The Black Hawks, as they were then known, were in year 28 the year my dad turned four. Though they were in a lull, they had two Stanley Cups under their belt and hockey remained huge in Chicago. Professional basketball had failed here with several teams in several leagues, most recently the Stags of the BAA and NBA.

My dad and his brother were 10 years old when the Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 1961, finalizing their journey to caring about the Hawks as much as they cared about the Bears and Cubs.

Five years later, in 1966, Arthur’s son Bill became team chairman, while Dick Klein founded Chicago’s third attempt at an NBA team: the Bulls. Wirtz wondered then what Halas wondered in 1947: Would TV drive fans away from home games? Halas figured he would cross that bridge when he came to it; Wirtz just blew up the bridge. By the early 1970s, Wirtz had banned Hawks home games from television, while Klein, a basketball junkie and exuberant promoter, was in his first deal with WGN-TV. The Bulls gained a following in the 1970s with the Dick Motta-led teams of Mr. Bull, Stormin’ Norm, Butterbean and Chet the Jet. But they were still considered a niche franchise, behind the Bears, Hawks and whichever baseball team one rooted for.

By the time I was becoming a sports fan in the 1980s, the combination of the Hawks’ middling seasons and the explosion of Michael Jordan made me a natural Bulls fan over hockey. Yet something else did too: TV.

While ticket prices were rapidly rising for Bulls game, I could catch every game on television at a time when I couldn’t even watch Hawks home playoff games. While I waited for the Cubs to finally reach a World Series in my life (and waited… and waited…) and waited for Ditka’s Bears to win a second Super Bowl as we all knew they would, the rise of MJ, Scottie and the gang meant the Bulls occupied an increasingly large piece of my emotional pie.

In 1992, the Bulls and the Hawks made their respective championship rounds. Bulls games on TV didn’t stop fans from showing up; the team was in the midst of their eventual 610-game sellout streak. Meanwhile, the only way to watch the Hawks home games in the ‘92 Stanley Cup outside of Chicago Stadium was Wirtz’s pay-per-view service HawkVision.

Championships plus television: For a generation of Chicago fans, that was the formula that turned us into rabid hoops heads and away from the puck. It didn’t matter if the Bears, Hawks, Cubs or Sox were losing. The Bulls were our primary emotional draw. They made us whole. And that gave us patience. In the 1990s, if you couldn’t participate in an NBA conversation, you almost weren’t even a sports fan. I didn’t become a “we” Hawks fan until 2010 when they won their first Cup since Charlie Silverstein was 10.

What happened three years before? Bill Wirtz passed away and his son Rocky immediately put home games back on television.

A pro team planting itself in a sports fan’s heart only happens after years of building. Colleges don’t have that challenge. When you attend a school, you are the school. Not surprisingly, the women’s college game has had a rabid following for decades; in 1983, nearly 12 million fans tuned in to see the first NCAA women’s national title game. A new pro team has to build to that. First fans watch a team, then they root for a team, then they are the team. When a team becomes part of your identity, that’s when you stay with them through losing seasons. That’s when you watch no matter what else is on. That’s when you’re not choosing to participate, you’re compelled to.

In the six seasons after their dynasty, the Bulls went 119-341, a .258 winning percentage, finished dead last in the division in five of six seasons — and still led the NBA in cumulative attendance.

Call it fandom or call it addiction, but having a team in your heart is the stuff that moves dollars and eyeballs.

A league can’t reach fan identity without a cultural flashpoint or two. The WNBA is undergoing such a flashpoint akin to the 1958 NFL championship game or the arrival of Magic and Bird, and it’s happening in Season 28, not Season 33 (1979 NBA) or Season 39 (1958 NFL).

Gambling will bring it there too. “Gambling Helps Americans Get Rid of Money” the headline said. The date: Oct. 16, 1946, the NFL’s 27th season, and post-war America was flocking to stadiums, betting on ballgames and beginning to buy televisions. Nearly 80 years later, a new golden age of sports betting is upon us. For good or ill (I say ill), gambling is fueling sports engagement, which will help boost WNBA interest.

But addiction to gambling and addiction to a team are separate, and what the WNBA is now seeing is the everyday attention from everyday fans. This March, to be a proper sports fan, you had to watch women’s March Madness. That’s where the hot conversations were. That’s where you could participate in the most important discussions in American sports for that moment.

That carries into the WNBA. The victories are coming, as are the growing pains.

“The WNBA and its teams have so much room to improve community, media, public and player relations,” says WNBA insider Subria Whitaker. “The right partnerships and collaborations improve accessibility, visibility and marketability.”

Through her organization Grow the Game, Whitaker consults and works with women’s sports teams, including in the WNBA, to launch athlete marketing campaigns, fan events and other branding and promotional activities. This month, she saw what we all saw: the WNBA struggling to provide that accessibility and visibility. In short, to keep up with its own growth.

On May 3, the preseason debut of the Reese-Cardoso Sky was supposed to be available for viewing. It wasn’t. Instead, a fan at the Target Center live-streamed it on Twitter, leading to over 100,000 Sky-Lynx viewers at halftime and more than 545,000 by the end of the game.

“Growth is happening so fast, it’s so accelerated, and I’ve been saying this in our own organization: that business as usual isn’t going to work anymore,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said about the TV mistake and fan savior. “You’re going to get left behind, and this is an example.”

For the Sky’s second preseason game, May 7, the WNBA made sure to stream on WNBA League Pass. That same day, the league made a huge announcement: They would spend $50 million over the 2024 and 2025 seasons to set up full-time charter flights for team travel — a plan that, while proving tricky in the details so far, signals a promising future. Along with the pay gap between the men’s and women’s game, WNBA fans, players and reporters have noted the disparity in travel and television.

The league appears to be closing those gaps, with all of this progress driving toward big speculation around the league’s next collective bargaining agreement in 2027.

For a growing league, nothing is more important than visibility. Sports fans have to know that they can tune in wherever they are and watch a WNBA game. Per Front Office Sports, the WNBA earns about $60 million annually from its TV and streaming deals. League ratings are rising; Upton Bell wonders if the league needs to shift from a summer start to a fall start to capitalize on fan association of “basketball season.”

“All of the other sports were positioned well and grew with television,” Bell says. “If you said to me that the WNBA is now on when the regular basketball season is, you know what I’d say to you? I like their chances after 28 years as well as any of the other ones.”

Whitaker prefers the summer schedule. It’s the space the W has carved for itself. But they agree on this: The WNBA is reaching new fans, and those fans must have access to games. It’s the reason George Halas wrote his own Bears press releases in the 1920s and made friends with people like Don Maxwell. It’s the reason the ABA would spend its own money to fly reporters to games while they duked it out with the NBA. As a major discussion point, the WNBA-NBA wage-gap shock might be winding down this decade. Bell and Whitaker know the key, just as Halas and Bert Bell did.

“We know the saying: ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Whitaker says. “In the WNBA, it’s, ‘If you show it, they will watch.’”

Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, the Bears historian of Windy City Gridiron, and author of “Why We Root: Mad Obsessions of a Chicago Sports Fan.” Follow his 1990s Bulls book research at readjack.substack.com.

[#item_full_content]Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

How big stars, airtime, and fan consciousness are shaping the WNBA in Year 28. When he was arguably America’s most successful football man, when his beloved Bears were defending champs and the NFL’s first dynasty, George Halas stood in his friend’s office and looked upon the technology that maybe, just maybe, held the key to survival for his still-fledgling league.
“There it is, George,” Chicago Tribune city editor Don Maxwell told the Bears owner and coach. “Television.”
The year was 1947, and the National Football League was entering its 28th season. For 27 seasons, I think it’s safe to say that no one had more faith in the NFL than George Halas — meaning no one was more in tune with its challenges. The NFL had several.
There was the All-American Football Conference, which played its first season in 1946 and immediately established itself as a formidable foe. There was the game-fixing scandal in the ‘46 NFL Championship Game, with two players coming under investigation for bribery.
There was the chaos of the player pool — World War II saw 79% of NFL players from 1941 to 1944 miss time, with players still making their way back in ‘46; the NFL had banned Black players from 1934 to 1945, ending in 1946 for regulatory reasons that became competitive ones; the AAFC was a new landing spot for college stars, players returning from the war and Black players; and young players were ending their NFL careers after just a few years because the salaries couldn’t justify the injuries.
All the while, there was the still-present challenge of winning consumer interest and dollars, with pro football still chasing college football and baseball among the team sports.
On the flip side, the post-war release valve unleashed a flood of sports fans to pro grid games in both leagues. The NFL had established its history and heroes, the foundation of the myth-making that fans and writers need. And TV was coming.
Around the time Halas was talking television at the Trib, the Basketball Association of America was finishing its inaugural season. The BAA played three years and merged with the National Basketball League, taking the “National” from one and the “Association” of the other to form the National Basketball Association for the 1950 season. The NBA eventually claimed 1947 as its first season, meaning its 28th season was 1974.
Like the NFL in ’47, the NBA in ’74 was a long way from the cultural and economic powerhouse it is today. It battled an influential competitor, the ABA, along with its own players union, which was suing the NBA to end the reserve clause. Unlike the 1947 NFL, the 1974 NBA had its championship televised, but tape-delayed. The Finals would remain tape-delayed for another seven years.
The 2023 WNBA Finals, meanwhile, set a 20-year viewership peak and rose 36% from 2022.
“We’re so young,” soon-to-be repeat WNBA champion Kelsey Plum explained about the state of the WNBA on the “All The Smoke” podcast during last season’s WNBA playoffs. “Where we are in our league versus where the NBA was … we’re technically bigger. So we have to give ourselves a little bit of grace.”
As the WNBA enters its 28th season, sports fans have noticed something: WNBA salaries are quite a bit less than those of their male counterparts. The good sign is a mass of fans noticing anything. That shows a young league’s emotional relevance, which increases during seismic shifts. The WNBA has experienced a few such shifts since COVID. And the media wave that George Halas foresaw in 1947 is in progress.
This is the path from entertainment to identity. This is the journey to “we.”
Inside Year 28
The 28th NFL season started with the largest crowd to ever witness a game with an NFL team, a record that would stand until 1994. On Aug. 22, 1947, 105,840 fans filled Soldier Field to watch not an NFL game, but the 14th so-called Chicago College All-Star Game between the defending champion — the Chicago Bears — and a college all-star team.
By this point, the NFL was holding its own with Major League Baseball for paying attendance. In six of eight seasons leading up to the end of World War II, the NFL’s single-game attendance leader out-drew their MLB counterpart in their shared ballpark.
Yet they still trailed the college game. Big-time college football stadiums were bigger than the Major League Baseball stadiums where nearly all post-war NFL teams played. In 1947, the Packers were the only NFL team playing in a stadium built for an NFL team. In December of ’47, over in the rival AAFC, the Los Angeles Dons saw 82,675 fans attend their game against the New York football Yankees at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, what the papers called “the largest crowd ever to see a professional league football game” and still over 23,000 fans fewer than the college all-star game four months earlier, in which the collegians toppled the 1946 champion Bears.
“Soldier Field was packed,” recalls Upton Bell, who was in August of 1947 the nine-year-old son of commissioner Bert Bell. Upton Bell attended the first five post-war all-star games, countless NFL games and many other sporting events.
“There was nothing like anything I had ever seen during that period like the Chicago all-star game,” he says. “The NFL needed that game each year to help their popularity. College football was king.”
During the NFL’s first four decades, commissioner Bell was one of the league’s great visionaries and a major proponent of television. In 1939, Bell owned the Philadelphia Eagles when the Eagles and Brooklyn Dodgers played the NFL’s first televised game.
“From that game on in, I can’t tell you how many times I heard my father say that the NFL was ‘The most perfect game for television’ and that that was their key to becoming the biggest thing,” Bell says. For the 1947 season, Halas signed the NFL’s first television contract, with WBKB paying the Bears $900 for each of the Bears six home games.
“The year 1947 was great in the back office,” Halas wrote in his autobiography. “Salaries exploded but we ended well in the black.” The NFL’s 28th season showed the league on increasingly stable ground. In 1948, the league signed a “game of the week” TV deal with ABC, the first league-wide network deal.
The NFL-AAFC player fights drove up salaries for both stars and role players. In ’47, rookie Charley Trippi drove a three-way bidding war between the NFL, AAFC and MLB to grab an unprecedented $100,000 deal from the NFL’s Cardinals (the equivalent of about $1.4 million today). One newspaper in 1948 estimated “benchwarmers” were making between $7,000 and $8,000, putting pro football closer to the established MLB, where in 1946 the average National League salary was $9,800 (about $157k today).
Yet the NFL game that historians commonly cite as the game that launched the league to the forefront of American consciousness was still a decade away in their 39th season: the 1958 NFL championship game, the Baltimore Colts beating the New York Giants 23-17 on Alan Ameche’s famed overtime touchdown, the only overtime game to decide an NFL championship until Super Bowl LI.
“I was there: the sudden death game,” Bell says. “That was on national TV, and from there, the NFL just soared.”
The NFL’s 41st season was 1960, the first year of the NFL’s newest challenger, the AFL. The NFL’s 47th season ended with the NFL-AFL championship game, AKA Super Bowl I. The two leagues officially merged for the NFL’s 51st season in 1970, the last time that a rival league had any success taking on the NFL.
Over in the NBA, the game was strong but the business was stuck. The NBA’s 28th season was 1974, the league’s fourth year of litigation with its players union, whose president Oscar Robertson was the lead plaintiff in an antitrust suit to block a potential NBA-ABA merger. The suit argued that considering the NBA’s reserve clause, a merger with the ABA would result in a pro basketball monopoly for the NBA.
In the AAFC years, “the best team I had seen of that period was actually the (AAFC’s) Cleveland Browns,” Bell says. The NBA in ‘74 had arguably a bigger problem: One of the two best players in professional basketball, Julius Erving, didn’t even play in their league. The two players who historians argue saved the NBA, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, were in high school. Their legendary NCAA Championship was five years away.
The NBA’s 35th season, 1981, was the final time the league broadcast the Finals on tape delay. Two years later, in Season 37, 16 of the league’s 23 teams were losing money. David Dupree of the Washington Post wrote a much-syndicated column about the NBA’s troubles; one newspaper ran it under the headline: “NBA heading towards financial ruin.” This was after three straight championships for either Magic and Kareem or Larry Bird, with Dr. J’s 76ers and Moses Malone’s Rockets as the three runners-up. The stars were bright in the NBA, and big TV money was starting to roll in, with the first season of a four-year, $88 million contract with CBS.
Yet the league was losing between $15 million and $20 million a year.
“We must face up to the fact that a few of our teams are in financial trouble,” commissioner Larry O’Brien said.
The player most responsible for helping teams go from red to black, Michael Jordan, came to the NBA in 1984 for its 39th season. The NBA’s television boom came in its 45th season with its groundbreaking NBC partnership. The league fully cashed in on the Magic-Larry-Michael triumvirate in 1992 with the Dream Team, the capstone to its 46th season. The next year, season 47, for the first time ever, the NBA Finals outdrew the World Series on TV. Three months later, the NBA and Turner Broadcasting announced a four-year extension of their cable contract, the final TV bump this new sports superpower needed to connect with fans.
“The addition of those games on TBS means that every playoff game will now be available on a national TV network,” commissioner David Stern said at the press conference announcing the deal. “We’re very pleased about that.”
The WNBA in 2024: Not behind, but ahead
When Caitlin Clark signed her debut four-year Indiana Fever deal that pays her $76,535 as a rookie, fans compared that figure to her No. 1 pick male counterpart, Victor Wembanyama, who earned $12.2 million. The wage gap is too great to ignore.
Yet viewed through the lens of a league’s 28th year, the WNBA looks much better. A constellation of superstars over the past decade became household names: Sue Bird, Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi and A’ja Wilson among them. These stars forged strong fan identities in a number of markets, while the 2021 Chicago Sky championship activated the Chicago fanbase to complete the much needed L.A.-Chicago-New York market power.
The NFL in 1947 was battling the AAFC and the NBA in ‘74 was battling the ABA; the WNBA has no rival league. While sports fans in 1947 were in the early stages of viewing pro football as the equal or even superior to the college game, sports fans in 2024 on a whole seem further along in viewing the women’s game both in line with the men’s and on its own terms.
Part of this is support from NBA players. While individual NBA players had friendships with individual WNBA players when the W launched in 1997, the past 10-15 years has seen a rise in widespread alignment between NBA players and WNBA players. NBA players attend WNBA games and shoot commercials together.
So when sports fans, especially male sports fans, see Steph Curry sharing a court with Sabrina Ionescu at the 2024 All-Star weekend, and the conversation is about hoops instead of gender, and they’re seeing Ionescu’s lights-out shooting skills against the player who rewrote all the rules around the three-point shot, it’s harder for them to sit in their prejudice.
“I tell fans all the time: Don’t come ‘support me’ — come watch me play,” Plum told former NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on the pod last fall. “Like, when you go watch Devin Booker play, you don’t say, ‘I’m here to support Devin.’ You’re here to see this man hoop.”
The past 12 months have felt to me like a shift among many American sports fans between “supporting” the women’s game and simply watching them hoop. A lot of that starts with college. The women’s NCAA National Championship game this year drew 18.9 million viewers, compared to just 14.8 million for the men’s title game, the first time ever that the women’s game had more viewers than the men’s.
Clark obviously played a huge role in that boom, but so did a collection of college stars including Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers, Juju Watkins, Cameron Brink and the undefeated champion South Carolina Gamecocks. When refs whistled UConn for a moving screen to essentially decide their Final Four game against Iowa, sports fans blew up in debate and discussion.
Not because they were watching women — because they were watching sports.
The momentum from the tournament led to a record 2.45 million viewers watching the 2024 WNBA draft. Clark’s arrival in Indiana gives that basketball-crazed fanbase one of the most marketable stars in sports today, while Reese and fellow recent MOP Kamilla Cardoso landed in Chicago to power the next stage of post-2021 Sky basketball.
It’s a crucial stage in a team’s, and a league’s, development. Crucial for the league because success is so much easier when fans in big markets are locked in. Crucial for the team because a championship creates identity. It penetrates. It creates obligation. For fans who came on board in 2021, this Reese-Cardoso club will be the first Sky team they’ll feel responsible for watching.
The 2021 Sky were hugely important to Chicago. With the city reeling from the endless Bears doom cycle and no city-wide title since the 2015 Stanley Cup, the Sky added a hometown hero in Candace Parker and captivated fans who just needed someone to cheer for. Chicagoans needed a champ. The Sky supplied one. Just as folks who didn’t care much about hockey sprayed champagne in 2010 because “We won the Cup!”, folks who didn’t care much about the Sky — only in their 16th season, the equivalent of the pre-Jordan 1982 Bulls — started texting each other with, “What time are we on?”
The key, of course, is that they have to be on.
“If you show it, they will watch”
Charles Silverstein loved the Black Hawks.
His son, yours truly, merely appreciated them.
Television was a big part of the reason.
My father was born in 1950 and grew up in the Budlong Woods neighborhood of Chicago. That year, Arthur Wirtz became Hawks co-owner. The Black Hawks, as they were then known, were in year 28 the year my dad turned four. Though they were in a lull, they had two Stanley Cups under their belt and hockey remained huge in Chicago. Professional basketball had failed here with several teams in several leagues, most recently the Stags of the BAA and NBA.
My dad and his brother were 10 years old when the Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 1961, finalizing their journey to caring about the Hawks as much as they cared about the Bears and Cubs.
Five years later, in 1966, Arthur’s son Bill became team chairman, while Dick Klein founded Chicago’s third attempt at an NBA team: the Bulls. Wirtz wondered then what Halas wondered in 1947: Would TV drive fans away from home games? Halas figured he would cross that bridge when he came to it; Wirtz just blew up the bridge. By the early 1970s, Wirtz had banned Hawks home games from television, while Klein, a basketball junkie and exuberant promoter, was in his first deal with WGN-TV. The Bulls gained a following in the 1970s with the Dick Motta-led teams of Mr. Bull, Stormin’ Norm, Butterbean and Chet the Jet. But they were still considered a niche franchise, behind the Bears, Hawks and whichever baseball team one rooted for.
By the time I was becoming a sports fan in the 1980s, the combination of the Hawks’ middling seasons and the explosion of Michael Jordan made me a natural Bulls fan over hockey. Yet something else did too: TV.
While ticket prices were rapidly rising for Bulls game, I could catch every game on television at a time when I couldn’t even watch Hawks home playoff games. While I waited for the Cubs to finally reach a World Series in my life (and waited… and waited…) and waited for Ditka’s Bears to win a second Super Bowl as we all knew they would, the rise of MJ, Scottie and the gang meant the Bulls occupied an increasingly large piece of my emotional pie.
In 1992, the Bulls and the Hawks made their respective championship rounds. Bulls games on TV didn’t stop fans from showing up; the team was in the midst of their eventual 610-game sellout streak. Meanwhile, the only way to watch the Hawks home games in the ‘92 Stanley Cup outside of Chicago Stadium was Wirtz’s pay-per-view service HawkVision.
Championships plus television: For a generation of Chicago fans, that was the formula that turned us into rabid hoops heads and away from the puck. It didn’t matter if the Bears, Hawks, Cubs or Sox were losing. The Bulls were our primary emotional draw. They made us whole. And that gave us patience. In the 1990s, if you couldn’t participate in an NBA conversation, you almost weren’t even a sports fan. I didn’t become a “we” Hawks fan until 2010 when they won their first Cup since Charlie Silverstein was 10.
What happened three years before? Bill Wirtz passed away and his son Rocky immediately put home games back on television.
A pro team planting itself in a sports fan’s heart only happens after years of building. Colleges don’t have that challenge. When you attend a school, you are the school. Not surprisingly, the women’s college game has had a rabid following for decades; in 1983, nearly 12 million fans tuned in to see the first NCAA women’s national title game. A new pro team has to build to that. First fans watch a team, then they root for a team, then they are the team. When a team becomes part of your identity, that’s when you stay with them through losing seasons. That’s when you watch no matter what else is on. That’s when you’re not choosing to participate, you’re compelled to.
In the six seasons after their dynasty, the Bulls went 119-341, a .258 winning percentage, finished dead last in the division in five of six seasons — and still led the NBA in cumulative attendance.
Call it fandom or call it addiction, but having a team in your heart is the stuff that moves dollars and eyeballs.
A league can’t reach fan identity without a cultural flashpoint or two. The WNBA is undergoing such a flashpoint akin to the 1958 NFL championship game or the arrival of Magic and Bird, and it’s happening in Season 28, not Season 33 (1979 NBA) or Season 39 (1958 NFL).
Gambling will bring it there too. “Gambling Helps Americans Get Rid of Money” the headline said. The date: Oct. 16, 1946, the NFL’s 27th season, and post-war America was flocking to stadiums, betting on ballgames and beginning to buy televisions. Nearly 80 years later, a new golden age of sports betting is upon us. For good or ill (I say ill), gambling is fueling sports engagement, which will help boost WNBA interest.
But addiction to gambling and addiction to a team are separate, and what the WNBA is now seeing is the everyday attention from everyday fans. This March, to be a proper sports fan, you had to watch women’s March Madness. That’s where the hot conversations were. That’s where you could participate in the most important discussions in American sports for that moment.
That carries into the WNBA. The victories are coming, as are the growing pains.
“The WNBA and its teams have so much room to improve community, media, public and player relations,” says WNBA insider Subria Whitaker. “The right partnerships and collaborations improve accessibility, visibility and marketability.”
Through her organization Grow the Game, Whitaker consults and works with women’s sports teams, including in the WNBA, to launch athlete marketing campaigns, fan events and other branding and promotional activities. This month, she saw what we all saw: the WNBA struggling to provide that accessibility and visibility. In short, to keep up with its own growth.
On May 3, the preseason debut of the Reese-Cardoso Sky was supposed to be available for viewing. It wasn’t. Instead, a fan at the Target Center live-streamed it on Twitter, leading to over 100,000 Sky-Lynx viewers at halftime and more than 545,000 by the end of the game.
“Growth is happening so fast, it’s so accelerated, and I’ve been saying this in our own organization: that business as usual isn’t going to work anymore,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said about the TV mistake and fan savior. “You’re going to get left behind, and this is an example.”
For the Sky’s second preseason game, May 7, the WNBA made sure to stream on WNBA League Pass. That same day, the league made a huge announcement: They would spend $50 million over the 2024 and 2025 seasons to set up full-time charter flights for team travel — a plan that, while proving tricky in the details so far, signals a promising future. Along with the pay gap between the men’s and women’s game, WNBA fans, players and reporters have noted the disparity in travel and television.
The league appears to be closing those gaps, with all of this progress driving toward big speculation around the league’s next collective bargaining agreement in 2027.
For a growing league, nothing is more important than visibility. Sports fans have to know that they can tune in wherever they are and watch a WNBA game. Per Front Office Sports, the WNBA earns about $60 million annually from its TV and streaming deals. League ratings are rising; Upton Bell wonders if the league needs to shift from a summer start to a fall start to capitalize on fan association of “basketball season.”
“All of the other sports were positioned well and grew with television,” Bell says. “If you said to me that the WNBA is now on when the regular basketball season is, you know what I’d say to you? I like their chances after 28 years as well as any of the other ones.”
Whitaker prefers the summer schedule. It’s the space the W has carved for itself. But they agree on this: The WNBA is reaching new fans, and those fans must have access to games. It’s the reason George Halas wrote his own Bears press releases in the 1920s and made friends with people like Don Maxwell. It’s the reason the ABA would spend its own money to fly reporters to games while they duked it out with the NBA. As a major discussion point, the WNBA-NBA wage-gap shock might be winding down this decade. Bell and Whitaker know the key, just as Halas and Bert Bell did.
“We know the saying: ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Whitaker says. “In the WNBA, it’s, ‘If you show it, they will watch.’”
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, the Bears historian of Windy City Gridiron, and author of “Why We Root: Mad Obsessions of a Chicago Sports Fan.” Follow his 1990s Bulls book research at readjack.substack.com.SBNation.com – All Posts

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