The WNBA Has the Opportunity of a Lifetime This Season

The league’s biggest question is no longer where it might find a pathway for growth but instead what it might do to navigate the clear road it has in front of it.
Clark leads a transcendent rookie class that appears to have tapped into a different moment for women's basketball.
Clark leads a transcendent rookie class that appears to have tapped into a different moment for women's basketball. / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The first pass of the WNBA season came in way too hot. 

Seconds after tip-off, New York Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot heaved the ball from halfcourt down to teammate Breanna Stewart. But it was too much, too quickly, and Stewart couldn’t get a hand on it before it bounced away. This was the opening possession of the first game of the season. And it was a strangely apt metaphor for one of the key questions facing the league right now. The WNBA is more hyped than it’s been since its early years, drawing record energy, interest and scrutiny as it began its 28th season Tuesday. 

What does it mean to channel that heat into something more functional and sustainable?  

The national conversation around the WNBA at the start of a new season typically has something of an existential undercurrent. But it feels markedly different this year. The league does not seem to require a default position of explaining its own existence anymore. Its biggest question is no longer where it might find a pathway for growth but instead what it might do to navigate the clear road it has in front of it. 

The last few years have offered plenty of encouraging signs for the league. The WNBA completed a $75 million capital raise in early 2022, the first time it had brought in money from investors, and said it would put much of the money toward marketing and outreach. That season became the most-watched in over a decade. The ’23 season then became the most-watched regular season in over two decades. Years of attendance declines started to reverse. The league began taking more concrete steps toward expansion. Its raw numbers remained modest. (League games across ABC, CBS and ESPN last year posted an average viewership of 505,000.) But they showed promising trends. And this season appears primed to escalate those dramatically.

Much of that is due to a transcendent rookie class. The group is headlined by Caitlin Clark, who shot to generational stardom in college at Iowa and now commands a level of national attention increasingly rare in this fragmented media environment not just for female athletes but for athletes, period. She’s joined by players such as Angel Reese, Cameron Brink and Kamilla Cardoso, all entering the league with big star power and the social followings to match. This class set records in college: The NCAA national championship game this year garnered 18.7 million viewers, the most-watched basketball game of the last five years for either men or women, college or professional. The women’s college game has not always seen its viewership and engagement translate directly to the WNBA. But this group of rookies appears to have tapped into a different moment. More than 2.4 million people tuned in to watch them be drafted last month on ESPN. (It represented not only a viewership record for the WNBA draft but a 300% increase year over year.) That was followed by news of spiking merchandise sales, ticket purchases and more. Naturally, much of that was concentrated on Clark, who’d been selected No. 1 by the Indiana Fever. But plenty of other franchises announced notable increases of their own.

It couldn’t have come at a more critical juncture for the league. The WNBA is approaching a moment where it can translate the growth of the last few years into more tangible, long-term progress. The league’s current media deal expires in 2025, and negotiations for a new, potentially far more lucrative one will likely rely on continued viewership growth this year. Expansion is on the horizon. (The Golden State Valkyries will join the league next season as its 13th team; Toronto is reportedly on the brink of being awarded a franchise as well.) And the players have an opportunity to renegotiate key aspects of their pay and experience if they decide to opt out of their collective bargaining agreement following this season.

New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart goes up for a layup.
“I think we’re really happy with where we’re going. But now we know we also have to bring our best on and off the court,” Stewart said just before the start of the season. / Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

All of which makes this year crucially important. To what extent will a rising tide lift all boats across the league? Will national media attention and fan engagement spread outward or collapse in on a few prized focal points? Can the league successfully meet the moment? It may sound overblown to say the next few months will determine the future of the league. But it’s hard to deny they represent an opportunity unlike anything in the recent history of the W. 

“I think we’re really happy with where we’re going,” Stewart, a players’ union officer and the reigning MVP, said a few hours before her Liberty opened the season against the Washington Mystics. “But now we know we also have to bring our best on and off the court.”

Some of their hopes for progress may require patience. A perfect example is the question of transportation: Teams have long traveled to games on commercial flights, complete with delays, cramped seats and security concerns. There have been some team owners who wanted to foot the bill for charter flights on their own. But they were generally blocked from doing so to prevent a competitive advantage. (When the Liberty’s owners, Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, paid for the team to fly private in 2021, they were fined $500,000.) It became one of the most consistent frustrations among players. Every year seemed to bring a new travel nightmare story—at least one example of canceled flights or players sleeping in the airport—and team owners interested in paying to solve the problem on their own were told not to. There was a modest change last year with charter flights allowed for the playoffs and for back-to-back games. But just days before the start of this season, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced the league had secured a partner for a charter program.

The players were thrilled. But the news came as a surprise—it had not been shared with teams before it was announced publicly—and there were questions about how the program would be rolled out. Fever guard Erica Wheeler posted a video of the team flying private this week to Connecticut. Stewart posted a message about the Liberty taking a bus to Washington, D.C. The two squads will meet Thursday in Indianapolis, the first regular-season home game for Clark, a high-profile matchup that will pit a team of young stars against a veteran group expected to contend for a title. As for how the Liberty will get there? They’ll fly commercial. But they hope it may be the last time.

Stewart felt a responsibility as a player leader to speak up about the uneven rollout, she said. But she reiterated that it was a good problem to have—much preferable to some of their past battles over travel—and she’s excited for the shift.

“I feel like oftentimes, we’re kind of looked at as us against the front offices of the WNBA,” Stewart said. “That’s not the case. We’re all trying to do this together. And sometimes, you know, there’s growing pains.”

Then came tip-off. Some of these existential questions could fade into the background as basketball itself finally took the spotlight. The opening-night slate was a sign the landscape is far bigger than one player, or team, or story line. The Liberty escaped with an 85–80 win over a Mystics squad that showed an ability to punch above its weight for long stretches. The viewers who tuned in for Clark’s debut with the Fever were treated to a stout display from some of her opponents on the Connecticut Sun, including a triple double from Alyssa Thomas, plus stifling defense from DiJonai Carrington. A reloaded and star-laden Seattle Storm roster fell to the Minnesota Lynx, and later in the evening, the back-to-back reigning champion Las Vegas Aces held their ring ceremony before facing the Phoenix Mercury. What seemed an obviously lopsided matchup on paper ended up surprisingly competitive. Phoenix hung with Vegas until the end, with a reminder that 41-year-old Diana Taurasi, the leading scorer in league history, is very much still around and able to ball. 

And so began a season with the potential to shape the future of the WNBA. The heat is there. It’s now up to the league to figure out how to harness it.


Published
Emma Baccellieri

EMMA BACCELLIERI

Emma Baccellieri

EMMA BACCELLIERI

Emma Baccellieri is a staff writer who focuses on baseball and women's sports for Sports Illustrated. She previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus and Deadspin; and has appeared on BBC News, PBS NewsHour and MLB Network. Emma has been honored with multiple awards from the Society of American Baseball Research, including: SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in historical analysis (2022), McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award (2020) and SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in contemporary commentary (2018). A graduate from Duke University, she’s also a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.