The Brewing Battle for the WNBA’s Soul

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There’s no denying what is happening with women’s sports. On Sunday, 76,082 fans attended a women’s soccer match in England. Professional women’s hockey is booming in Canada. Pro softball is blossoming in Mexico. And on Tuesday night, Madison Square Garden will share center-of-the-sports-world status with Mohegan Sun Arena as Caitlin Clark makes her WNBA debut against Connecticut.

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Right now, owners, activists and fans are all pushing in the same direction. Together, they’re bringing in attention and investment that is both unprecedented and overdue.

“We are witnessing a transformational moment in sports that we may not experience for generations,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said before this year’s draft.

But by this point, everyone knows what usually comes with more money…

Under a growing spotlight, can the league continue to be both a business and a movement? Or will it have to announce exactly what the W stands for?

Currently, it’s easy for everyone involved to celebrate the financial victories. The Seattle Storm’s 2023 valuation at $151 million—15 times what the franchise was bought for in 2008—might already be a bargain.

Sensing what’s on the horizon, the WNBA most recently announced a charter travel program for all its teams, at the cost of $50 million over two seasons.

“To be very honest, the impact of the wave right now is more profound than I thought it was going to be,” Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel recently told The Athletic. “It got to be a bigger wave a lot faster than what I think we projected it to be. And wow, I’ll say it feels amazing.”

Incoming investors might see an arc for women’s sports in America that looks a lot like what men’s leagues went through as they exploded in value over the last three decades. Women can fill buildings and airwaves when men don’t. They can even attract entirely new audiences. Leveraging social media, female athletes present a way forward for the entire industry.

But running out the old playbook risks endangering what has drawn many to the women’s game already. And this is not a simple matter of fans vs. ownership, because on key issues, not even fans are likely to agree.

Women’s sports today offer some of the purest athletic experiences—players generally are not chasing riches, are often relatively unknown without a jersey on and usually highly accessible to supporters. The events are cool precisely because they aren’t.

That can’t last forever—just ask punk rock or comic books or skateboarding. The pay situation is already woefully outmoded. But maintaining authenticity will be critical for women’s sports ventures aiming to separate themselves from traditional options with a head start collecting fan hearts.

At their best, these games show what sports are still capable of. At their worst, they may give rise to “sellout” complaints.

Other fans are more than ready for women’s basketball to escape its underground era, sick of being “in the know” and ready for everyone to know. For them, Tuesday’s season openers are the latest achievement in a decades-long movement for recognition and respect, each new advertisement a potential cause for cheer.

WNBA players have been key drivers of national conversations in recent years. Breanna Stewart bravely joined the “Me Too” movement in 2017. Atlanta Dream players campaigned against team co-owner and Sen. Kelly Loeffler until a “former” was placed in front of both those titles in 2021.

Even absent those examples, the mere existence of a professional women’s basketball league makes a statement that its stars deserve to be celebrated for their talents. How could women’s sports not be political, when so much of today’s success can be tracked back to the groundbreaking public policy of Title IX?

Inspiration seems as important to some followers as entertainment. Others are already put off at times by messaging that treats these money-seeking ventures as causes for the public good.

Are alcohol sponsors good for the game? What of betting lines? And how about kid-focused contests scheduled during the daytime, with summer camp attendees specifically in mind?

How eager are fans to embrace trash talk or cast a star as a villain? Does the WNBA want to be the next big thing in sports, or something else entirely? These are all questions it will need to answer as the 28-year-old circuit moves into its next phase.

It’s telling that, to date, the WNBA logo has become more fashionable than any specific team. In addition to any localized connection, fans are often rooting for the sport as a whole.

Of course, that doesn’t fly elsewhere. I’m pretty sure Rob Lowe is still being ridiculed for his NFL cap. And football fans take every chance they get to vociferously boo the face of the league they love. If similar jeers ever rain down on Engelbert, the transformation will be complete.

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