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

Written by on May 14, 2024

Sue Bird hopes that when she’s in her 50s and 60s, she can be like a former NBA player who currently throws out opinions on television. One model Bird sees for herself: Charles Barkley. She remembers multiple instances of hearing the Naismith Hall of Famer talk 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.

She wants to one day be able to toss out 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 retired after two decades in the WNBA following the 2022 season. She hasn’t been out of the league even two full years (Bird technically jumped back in this April when she joined the Storm’s ownership group), but the league she’ll watch this summer is already in a better place than it was when she retired.

Changes — both momentous and minute — are already aplenty as the 28th regular season begins Tuesday. For years, as Bird and recently retired Candace Parker 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,” Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel said. “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 WNBA Draft averaged a record 2.47 million viewers, a 307 percent 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 didn’t air 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, which tips off Tuesday.

“The growth is happening so fast,” said Cheryl Reeve, the Minnesota Lynx’s coach and president of 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.”

The early viewership returns reflect the strengthened link between the college and professional games. Cardoso and the South Carolina Gamecocks’ win over Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes in the 2024 national championship game averaged 18.9 million viewers, making it the most viewed women’s college basketball game ever and the most viewed basketball game (college or professional in men’s or women’s basketball) since 2019. The tournament was up 121 percent from 2023.

With a high-profile rookie class entering the league, WNBA attendance is swelling, too. 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 plans to add charter flights on a full-time basis sometime this season. The news came as the league’s existing charter policy appeared increasingly untenable in the long term.


WNBA will add charter flights on full-time basis this season

Clark and her Indiana Fever teammates traveled to Dallas for their first preseason game on a commercial airline and were greeted by a few fans and media members. They experienced no travel or security issues on their first road trip of the year, according to a team spokesperson. But one video clip showing Clark and center Aliyah Boston passing by a luggage carousel, with a member of the organization’s security team present, gained more than 2 million views. It served as a reminder of their current conditions.

Engelbert was uncommitted about when exactly a full-charter program would be implemented. She said the new travel program, which will cost about $25 million per year for the next two seasons, will launch “as soon as we can logistically get planes in places.” Still, the news of private travel was cause for celebration.

Lynx guard Kayla McBride called the change “a breath of fresh air.” Minnesota forward Napheesa Collier noted that with viewership increasing across women’s basketball, it was imperative to make the adjustment to protect player privacy.

“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. According to a person with knowledge of the Chicago Sky’s plans, after not traveling with security last season, the franchise will travel with security this season. Every WNBA team will travel with security personnel on its commercial flights, for as long as they remain the standard.

There has also been additional security around the Sky at practices, which take place at a public facility in suburban Chicago. Sachs Recreation Center wrote in an email, obtained by The Athleticto its community members that beginning April 29, two police officers would be onsite during all Sky practices for the remainder of the season. Their presence is new this year and the change appears likely to have been driven by the Sky’s desire to bolster its player safety.

Fever general manager Lin Dunn said Indiana was taking similar precautions to ensure every member of her franchise would be safe when flying commercial. 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 road trips, the team spokesperson added. Multiple members of their security team will also be present at ancillary team events, like they were at Indiana’s promotional photo shoot in downtown Indianapolis last week.

Those changes are reflective of a new era in the WNBA. Breanna Stewart, the No. 1 pick in 2016, recalled taking photos and signing autographs at airports without a security detail present during her rookie season.

The travel adjustments demonstrate a commitment to improving player experiences. New facilities provide another significant boost. By season’s end, the Storm and 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 — all of it designed and engineered by a group that was 85 percent women and people of color. The Mercury’s will be part of one of the largest developments for a professional sports organization in the country, according to the franchise. It is expected to open by the time they host the mid-July All-Star Game.

It should come as no surprise, then, that both added stars: Seattle signed 2016 league MVP Nneka Ogwumike and four-time first-team All-WNBA guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, while Phoenix bolstered its roster with 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 Nike announced on Saturday would be getting her own signature sneaker and clothing collection in 2025. Wilson is one of just over a dozen WNBA players ever to have a signature shoe and the first Black WNBA player to get a signature shoe since 2010.

All told, as Engelbert prepares to give the Aces their rings Tuesday night, she is glowing when thinking about the state of the WNBA. With league revenue having reportedly doubled since 2019, she said they have “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 CBA could come into effect in 2026.) At April’s Draft, which was held in front of fans for the first time in eight years, feeling the positive momentum Engelbert said the WNBA was “ready for what’s next.”



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Expansion into new markets is part of what’s to come. A 13th franchise will begin play in the Bay Area in 2025, while a 14th team is reportedly set to launch 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 has crossed a cultural cachet line. For that reason, it might not take Bird, 43, another seven years to become a semi-crotchety pundit. She might be able to tell stories about the old days before she even knows it.

(Photo of Caitlin Clark, Aliyah Boston and Temi Fagbenle: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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