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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

WNBA is entering a new era: Skyrocketing viewership, sold-out arenas, young stars



Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird drives against Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner during the Storm’s last regular season game, at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Wash., Sept. 17, 2021. Bird, who retired from the WNBA after the 2022 season, is excited that the league she will watch this summer is already in a significantly better place than it was when she quit playing. (Lindsey Wasson/The New York Times)

By Ben Pickman / The Athletic


Sue Bird hopes to sound like Charles Barkley one day.


Bird, 43, remembers listening to Barkley, the Naismith Hall of Famer, complain about his playing days, on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.”


“He’s like, ‘Oh, I had to fly commercial. I didn’t have these charter flights.’ Or, ‘Oh, these guys are making $40 million. Like, my contract was only — I don’t know, $10 million.’ And he kind of sounds disgruntled,” Bird said on NPR’s “Fresh Air” last month.


Bird, who retired from the WNBA after the 2022 season, cannot wait to toss out her own back-in-my-day tales.


“I’ve always joked, I hope I’m that disgruntled athlete because that means all the blood, sweat and tears was for something,” she said. “It means the game has grown.”


Bird has not been out of the league even two full years, but the league she will watch this summer is already in a better place than it was when she quit playing.


Changes momentous and minute are aplenty as the 28th regular season began Tuesday. For years, as Bird and her generation of players graced the hardwood, the WNBA chipped away at areas of growth. But now the pace of the adjustments is explosive.


“To be very honest, the impact of the wave right now is more profound than I thought it was going to be,” said Lisa Brummel, an owner of the Seattle Storm, which added Bird to its ownership group this spring. “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.”


Television viewership numbers have skyrocketed across women’s basketball. April’s draft averaged a record 2.47 million viewers, a 307% increase over last year, and it was the most-viewed WNBA telecast since 2000. The first preseason exhibition for Chicago Sky rookies Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso was not on traditional television, but more than 500,000 viewers tuned in to a phone stream from a resourceful fan. It seems like a harbinger of what will come in the regular season.


“The growth is happening so fast,” said Cheryl Reeve, the Minnesota Lynx’s coach and president for basketball operations. “It’s so accelerated. And I’ve been saying this in our own organization, that business as usual isn’t going to work anymore.”


Early viewership returns reflect the strengthened link between the college and professional games. The win by Cardoso and the South Carolina Gamecocks against Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes in this year’s national championship game averaged 18.9 million viewers, making it the most watched women’s college basketball game ever. The tournament viewership was up 121% from 2023.


With a high-profile rookie class entering the league, WNBA attendance is already swelling. No team had ever sold out its season-ticket package in the offseason, but three teams (Las Vegas, Atlanta and Dallas) did this year. Three games have also been moved to bigger venues to accommodate more fans who want to see Clark play.


How players arrive at those contests will be changing as well. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced last week that the league planned to add charter flights on a full-time basis this season.


Lynx guard Kayla McBride called the change “a breath of fresh air.” Minnesota forward Napheesa Collier noted that with more people watching women’s basketball, it was imperative to protect player privacy in public places.


“All these players in these spaces are becoming so popular that it really is about [safety] as much as it’s about recovery,” she said.


Even before Engelbert’s announcement, franchises around the league recognized the importance of increasing security. Every WNBA team will travel with security personnel on commercial flights for as long as they continue.


Additional security measures will be carried out in other ways as well. The Chicago Sky practice at a public facility; the Sachs Recreation Center wrote in an email to its community members, obtained by The Athletic, that beginning April 29, two police officers would be on-site during all Sky practices for the remainder of the season.


Fever general manager Lin Dunn said Indiana was taking similar precautions to ensure that every member of her franchise would be safe. In addition to having a full security team at home games, the Fever will be traveling with multiple full-time security members, employed by Pacers Sports and Entertainment, on all trips, a team spokesperson said. Multiple members of their security team will also be present at ancillary team events, as they were at Indiana’s promotional photo shoot in downtown Indianapolis last week.


The travel adjustments demonstrate a commitment to improving player experiences. New facilities provide another significant lift.


By season’s end, the Storm and the Phoenix Mercury will have opened new spaces. The Storm debuted their 50,000-square-foot performance center in April, equipped with state-of-the-art strength and conditioning equipment, a health and wellness suite and an aquatics room. The Mercury’s center is expected to open by the time they host the mid-July All-Star Game.


It should come as no surprise, then, that both teams added stars to their rosters: Seattle signed 2016 league MVP Nneka Ogwumike, and four-time first-team All-WNBA guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Phoenix bolstered its roster with the 2021 finals MVP, Kahleah Copper, and all-WNBA defensive team guard Natasha Cloud.


Having already become the first franchise to win consecutive titles in 21 years, the Las Vegas Aces will look to win a third straight this summer. Expect a standout season from their star, A’ja Wilson, who will be getting her own signature sneaker and clothing collection with Nike in 2025.


All told, as Engelbert prepared to give the Aces their rings Tuesday night, she said she is thrilled with the state of the WNBA. With revenue having reportedly doubled since 2019, she said the league had “huge investment” coming in through corporate and media partnerships. (The league’s existing media rights deal with ESPN ends after the 2025 season, and a new collective bargaining agreement could come into effect in 2026.) At April’s draft, which was held in front of fans for the first time in eight years, Engelbert said the WNBA was “ready for what’s next.”


Expansion into new markets is part of what is to come. A 13th franchise will begin play in the Bay Area in 2025, and a 14th team is reportedly set to debut in Toronto in 2026.


“We are witnessing a transformational moment in sports,” Engelbert said, “that we may not experience for generations.”


Bird, too, feels the added buzz. She said the sport had crossed a cultural cachet line. For that reason, it might not take Bird much more time to become a semi-crotchety pundit. She might be able to tell stories about the old days before she even knows it.

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