What can we say about the W?
It is the oldest running professional women’s league in the country — that alone is huge. With women’s sports leagues struggling to last more than a few seasons in recent decades, the WNBA in many ways can serve as a North Star.
The league, like most women’s sports organizations, is experiencing record growth. More people are watching. The league’s 2022 draft averaged 403,000 viewers, or 20% more than last year. That’s picking up on the increase in overall viewership from last season.
Better yet, not only are more people watching professional women’s basketball, they’re also investing in it.
In February, the WNBA announced the close of its first-ever capital raise that secured $75 million from some heavyweight investors. They included the sports giant, Nike, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Dell Technologies’ chief executive Michael Dell and Laurene Powell Jobs.
“We are setting the WNBA up for a successful future and it represents a sign and signal of the future direction of women’s sports as a whole,” league commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in announcing this feat. Engelbert is no average commissioner. Before joining the W, she spent 33 years at Deloitte, where she served as the company’s first female chief executive from 2015 to 2019.
The record-level investment will be allocated for such initiatives as brand elevation and marketing, globalizing the league and finding ways to grow and generate more revenue, league officials have said. In other words, making the league as attractive as possible for even further investing. These steps could eventually also resolve some of the leagues’ biggest shortfalls.
The W, like any sports league, has no shortage of controversy. This is especially true for a league with athletes who have made speaking truth to power and pushing for social justice the norm. Players routinely use their social platforms to demand change, including within the league itself.
An ongoing debate that carried into the 2022 season is the WNBA’s resistance to charter flights, which are prohibited by the league’s current collective bargaining agreement. In March, Sports Illustrated published a report that detailed how the New York Liberty were punished for providing charter flights for its team. The team is owned by billionaires Joe and Clara Tsai, who also own the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center.
The issue resurfaced in May, when several players criticized the league for refusing to allow charter flights. After Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud entered the league’s health and safety protocol, she lambasted the league on Twitter “for flying us commercial during a pandemic” and after mask mandates were dropped.
As the league heads into its next chapter, there are inevitable growing pains. Before the start of the 2022 season, for example, some of the leagues’ top prospects were cut because of limited roster spots on WNBA teams. It prompted many to call for more roster spots on teams or for the W to consider expanding. Some players, including Chiney Ogwumike, have even said the league would benefit from a G League, similar to what the NBA has.
It will be interesting to see how the league continues to evolve as more organizations and people invest in the game. Even if you aren’t a billionaire with deep pockets, what many people across all facets of women’s sports have told me is this: The easiest way to invest in the women’s game is to simply show up to a game.
No need to take my word for it. You can see what the W has to offer for yourself.
Women & Sport is a new NorthJersey.com column devoted to female athletes from the rec league level to those in college and the pros.
Follow Melanie Anzidei on Twitter @melanieanzidei