The WNBA stands on the brink of sports relevance. Can the league handle the transition to the limelight?

Jun 6, 2024 | U.S. | 0 comments

For years, the WNBA has functioned as a de facto charity project of the NBA. The league by all accounts has been a money loser since its inception, relying on subsidies from the NBA to pay its bills. Then-NBA commissioner David Stern even noted at the league’s inception that the point of the league was not to make money but rather to widen the NBA’s audience and to “encourage more girls to play basketball.”

For years, interest in the league lagged so low that owners literally encouraged fans to buy tickets to WNBA games out of a sense of civic duty. Interest in the on-court product simply did not exist.

Now, for the first time since the league’s inception, the WNBA is gaining attention on its own merit. The league has been blessed by the simultaneous entry of the two biggest collegiate female basketball stars in recent memory in Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. Their rivalry, which seems to have carried over from their college careers to their professional ones, has caused the league to shatter previous attendance and television ratings records.

It’s difficult for younger sports fans to appreciate, but prior to 1980, the NBA itself was a pretty moribund state as a sports league — playing a distant third fiddle to baseball and football. The fact that the upstart ABA had been able to force a merger just four years earlier is an indication that the strength of the league was not great, at least until the NBA was fortuitously gifted a similar pair of emerging collegiate stars in Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The WNBA’s greatest hope is that Clark and Reese will replicate the success of Bird and Johnson in turning their product into an attractive national television sport.

The WNBA has been asking for attention for decades. The league finally has it. But the price of attention is scrutiny. The more people actually care about a sport, the more people who watch it and pay money for tickets, the more every utterance and minute action of its star athletes come under a microscope and serve as grist for the sports-talk mill.

This scrutiny will and should extend to everyone involved with the league. The players were likely served a wakeup call when Chicago Sky forward Chennedy Carter’s hard foul on Caitlin Clark prompted a cavalcade of condemnation likely never seen before in the history of the WNBA. At the height of its absurdity, an actual member of Congress sent a letter to the WNBA asking what the league was going to do about the incident. Not to be outdone, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board promptly compared the shoulder check to an assault.

The scrutiny also extends to the league’s referees, who might do well to call Bennett Salvatore for guidance on how to deal with suddenly becoming a household name. WNBA referee Charles Watson suddenly found himself the talk of the sports world this week when he ejected Angel Reese for waving her hand at him in dismissal.

Overall, the league’s response to this scrutiny thus far has been a pretty mixed bag. Watson’s second technical against Reese was ultimately rescinded, which seems like the right choice, but this action only served to highlight the ridiculous dichotomy involved in acting magnanimous by returning a fine that was reported to be a paltry $400.

The league has stayed fairly low key about the shoulder check heard round the world, which is probably also the right call, but it might be worth reminding fans of sport that Carter’s foul on Clark was a good deal milder than, say, Dennis Rodman’s infamous foul on Scottie Pippen during the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, or virtually any foul committed by any NBA player in the 1980s.

The biggest adjustment the WNBA needs to make, though, pertains to its players, who are visibly grating against the attention paid to Clark in ways that are unhelpful to the growth of the league. The impulse toward jealousy is an understandable one, particularly for WNBA lifers who have long felt that they were not getting their due. But the extent to which that jealousy has been displayed publicly — and often tied to complaints about Clark’s attention being due to her race — only serve to turn off fans who are tuning in to the WNBA for the first time to see Clark play.

Some would interject that Michael Jordan infamously endured brutal treatment from the Detroit Pistons in particular, and there is no reason Clark should have it any different. This history, however, is slightly revisionist. The league (led by the Pistons) took an overtly physical approach with Jordan only when it became clear that it was not possible to stop him from winning a championship without taking that approach. Jordan was not put through the meat grinder until his team started succeeding in the playoffs — and Clark’s Fever appear to be in no danger of winning any championships any time soon.

Worse, some of the players appear to be handling even a modest increase in attention quite poorly. Just this morning, a number of Angel Reese’s teammates took to X to complain loudly about a “harassment” incident at the team hotel. The “harassment” in question appears to have consisted of a single person with a camera calmly asking Chennedy Carter if she had contacted Caitlin Clark after the shoulder check incident.

Listen, I am sure it is probably annoying for the players to be approached by people asking questions at their hotel (the video actually appears to be taken outside their hotel, in point of fact). I am sure they are probably sick of hearing about the Caitlin Clark foul. But if they think what is happening now is some sort of gross invasion of their privacy, I would encourage them to watch ESPN’s tremendous “The Final Dance” documentary and observe the humongous throng that mobbed Michael Jordan literally everywhere he went, including the lobbies of hotels where his team stayed. It isn’t great, and it would probably be desirable if fans left athletes alone to live their lives, but under no circumstances is anything that has happened to WNBA players yet even a fraction of what NBA stars deal with on a daily basis.

Every person who has been a celebrity understands that there’s bad that comes with the good, and you can’t have one without the other. The players will ultimately need to decide whether the increased money and fame they have long said they desire is something they actually want.

Either way, everyone in the WNBA — including owners, coaches, referees, players, and general managers — should prepare themselves for this reality: As more people care about what the WNBA does, more people will be examining every detail and every action under a microscope. Every word in every press conference and every on-court facial expression will have meaning. That’s the reality of what being a sports celebrity means. And the way the WNBA handles this pressure will determine whether this is the start of the league’s ascent into an independent league, or a flash in the pan that no one will remember five years from now.

The WNBA has always said it wanted more attention. Now, we will find out if the league meant it.

For years, the WNBA has functioned as a de facto charity project of the NBA. The league by all accounts has been a money loser since its inception, relying on subsidies from the NBA to pay its bills. Then-NBA commissioner David Stern even noted at the league’s inception that the point of the league was not to make money but rather to widen the NBA’s audience and to “encourage more girls to play basketball.”For years, interest in the league lagged so low that owners literally encouraged fans to buy tickets to WNBA games out of a sense of civic duty. Interest in the on-court product simply did not exist. Now, for the first time since the league’s inception, the WNBA is gaining attention on its own merit. The league has been blessed by the simultaneous entry of the two biggest collegiate female basketball stars in recent memory in Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. Their rivalry, which seems to have carried over from their college careers to their professional ones, has caused the league to shatter previous attendance and television ratings records. It’s difficult for younger sports fans to appreciate, but prior to 1980, the NBA itself was a pretty moribund state as a sports league — playing a distant third fiddle to baseball and football. The fact that the upstart ABA had been able to force a merger just four years earlier is an indication that the strength of the league was not great, at least until the NBA was fortuitously gifted a similar pair of emerging collegiate stars in Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The WNBA’s greatest hope is that Clark and Reese will replicate the success of Bird and Johnson in turning their product into an attractive national television sport. The WNBA has been asking for attention for decades. The league finally has it. But the price of attention is scrutiny. The more people actually care about a sport, the more people who watch it and pay money for tickets, the more every utterance and minute action of its star athletes come under a microscope and serve as grist for the sports-talk mill. This scrutiny will and should extend to everyone involved with the league. The players were likely served a wakeup call when Chicago Sky forward Chennedy Carter’s hard foul on Caitlin Clark prompted a cavalcade of condemnation likely never seen before in the history of the WNBA. At the height of its absurdity, an actual member of Congress sent a letter to the WNBA asking what the league was going to do about the incident. Not to be outdone, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board promptly compared the shoulder check to an assault. The scrutiny also extends to the league’s referees, who might do well to call Bennett Salvatore for guidance on how to deal with suddenly becoming a household name. WNBA referee Charles Watson suddenly found himself the talk of the sports world this week when he ejected Angel Reese for waving her hand at him in dismissal. Overall, the league’s response to this scrutiny thus far has been a pretty mixed bag. Watson’s second technical against Reese was ultimately rescinded, which seems like the right choice, but this action only served to highlight the ridiculous dichotomy involved in acting magnanimous by returning a fine that was reported to be a paltry $400. The league has stayed fairly low key about the shoulder check heard round the world, which is probably also the right call, but it might be worth reminding fans of sport that Carter’s foul on Clark was a good deal milder than, say, Dennis Rodman’s infamous foul on Scottie Pippen during the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, or virtually any foul committed by any NBA player in the 1980s. The biggest adjustment the WNBA needs to make, though, pertains to its players, who are visibly grating against the attention paid to Clark in ways that are unhelpful to the growth of the league. The impulse toward jealousy is an understandable one, particularly for WNBA lifers who have long felt that they were not getting their due. But the extent to which that jealousy has been displayed publicly — and often tied to complaints about Clark’s attention being due to her race — only serve to turn off fans who are tuning in to the WNBA for the first time to see Clark play. Some would interject that Michael Jordan infamously endured brutal treatment from the Detroit Pistons in particular, and there is no reason Clark should have it any different. This history, however, is slightly revisionist. The league (led by the Pistons) took an overtly physical approach with Jordan only when it became clear that it was not possible to stop him from winning a championship without taking that approach. Jordan was not put through the meat grinder until his team started succeeding in the playoffs — and Clark’s Fever appear to be in no danger of winning any championships any time soon. Worse, some of the players appear to be handling even a modest increase in attention quite poorly. Just this morning, a number of Angel Reese’s teammates took to X to complain loudly about a “harassment” incident at the team hotel. The “harassment” in question appears to have consisted of a single person with a camera calmly asking Chennedy Carter if she had contacted Caitlin Clark after the shoulder check incident. Listen, I am sure it is probably annoying for the players to be approached by people asking questions at their hotel (the video actually appears to be taken outside their hotel, in point of fact). I am sure they are probably sick of hearing about the Caitlin Clark foul. But if they think what is happening now is some sort of gross invasion of their privacy, I would encourage them to watch ESPN’s tremendous “The Final Dance” documentary and observe the humongous throng that mobbed Michael Jordan literally everywhere he went, including the lobbies of hotels where his team stayed. It isn’t great, and it would probably be desirable if fans left athletes alone to live their lives, but under no circumstances is anything that has happened to WNBA players yet even a fraction of what NBA stars deal with on a daily basis. Every person who has been a celebrity understands that there’s bad that comes with the good, and you can’t have one without the other. The players will ultimately need to decide whether the increased money and fame they have long said they desire is something they actually want. Either way, everyone in the WNBA — including owners, coaches, referees, players, and general managers — should prepare themselves for this reality: As more people care about what the WNBA does, more people will be examining every detail and every action under a microscope. Every word in every press conference and every on-court facial expression will have meaning. That’s the reality of what being a sports celebrity means. And the way the WNBA handles this pressure will determine whether this is the start of the league’s ascent into an independent league, or a flash in the pan that no one will remember five years from now. The WNBA has always said it wanted more attention. Now, we will find out if the league meant it.[#item_full_content]

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