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The WNBA is at a turning point, and the stakes could not be higher

Will a new TV deal and marketing strategy be enough to finally prove the longterm viability of an American professional women’s sports league?

About a half hour after Jackie Young became the No. 1-overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, the 6’ guard gingerly descended a staircase at Nike HQ. Slippery and steep, it was much better suited to the company’s sneakers than the strappy stilettos Young sported for the occasion.

Approximately 72 hours prior, her Notre Dame Fighting Irish were one heartbreaking free throw away from forcing overtime for a repeat NCAA title in Tampa, Florida; Young, a junior, had only a day following the loss to decide whether she was going to declare for the draft at all. The other top-ranked junior, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, had just revealed in a lengthy Player’s Tribune missive that she was going to stay in school, despite the fact that if she had declared Ionescu would have likely been drafted no. 1.

Now Young was in New York, gamely answering questions while trying not to fall down the stairs — even though she was only about halfway through a daunting post-draft junket. “It was a super hard decision,” Young said, a little fatigue in her voice. Would she have liked more time to choose whether to finish school or enter the league? “Definitely.”

Unfortunately, for those who follow the WNBA, Young’s chaotic week didn’t come as much of a surprise. The league is at what COO Christin Hedgpeth has repeatedly termed an “inflection point,” one way of saying that from the outside looking in, there are a fair amount of open questions for teams, players and fans.

As its 23rd season launches this week, the WNBA has entirely new leadership, a new logo and marketing strategy — and a number of its most visible stars, including Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Maya Moore, waylaid by injuries or off the court for personal reasons. Their colleagues are continuing a public fight for better pay that began in earnest last year, as they laid the groundwork to opt out of their collective bargaining agreement. The draft, which was officially announced just three weeks before it took place, is only one example of the many ways that the league still struggles to decisively carve out a space in the world of mainstream sports.

“For us, the tournament’s over, then we’re getting ready for the draft, then we’re getting ready for training camp,” said Kristine Anigwe just after she was picked ninth-overall by the Sun. She and other prospects were only invited to New York the week before the draft; training camp started a few weeks later, part of an accelerated schedule meant to accommodate college basketball, players’ overseas schedules, and the league’s initial impetus to avoid scheduling conflicts with the NBA and NFL.

“It’s all fun, but when my mom was like, ‘Do you want to go shopping for a dress?’ I was like, ‘Can I … rest for a day?’” Anigwe added. Anigwe’s mom wound up choosing her blue, off-the-shoulder dress for her, a far cry from the custom suits that have become de rigueur for NBA draftees.

This year’s WNBA Draft wound up having its lowest ratings since 2012, when it was held on a weekday afternoon. “A confluence of different factors led to what wasn’t the most ideal situation,” said Hedgpeth later. “We’ll be making sure that we coordinate with all the necessary entities to mitigate that next year.”

The draft’s disorganization is a minor grievance compared to issues like player pay and its corollary, the fact that WNBA players have to play year-round internationally to make their stateside careers sustainable — both of which have recently become headline fodder for the types of outlets that otherwise rarely cover the league. Its laundry list of current challenges, though, is only a popular talking point because the WNBA is in the midst of a modest upswing, rebounding from some of its least-watched seasons ever.

Three years ago, the league had little to show for its 20th anniversary besides record-low attendance and drooping ratings. For a moment, it seemed like the barrage of unapologetic sexism and systematic dismissal the league faced from fans and media alike had finally won out.

By most metrics, the WNBA has since turned a corner. In 2018, ratings across the league’s ESPN broadcasts were up, as were subscriptions to WNBA League Pass and merchandise sales. Attendance dropped 12 percent, but that statistic has been cited frequently without the important caveat that in 2018 the New York Liberty moved from Madison Square Garden to the 5,000-seat Westchester County Center (which, needless to say, is not in midtown Manhattan).

But questions persist: what needs to change about the WNBA so that people once and for all stop talking about what needs to change about the WNBA? When will the public’s focus shift from breathlessly checking the league’s vital signs to spotlighting the globally unmatched talent on the court? How can the league rectify the seemingly endless minor miscues and keep them from adding up to an organization that still often feels like an afterthought to players and fans?

“What’s interesting is that the product is at a zenith,” said Val Ackerman, current commissioner of the Big East conference, in a conversation with SB Nation. Ackerman was the first president of the WNBA, leading the league until 2005. “It should sell itself. The players have done everything asked of them, but promotion and scheduling remain critical.”

“I mean, we always brag that we’re the best league of professional women in the world,” said WNBPA president and Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike a few weeks before the season started. “If all of that is fine and dandy, why aren’t we where we think we should be right now? It has a lot to do with how we’re being run — with the relationship between the players and the league.”

The league’s solution focuses on the dollar signs — mostly the lack thereof. “We all want the same thing,” Hedgpeth told SB Nation. “We’re doing everything we can to get this league on really solid footing so that we can grow rapidly into the future. It’s not a gender issue, it’s just not. It’s an economic issue. Everyone wants players to get the recognition they deserve.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, for his part, hasn’t shied from emphasizing the league’s lack of revenue — even as he reiterates the NBA’s commitment to the women’s game. “Ultimately it’s a market economy,” Silver said in a recent interview with the Today Show by way of explaining WNBA players’ comparatively modest salaries. His response echoed the disingenuous retorts of so many armchair analysts (and right-wing blogs) who have embraced the idea that WNBA players deserve exactly as much as they make as something of a cause du jour, one that gained steam last summer when made-up quotes from players claiming their superiority over NBA players went viral.

”The tickets are very inexpensive, but even at low prices, we’re not selling enough tickets to run a viable business,” Silver told Bleacher Report. He reminded the Associated Press the league has lost an average of $10 million a year. (Last year, NBA revenue rose 25 percent to $7.4 billion.) Earlier this year, NBA PR tweeted seemingly without provocation (from a private account) that maximum WNBA salaries had been widely misreported as too low. This season’s WNBA rookie minimum salary is $41,965, and the veteran maximum is $117,500; the NBA’s number, it would seem, incorporated bonuses. “There’s no one in the NBA league office or no WNBA owner right now who’s saying they’re giving up,” Silver said in the Bleacher Report piece, an unnerving response to a question that no one was asking.

Silver undoubtedly has more faith in the league than the conservative trolls, which he’s taken care to make explicit by insisting that the NBA is “doubling down” on its investment in the WNBA. How that investment is served by his ongoing willingness to discuss the public’s lack of interest in the product — a topic that seems, on its face, to be a fairly transparent bid for leverage in negotiating the league’s new CBA — is unclear.

But there’s no question moves are being made: a new TV deal with CBS Sports that gets 40 more games on national TV, a glitzy rebrand (its second in the past decade, on top of the 20th anniversary “Watch Me Work” campaign) intended to capitalize on the diversity and panache that players have insisted all along was their biggest asset, and a new “marquee partnership” with AT&T are among the assets awaiting the league’s first commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, who will begin her tenure in the middle of the season. Her hiring was announced last week.

It’s the kind of work that the WNBA has long needed, and that should help continue the league’s rise — historically, when there have been more games on TV, the ratings grow accordingly. Silver, for one, is finally optimistic about the league’s potential. “I think we’re at a particular moment in society where there is enhanced opportunity to sell women’s basketball that definitely didn’t exist when we launched this league, and didn’t even exist five years ago,” Silver told Forbes late last year. The thing is, though, that’s not true.

Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo, two of the marquee players from the WNBA’s first season.

”I guess there’s a time and a place for everything, and the last few months have proven without a doubt that the time and place are here for women’s professional basketball in the United States,” Ackerman told reporters before the tip-off of the first WNBA title game in August 1997.

The league’s first season was a blockbuster success. An impressive 14,284 attended the WNBA’s debut, a Liberty and Sparks matchup at the Forum, where Tyra Banks, Arsenio Hall, and Penny Marshall (amidst what seemed like thousands of A League Of Their Own puns) sat courtside. A relentless TV schedule — which included a game every week on Lifetime, ESPN and NBC — paid off with good ratings, outdrawing the NHL on ESPN among others. Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Anheuser-Busch were among the massive endorsers, and brought their own marketing heft to the league.

The primetime scheduling and A-list sponsors came onboard mostly because of the NBA’s nearly unprecedented investment in women’s basketball, which had begun before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “David [Stern] was our biggest champion,” says Ackerman of the then-NBA commissioner. “He put all the top people in the company on it; it was a priority project in the office.” That investment meant the WNBA was able to gain traction despite the fact that the product on the court was almost universally deemed superior in the rival American Basketball League, which folded after just two seasons.

By the end of its first season, WNBA average attendance was 9,804, more than double what Ackerman, chief marketing officer Rick Welts (now COO of the Golden State Warriors) and Stern had projected before the league launched. Ackerman and Welts were recognized as now-defunct AdWeek subsidiary BrandWeek’s marketers of the year: “Measured as a product launch alone, the WNBA clearly was one of the year’s most successful.”

“People were interested, it was something new,” Ackerman says now. “I do think in the next couple years, things kind of settled down. We were separating the curious from the truly concerned — moving more to the core fan.” Endorsers had signed three year deals, and games were regularly on NBC into the early 2000s. But the WNBA was never able to match its second-season attendance peak of 10,864 fans per game.

Some of the challenges of today’s league, though, were foreshadowed even within the WNBA’s massive early returns, including the most vital one. “Now that women’s professional basketball has established a niche in the marketplace, the future comes down to this,” Jill Dodson wrote in the Denver Post in 1997. “Can women’s professional sports join the mainstream based on appeal of the quality of play and not just the novelty of women playing professional sports?”

More than 20 years later, there’s still not a satisfying answer to that question.

Players in the early years of the league also dealt with pitiful pay, with the exception of Olympic stars like Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo, who had commanded $250,000 salaries mostly because of the threat that they might join the higher-paying ABL. They all still played overseas, as they had prior to the formation of the W. “If I could ask Ackerman to do one thing, it would be to raise the salaries to the point where most of us wouldn’t feel like we have to go overseas anymore to play,” Sparks legend Penny Toler told the LA Times at the end of the WNBA’s debut season. Toler, who had scored the WNBA’s first basket, was about to leave for Israel, where she would play for significantly more money.

Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBPA.

Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams says she’ll call after practice. The thing that makes that tricky is practice is in Turkey; two weeks before WNBA training camp starts, she’s still in the playoffs with her Turkish squad, Botas, which she’s been playing with since October. In the month between her postseason run with the Dream and her time in Turkey, she spent two weeks trying out for Team USA, trying to make the squad’s FIBA World Cup roster.

Her grueling schedule is standard in the WNBA, and nearly inevitable if players want to maximize their earning potential in professional basketball. All these years later, overseas leagues still pay more — in fact, several players are still fulfilling their contracts abroad as the 2019 WNBA season begins today. “People are like, you can make so much more overseas, why would you even want to play in the W?” says Ogwumike. “But it’s because players are committed to growing this league and making sure that it’s sustainable to the point where players can stay in market in the offseason, and continue to grow their own brands as well as their teams’.”

More than ever before, overseas play looks like a real threat to that sustainability. Stewart, the reigning WNBA MVP and leader of the league’s reigning champion Seattle Storm, tore her Achilles while playing in Russia — an injury that was almost certainly more likely because of just how much she had been playing. Victoria Vivians, the Indiana Fever’s 2018 first-round pick, tore her ACL while playing in Israel.

“One thing that [Stewart]’s injury shows is that the cause we’re fighting for is even more urgent now,” said Williams, who is the WNBPA secretary. “We’re seeing the league’s best player, arguably one of the world’s best players, go out because she’s playing in two leagues — which doesn’t happen in any other sport. I think the league has to reevaluate in these negotiations after seeing her and Victoria go down.”

Williams, Ogwumike, and the rest of the WNBPA executive committee have spent their “offseason” coordinating across timezones to discuss the CBA, which the union opted out of last fall. They even have a slogan: “Bet On Women,” which was the title of the Player’s Tribune piece in which Ogwumike announced the opt-out.

“We hope it’s a universal rallying cry not just for the players, but for women,” says WNBPA president Terri Jackson. “Bet On Women” T-shirts are now for sale, and have been handed out to other athlete unions — NFL players in particular have been flaunting them on social media. Jackson says she gave one to Oprah. “We may not be at the top of the sports news cycle, but I do believe that there are eyes on us, watching what degree of success that we have because this will ripple for girls and women generally.”

The union’s decision to opt out last year came after Jackson encouraged players to educate themselves about their contracts, telling them to read as much as they could of the 300-page CBA. Simultaneously, players started raising more questions publicly about not just pay, but also how they were treated — from the fact that they had to fly commercial to back to back games to the perceived lack of investment in marketing by the league. Headlines followed, mostly dwelling on any comparison to NBA salaries that a WNBA player might make.

“It’s good, honestly, just getting people talking,” says Ogwumike. “We obviously want to shift the conversation away from the people saying we’re trying to make what NBA players make, when it’s more about revenue and getting our fair share. Overall, we just want to feel like we’re being fully invested in.”

Until a new CBA is finalized, the league is making that investment on the marketing and TV booking side. A year ago, the WNBA hired strategy and design firm Sylvain Labs as consultants. Among their recommendations was a wide-reaching rebrand, which has so far been rolled out on the league’s site and social accounts via a new logo (the logowoman is out of the box, literally and presumably figuratively) and new slogan (“Make Way”). There’s also a new, edgier TV spot airing frequently during the NBA playoffs featuring players like the Mystics’ Natasha Cloud and Dream’s Renee Montgomery who haven’t previously been the faces of national marketing efforts.

“We have sent a shot across the bow,” says Hedgpeth. “We want to be growing faster, and we really believe that we can be. We have signaled that there’s something different going on with the WNBA, and we want people to take notice. Make way for us because we’re coming through.” Words like “bold” and “progressive” come up often when explaining the new angle.

“When it comes to gender, when it comes to race, when it comes to marginalized voices in general, how do you really bring those stories to life to the masses in a way that’s fair?” says Alain Sylvain, founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs. “It’s a real challenge. But we just thought it was a very interesting moment for the W in particular, because the level of play was at its best, and there was a new cultural appetite for women’s sports — there’s no secret that it’s a moment where there’s a greater sensitivity to matters involving sex and gender, discrimination, harassment and so on. Looking back at what the W was, it didn’t necessarily align with that cultural moment. I think it’s time to be unapologetic about what the WNBA is, and embrace that bolder stance.”

For the players, the rebrand is exciting because they were actually asked for their input — and feel like it was reflected in the results. “I’m … cautiously optimistic,” says Williams. “They did follow through on this, and made things look pretty good. So I’m like, hey, maybe this time …”

Of course, its rollout was met with the usual chorus of sexist comments. “We got the ‘Where’s the apron on the logo?’” says Hedgpeth. “But we’re not going after those people. We’re going after people who embrace progressive values around the role of women.”

“You could write anything, and someone would still make a sandwich joke,” says Williams. “They’re trolls, it’s what they do. But the people who actually want to learn something or engage in a conversation, they’re on there too. We’re slowly seeing that shift.”

The question of whether the league is finally near a place where its sustainability or lack thereof will stop being its defining trait might not be answered this season. But it’s the idea that keeps the players pushing forward for more and better, and that they hope will inspire the NBA to truly double down on the women’s game — like Silver says they are, and like the league did so successfully when it first launched.

“Sue [Bird] has said this on multiple occasions: the fact of the matter is, she’s not going to be playing when [the new CBA] goes into effect,” Ogwumike says of the WNBA legend and WNBPA vice president. “Our players want to propel things forward, so that the league is much more viable longterm than it was when we entered it. That’s how we approach a lot of these conversations — and I think that provides some perspective for people who think we’re just asking for millions.”

“The fact that the league is 20-plus years in is actually a success story,” says Ackerman. “Don’t take the longevity lightly, because we had many naysayers who didn’t expect that to happen. I hope the players especially get the credit they deserve, because they’ve done everything asked and more in terms of their contribution to the sport.”

“Everything is on the table,” says Jackson — including pushing for enough pay that players won’t feel compelled to play abroad. “If the league is truly willing to see our players thrive, they absolutely have to be treated and valued as professional athletes. They’ve had all the pieces — the elite athletes, the fans, the competition — but now maybe in the current climate, with the spotlight on them and their support of women, they’ll lean in and work with us to find a winning model. We have to put pieces in place that ensure we have a WNBA today, and 20 times 20 years from today.”

“Everyone is so gung-ho to talk about the bad things about the WNBA, maybe because it validates their belief that they don’t feel the league is viable,” Ogwumike says, alluding to the fact issues around the sexism players face and the way they’re treated by the league get far more coverage than who is actually winning games.

“But that’s not true, the league is extremely viable,” she concludes. “If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be around. No one would be fighting for us. We know that where the league is now doesn’t match up with how it’s valued. Don’t get me wrong — we’re extremely grateful. But that doesn’t mean we have to settle.”

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