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Seattle GM Alisha Valavanis on the Storm’s title and the WNBA’s Future

Seattle Storm & Alisha Valavanis/ JWS
Seattle Storm & Alisha Valavanis/ JWS

Alisha Valavanis is the CEO and General Manager of the Seattle Storm of the WNBA. She spoke with Just Women’s Sports about a historic 2020 season, what it meant to win the title, and how she’s preparing for 2021. 

If you could sum up the 2020 season in a sentence, what would it be?

It’s been a really challenging 2020, so great to have something to celebrate.

How was life in the bubble as a GM? Were you living with the team? 

I was just there for a couple of weeks. I was in a separate tier from the players, but I went in for the playoffs. The players were there, as you know, for three months. So a lot of respect for the WNBA and the way they put this together. It was unbelievable. Obviously, the health and safety of the players was the top priority, as well as all those that were going to work inside the bubble and, I mean, what an accomplishment.

Heading into the off season, where some players may go overseas to play abroad, what are you seeing in terms of the new CBA and also COVID impacting decisions to play overseas?

You know, I think the players are really going to take a second here and kind of decide what makes the most sense. They have options, of course. Some overseas seasons are starting soon, and there’s also a number of players that will consider starting after the New Year. All of it is based on COVID and based on which country they are going to. For the Storm, we’re pivoting quickly to 2021. I’m already having conversations with our staff on what 2021 can look like, evaluating our path and the players and what we can get done here.

We’re one year in now with the new CBA and it’s been a real positive. These first couple of years are a little different, but over the next three years will start to see its impact on players’ decisions as they weigh out their opportunities to go overseas versus staying at home to rest. Increasing the cap certainly helped, and it will impact players’ thinking about what they want to do depending on where they are at in their career.

Are you seeing any exciting things happening in free agency? You have several unrestricted free agents this season.

Now is when we, as an organization, really start to have the conversations around both free agency and the draft, which are two critical pieces. We always look at those as we think about our plan for the upcoming season, and we’re in those conversations now. That’s really what the focus will be as our players enter free agency in the coming weeks. There’s a lot to look forward to. It’s never a dull moment. No vacation after the celebration. We did a virtual rally on Friday after the championship. Then a little bit of work on Saturday, Sunday off, and back at it Monday. Now we’re talking 2021.

Speaking of 2021, Commissioner Engelbert has said you may have to do another bubble. What are your thoughts on that?

You know, I think we’re all doing kind of a recap right now. By every measure, it was certainly a successful 2020 campaign inside the bubble, but in terms of what’s next, so much is based on where we are as a country and what continues to play out in terms of the COVID-19 crisis. We’re all certainly looking ahead and modeling a number of different scenarios until we have a little bit more clarity on what’s possible. I think we’ll continue to learn a lot from the NBA and how that plays out, but again, there’s just a ton of question marks, as I know there is across every industry and country.

Sue Bird has said she’s leaning toward coming back. What have you heard? 

We’re going to talk with Sue on her plans right now. She’s a legend and we’ll talk very soon about 2021. But right now I think she’s celebrating championship number four. Obviously, she leads this group and was just playing exceptional basketball this year.

The league came together this season and presented a united voice on very emotional, complicated issues of social justice. How do you think they were able to come together on such difficult topics?  

I think one thing that’s been really inspiring to watch is the players union and the players come together on their positioning around fighting for racial justice in this country. There was no question before the season started that there would a commitment from players and teams on and off the court to fight for racial justice in this country. It was inspiring to watch the players work towards that. I really can’t say enough about their unity and their commitment, and this is one example where you see the power behind the professional sports platform to really drive positive social change. I think our players are an inspiration, and it didn’t just start in 2020. I think they’re incredible role models to our youth, to little girls and little boys, and I think their fight and the collective WNBA’s fight for a more equitable world is really at the center of this entire push.

Moving forward, I’m sure there’s talks about keeping those messages front and center, is that happening already for the 2021 season?

Absolutely. I think as we went into the 2020 season, there was recognition that this was not a short game. This was a long game, and there was work to be done, and it wasn’t going to be just one campaign and one season. I think those conversations are absolutely underway at the league level with the players union. I know across the many franchises, we’re all looking at how do we build on what was started in the 2020 season, and then more broadly, some of the other things that have been front and center for this league in terms of gender equality as well — how do we continue to build towards both those goals?

The league’s television ratings this year were incredible. 68% improvement from the year before. What accounts for that in your eyes? 

I mean, we love to see it, and I think it was really great to have more visibility and more exposure on ESPN for fans across this country. We have 12 teams, and 12 unique markets, but we have WNBA fans all over this country and all over the globe, and I think access to those games is critical and really paramount in terms of continued engagement and interest and visibility for this league. So we were thrilled to see the number, and we hope to continue to build from there.

What needs to happen to keep that momentum?

We need to have continued exposure and visibility of these games and these incredible athletes and their stories. I think a major part of this is the media and getting continued investment from our critical partners, ESPN, ABC. And at local level, there are different local deals that are important to make as think about the long term and how we can continue to grow. Media exposure is a huge part of that. Additionally, corporate partnerships are at the center of the franchise model for the NBA, and so I think these two things in concert, the growth of corporate partnerships and media exposure, will lead to growth for the league.

How would you describe the current moment we’re in with women’s pro sports? What’s happening right now and what does the future look like?

I do think we are at a moment now where women’s sports really is taking off in this country and it’s exciting. It’s exciting to be a part of it. I think so much of this is about visibility and access to watching these sports, and also the opportunity to play, which has been a focus of so many professional women’s leagues in this country. They’re producing sports at the highest level while also creating opportunities for the next generation of girls. I do think there is a paradigm shift, and I think we’re going to watch women’s sports continue to grow in this country and hopefully be a critical part of the fabric of society.

I think that’s where we’re going. It’s one of the positives of 2020. It has been an unbelievably challenging year for so many. Sports brings us together. It gives us something to cheer for. It gives us a team to be a part of. And for us to win the championship, it was a really special disruption to what has been a very difficult 2020.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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