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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Fans love WNBA All-Stars but cast a critical eye on the league

Team Wilson beat Team Stewart in the W.N.B.A. All-Star Game on Sunday. Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, second from right, and Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, second from left, were the team’s captains.

By Remy Tumin

Benita Harrison-Diggs traveled from Virginia Beach to make a weekend out of the WNBA All-Star Game with friends. She remembered the excitement around the league’s “exceptional” inaugural season in 1997 and was hopeful that 2022 would match it.

Harrison-Diggs, 63, was one of hundreds of fans outside Wintrust Arena eager to cheer on the best women’s basketball players in the country. “The atmosphere is electric,” she said, smiling.

But as excited as Harrison-Diggs was to be in Chicago for All-Star weekend, she also felt let down.

“I’m a little disappointed that these women, as hard as they play, don’t get the same recognition that the NBA gets,” she said. “They don’t get the same exposure, the coverage and especially not the same money.”

Harrison-Diggs came to the arena with friends for the WNBA’s skills competition and 3-point-shooting contest, only to find that they were closed to the public and being held in a convention center next door. Instead, she and her friends were in a nearby courtyard watching the events much like people at home: on a TV screen. The competitions were scheduled to air on ESPN but were shifted to ESPNU at the last minute while ESPN showed the end of the men’s doubles tournament at Wimbledon. Many fans do not have access to the lesser-known ESPNU channel, and some complained on social media. ESPN later announced that it would rebroadcast the skills competition.

“They wouldn’t have bumped the men,” Harrison-Diggs said.

There is a swell of engagement and enthusiasm for the WNBA as it plays its 26th season, but the league’s ballooning fan base has come with a critical eye. Much of the league’s goodwill has been built around a core group of stars such as Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker. But as they begin to retire, the WNBA is transitioning into a new era of younger, social-media-savvy talent and a fan base demanding more of the league.

“I would have liked to see this actually feel like they put some thought into it, some foresight, about what they actually want a weekend to look like,” said Anraya Palmer, who traveled from Atlanta for the All-Star Game.

The WNBA said it did not have access to Wintrust Arena until Saturday night because it was being used by a cookware convention. The league hosted fan events and invitation-only concerts outdoors, but Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said security concerns because of mass shootings contributed to the league’s decision to close the concerts to the public. Spokespeople for the city and the Chicago Police Department declined to comment on the record.

On Sunday, 9,572 fans filed into Wintrust Arena, which seats about 10,400, for the All-Star Game. A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces and Fowles of Minnesota were the captains of Team Wilson, while Breanna Stewart and her Seattle teammate Bird led Team Stewart. Team Wilson defeated Team Stewart, 134-112.

Brittney Griner, the seven-time All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury, was named an honorary starter. She has been detained in Russia on drug charges since February. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, sat courtside. For the second half, all 22 All-Stars wore jerseys with Griner’s name and No. 42.

Aaron Brown of Chicago, a longtime Fowles fan, said he would not have missed the All-Star Game “for the world.” Brown said most men think women’s basketball is “boring,” but for him, the women’s game is “more pure and more entertaining.”

“The beauty of women’s basketball is the fundamentals — they play with IQ and skill level that even the men don’t,” he said. “You actually have to use not just your body but also your mind. Mostly men can get by off athleticism, but they don’t have the fundamentals.”

His favorite player is Aces guard Kelsey Plum. She tied Maya Moore’s record for points in an All-Star Game, with 30, and was named MVP. Brown said Plum, like many other players, did not get the same kind of attention as the league’s bigger names.

Some fans spoke about the disparity in pay between WNBA and NBA players.

In 2022, the salary cap for each WNBA team is about $1.4 million, and the maximum player salary is just under $230,000. In the NBA, the team salary cap will be more than $123 million for the 2022-23 season, and the top players make nearly $50 million a year.

“It makes no sense that a star women’s basketball player makes less than a bench player in the NBA,” said Sterling Hightower, a fan from Chicago. “I’m a big NBA fan. There are people in the NBA I don’t even know who are making more than Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.”

Cynthia Smith, a Liberty season-ticket holder for 24 years, put it bluntly: “Out of sight is out of mind,” adding, “I don’t know if we’re going to get equity in pay, but we need equity in exposure.”

Over the weekend, many players, including Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, echoed the fans’ sentiments: “Put us on TV more,” she said.

Fans have long complained about how difficult it can be to view games, such as having to toggle through multiple platforms, such as ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and a buggy WNBA app.

“You tell me I’ve got to go through three apps, I’m not watching that. Let’s be honest here,” Wilson said. “I think that’s just key as to how the league can grow.”

Plum agreed, saying she would like to see the league make it easier to watch games. “We understand that the product is great, and when we get people to watch the game, they love it,” she said. “But the hardest part is getting people there.”

Bird, who is retiring this year after 21 seasons in the league, said the key would be renegotiating television rights over the next couple of years.

“That’s the moment,” Bird said. “That could really break things open and change the entire trajectory of our league.”

Nneka Ogwumike, a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the WNBA players union, said the league was “on the precipice of something that can really turn into something big.”

Ogwumike said “the magic word is expansion.”

There are 12 teams, with 12 roster spots each. Engelbert said the league was analyzing demographics, women’s basketball “fandom” and viewership data for 100 cities, and new teams could be on the horizon by 2025. She also said finding the right media package was her “top business priority” for this year.

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