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Five WNBA storylines that will define the 2021 season

Sparks forward and WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike (Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images)

The 25th WNBA season is just days away from tipoff.

We’ve delivered our preseason power rankings and our season predictions are on the way. As the action begins this weekend, we’ll also be tracking some on- and off-court WNBA storylines through the summer.

Here are our top five.

1. New-look Storm

It’s hard not to like the Storm’s chances of defending their WNBA title when they return their core of Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd. But it’s also not often a championship team undergoes as much turnover as the Storm did this past offseason, losing two of their best defensive players in the process.

On Feb. 1, Alysha Clark chose to leave in free agency and sign with the Washington Mystics. On Feb. 8, the Storm signed veteran forward and seven-time All-Star Candice Dupree. Two days later, the Storm dealt Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb and a couple of draft picks while acquiring Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Katie Lou Samuelson and Stephanie Talbot in a series of trades.

Clark, Seattle’s anchor on defense, and Howard, the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, were integral to Seattle’s team identity and championship runs in 2018 and 2020.

In their place are Talbot, a 26-year-old journeywoman, and Herbert Harrigan and Samuelson, two promising but unproven players at the WNBA level. Dupree, while a seven-time All-Star, isn’t known for her defense at this stage of her career.

The Storm were setting themselves up for the future with their offseason moves. Herbert Harrigan and Samuelson are in their early 20s and under contract for at least the next two seasons. But with Bird, Stewart and Loyd entering unrestricted free agency after this season, there’s more urgency behind their title defense.

Can Seattle meet the challenge? We think so, but the rest of the league is anxious to find out.

2. The start of another Lynx dynasty?

The Lynx have just one holdover from their 2017 championship team, the last of four titles in a seven-year span. That is center Sylvia Fowles, who won two championships and two Finals MVPs with the Lynx and became the WNBA’s all-time leading rebounder last season.

It would be natural for the Lynx to toil through a rebuild after having all that success in one decade and losing many of the top players from those teams. But coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve has reloaded quickly through the draft and made shrewd moves in free agency. She also has two former Lynx champions on her coaching staff in Rebekkah Brunson and Plenette Pierson.

Natalie Achonwa, who signed with the Lynx in free agency after six seasons in Indiana, got a feel for the championship culture from her first sitdown meeting with Reeve. She took in all the championship memorabilia in Reeve’s office and absorbed the coach’s basketball knowledge.

“When you have a mind like that, there’s no such thing as a rebuild,” Achonwa said of Reeve during Lynx media day.

“Yeah, you lost the legacy of these great players and the careers they had, but you have to see who’s coming in, too. Coach Reeve is bringing in players that have a similar mindset, a similar approach, a similar sacrifice for the team. She’s built a culture here. It’s not about the individual, it’s the Lynx organization, the team that she’s built.”

Aerial Powers won a championship with the Mystics in 2019, so she knows the level of buy-in and sacrifice that’s required. In her first training camp with Minnesota after signing as a free agent, she’s seeing those lessons being ingrained quickly.

“Not only is the culture holding you accountable, but your teammates are holding you accountable,” Powers said. “If someone sees something, they say it, but the other person really listens. That’s what I’ve picked up in the last few days.”

The Lynx are chasing a title this year. And between Napheesa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield, Bridget Carleton, Jessica Shepard and Rennia Davis, they have the young talent to contend for years to come.

3. Off-the-court work is just beginning

2020 was a landmark year for the WNBA in its social justice efforts, building on the activism that has been a part of the league’s identity from the very beginning.

Players formed a Social Justice Council that brought athletes and community leaders together to talk about ways they could organize around issues of inequality and racism. They painted “Black Lives Matter” on the courts and wore Breonna Taylor’s name on the backs of their jerseys. They spoke out against former Atlanta Dream co-owner and U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler after she denounced their promotion of BLM, supporting her opponent Rev. Raphael Warnock, the eventual winner of the Georgia election.

“We took matters into our own hands with every challenge that was thrown at us and every endeavor that we wanted to involve ourselves in,” said Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks forward and president of the WNBA Players Association. “Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to do it with any other group of women because I really do feel like we’re pushing the dial in society, in the world, in our communities in a way that will show that we’re on the right side of history.”

With teams back in their home markets this season, the players intend to take the learnings and momentum from 2020 into their communities.

The top priorities this season, according to the WNBPA, are as follows:

  • Racial justice and voting rights
  • LGBTQ+ advocacy, with a focus on anti-transgender legislation
  • Public health, with a focus on vaccine confidence, cancer awareness and research, mental health and maternal health
  • More “Bet On Women” initiatives, including merchandise collaborations with BreakingT

4. Who will shine the brightest in their debut?

The WNBA’s CBA in 2020 increased the salary cap and gave teams the leverage to recruit top talent with bigger contracts in free agency. So, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen more player movement in the past two offseasons than ever before, shaking up the league for its 25th season.

Star players making their debuts in new markets this season include Candace Parker in Chicago, Tina Charles in Washington, D.C., Natasha Howard in New York, Chelsea Gray in Las Vegas, Kayla McBride in Minnesota, Kia Nurse in Phoenix and Erica Wheeler in Los Angeles.

With fewer preseason games this year, and players like McBride still making their way back from their overseas seasons, it may take longer for them to adjust to their new teams. In a shortened 32-game season, building chemistry will be critical.

Parker won’t have very long to get acclimated before meeting her former team. The Sky welcome the Sparks to Wintrust Arena for a two-game set on May 28 and 30 before traveling to Los Angeles for a June 5 matchup.

5. WNBA expansion

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert stirred excitement among WNBA fans last month when she said expansion is something “we’re prepared to start talking about” on the condition of a “very successful season.”

Talk of expansion has gotten louder as the WNBA has become more competitive. There are only 144 roster spots in the league, and with star players able to earn more money under the current CBA, some teams will carry only 11 players (as opposed to the usual 12) to meet salary cap requirements. Simply put, as more talent enters the league from the college and international ranks, more WNBA-caliber players are getting cut, and that’s a problem.

Even those within the WNBA have different views on the best approach to adding more teams.

“We’re always in a rush to get more,” said Sparks coach Derek Fisher. “I think the best thing to do for the league to expand in a healthy way is for all of us to continue to work our tails off to make the 12 teams we have now the best operating teams in sports. … The league should and will expand, ultimately, but we can’t wait for that to continue to strive to be great.”

Said Reeve: “We have this strange notion that we treat women’s sports differently than men’s sports. In men’s sports, the narrative isn’t that you have to have 30 financially healthy teams or quality teams before you expand. In women’s sports, the narrative is we have to have 12 healthy teams before we’ll do anything. That makes no sense. … The more teams in the league, the healthier the league becomes overall. The business gets better with expansion, with revenue opportunities.”

However quickly Engelbert decides to address it, the calls for new markets and more roster spots are not going away.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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