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Ten things I’m looking forward to in the 2022 WNBA season

Kahleah Copper attempts a layup over Brittney Griner during the 2021 WNBA Finals. (Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s been over a week since the Chicago Sky beat the Phoenix Mercury 3-1 in the WNBA Finals to win the franchise’s first championship, and the basketball buzz is still lingering.

The 2021 WNBA season felt special. Coming off of last year’s Wubble season — in which several star players opted out, teams played fewer regular season games and social justice issues loomed large amid a world-wide pandemic — this year tipped off on a much lighter note. There were buzzer-beating shots, budding rivalries, star performances, emerging young players, riveting social media exchanges, broken barriers and records, a season-long 25th anniversary celebration and growth in viewership and coverage, to name a few.

It was such a memorable season that I’m already thinking about next spring. So, I made a list.

Here are 10 things I’m looking forward to in the 2022 WNBA season.

1. The Chicago Sky-Phoenix Mercury rivalry

The WNBA Finals series between the Sky and the Mercury was chippy, to say the least. In addition to the physical and competitive play, the teams exchanged words and tweets, Kahleah Copper created a T-shirt and a door that Diana Taurasi reportedly broke in frustration after Game 4 made a special appearance on stage at the Sky’s championship celebration.

While there’s certainly mutual respect between players on both teams, the newly minted rivalry between the Sky and the Mercury is good for the league, which needs more like it on both a team and player level. The competition is also fun for the fans. Everyone is waiting to see where the broken door will show up next.

2. Free agency

The list of high-profile players entering free agency in 2022 is long: Jonquel Jones, Liz Cambage, Angel McCoughtry, Layshia Clarendon, Kahleah Copper, Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot, Jewell Loyd, Sylvia Fowles, Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Tina Charles. Come February, we could see shake-ups on WNBA rosters across the league.

Will Cambage re-sign with the Las Vegas Aces or go elsewhere after not winning a championship in two seasons? Will the Sky retain their core group of players and try to defend their title? Will Bird retire or play one more year in Seattle’s new home arena? Will Loyd look to sign with a different team and be the go-to player? By the time the WNBA tips off in 2022, all of these questions will have been addressed, and I can’t wait to find out the answers.

3. More WNBA apparel and merchandise

The lack of league, team and player apparel and merchandise has plagued the WNBA for years, despite increasing demand. This season, Nike introduced a triple set of new jerseys for every team that were a hit with players as much as they were with fans.

Quantity, however, remained an issue. With only certain player jerseys available for purchase, fans who wanted the jersey of a different player had to customize it at a higher cost. Grassroots apparel companies began taking matters into their own hands, creating their own WNBA-inspired T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants and other merchandise. And the league may finally be paying attention.

In late September, the WNBA announced a multi-year, nationwide retail distribution deal with Dick’s Sports Goods. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The Athletic that the league is looking to increase the number of licenses it grants and is interested in working more with local artists, designers and lifestyle branding. Ideally, these steps lead to more available merchandise and apparel as the popularity and reach of the WNBA continues to grow. Maybe Nike will even come out with a new set of jerseys for the 2022 season.

4. More games on national television

For the past three regular seasons, the WNBA has added games on national television — 40 more as part of a new deal with CBS in 2019, 13 more across ESPN networks in 2020 and a total of 100 national broadcasts in 2021 — to expand its reach and exposure. And naturally, the bigger slates have had a positive effect.

The WNBA’s viewership during the 2021 regular season grew 49 percent over last year. The playoffs rated as the most-watched since 2014, and Finals ratings were at their highest levels since 2017. The best way for the league to continue to grow the fan base, by appealing to would-be fans, is to showcase the players and teams where they can easily be found on national television. The results speak for themselves.

Candace Parker, 35, is helping usher in the WNBA's next generation. (Kena Krutsinger/NBAE via Getty Images)

5. The passing of the torch

The headlines around the Sky this season focused on Candace Parker’s homecoming and her quest to lead the Sky to their first WNBA championship. While Parker’s leadership was crucial to the Sky’s success, including Kahleah Copper’s, it was the 27-year-old who took home the Finals MVP award after leading Chicago with 17.7 points per game in the playoffs.

We’re at the point when Parker, Bird, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles and the rest of the WNBA’s older generation are set to pass the torch in the next couple of seasons. Copper winning Finals MVP is evidence of that. If you look around the league, there are young stars already carrying that mantle (Jonquel Jones, A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart) and others who are entering the upper echelon (Arike Ogunbowale, Jewell Loyd and Napheesa Collier). It will be exciting to see a whole new generation of players take the WNBA by storm.

6. The Atlanta Dream figuring it out

No team struggled with more turmoil on and off the court this year than the Dream did. Former head coach Nicki Collen left shortly before the start of the season to take over the women’s basketball program at Baylor. Assistant coach Mike Petersen filled the void in the interim before stepping down midseason, leaving Darius Taylor to assume the role the rest of the way.

Add in locker room feuds, Chennedy Carter’s suspension and months-long absence from the team, Courtney Williams’ brawl video and an 8-24 record, and it’s easy to see why Atlanta’s season was a disaster from start to finish. Still, there’s reason for hope.

A few weeks ago, the Dream hired Tanisha Wright to take over as head coach. Wright, a former player and assistant coach with the Aces, has the experience and relatability to make a positive impact on a team that is desperate for leadership and cohesiveness. Then on Monday, Atlanta named Dan Padover as general manager. In his three years in Las Vegas, Padover turned the Aces into a league powerhouse, winning back-to-back Executive of the Year awards in 2020 and 2021. He knows how to build a team, and the Dream will need his expertise with seven players on their roster set to hit unrestricted free agency.

With Wright and Padover in place, Taylor acting as assistant GM and young talent in Carter and Aari McDonald, Atlanta has a chance to turn things around in time for next season.

7. Young teams taking the next step

The New York Liberty (12-20) and the Dallas Wings (14-18), the two youngest teams in the league, each took steps forward this season. The Liberty made the playoffs for the first time since 2018 and the Wings since 2019. Both teams boast talented rosters and are poised for growth in 2022.

Dallas has no free agents, giving second-year coach Vickie Johnson the opportunity to build on this season’s success with the same group. New York is in a similar position with only two free agents on its roster. In 2021, the Wings and the Liberty lost close games that can be attributed to their youth. As they gain experience and learn from those mistakes, they could start contending with the best in the league.

Rhyne Howard is expected to headline the 2022 WNBA draft class. (John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

8. Who’s up next?

The 2021 rookie class struggled to find its footing this season, with Michaela Onyenwere distancing herself enough with an average of 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game to be the clear choice for Rookie of the Year.

Aari McDonald made the most of her 16 minutes per game on Atlanta’s guard-heavy roster, averaging 6.3 points and two assists for the Dream. New York’s Didi Rirchards emerged after the Olympic break, adding a more consistent 3-point shot to her stout on-ball defense. And Charli Collier, the No. 1 pick in 2021, continued to work on her game in Dallas. Still, there’s room for improvement among all of the 2021 rookies, and they’ll have a deep draft class to contend with in 2022.

Rhyne Howard (Kentucky), Naz Hillmon (Michigan), NaLyssa Smith (Baylor), Elissa Cunane (NC State), Ashley Joens (Iowa State), Christyn Williams (UConn), Rae Burell (Tennessee) and Shakira Austin (Ole Miss) are just a handful of seniors with WNBA potential to keep an eye on this college basketball season.

9. Reformatted playoffs

For the past few seasons, WNBA players and fans have been clamoring for a change to the current playoff format — which includes first- and second-round single-elimination games and best-of-five semifinals and Finals series. After every season, the WNBA Board of Governors gets together to review what worked and didn’t work that year. The playoff format may be on the docket this offseason.

While there’s a chance the league is open to turning the second round into a best-of-three series or cutting back on the number of teams that make the playoffs, nothing is certain. Other factors — including player obligations overseas, a crowded fall sports television market and travel issues — continue to pose a challenge. But, based on comments from players and coaches this year, the debate over the playoff format isn’t going away anytime soon.

10. More league-wide growth and positive changes

The WNBA has been trending upwards for the past few years and the momentum has never been more palpable. The question now is, how can the league continue to grow and build on that success?

Travel is one area the WNBA continues to grapple with. Commercial flights during the regular season, which are written into the league’s CBA for financial reasons, will always pose problems. But the league booked chartered flights for teams’ travel between Phoenix and Chicago for the Finals. It was a small step, but perhaps an indication of what might be possible in the future.

Attendance is another area in need of improvement. While overall viewership numbers have continued to rise, in-person attendance has fallen. In 2019, the league averaged about 6,500 fans per game. Average attendance in 2021 dipped to an average of 2,600. COVID-19 and more access to games via streaming services, social media apps and television have certainly played a part. Still, there are positive takeaways. The Sky sold out both of their home Finals games and the Mercury, Aces, Sky, Connecticut Sun and Minnesota Lynx all recorded above-average attendance during the regular season, according to Across the Timeline. In 2022 — two years removed from COVID-19 — those number could continue to rise.

WNBA players also saw an increase in national endorsement deals this season. Rookie Kysre Gondrezick signed with adidas before she even appeared in her first WNBA game; Breanna Stewart inked a signature shoe deal and apparel line with Puma; Parker became the first WNBA player ever to grace the cover of NBA2K, and Jordan Brand signed 11 WNBA players to its 2021 roster. Having Bird and Sabrina Ionescu on a regular rotation of television commercials is also great for the league, though there are plenty of other players who deserve the same attention. The more player endorsements there are, the greater the WNBA’s visibility becomes.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League. Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

Two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas Re-Signs with Barcelona on Two-Year Deal

Alexia Putellas on the field for barcelona
The two-time Ballon d’Or winner has been with Barcelona for 12 years. (Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Alexia Putellas has re-signed with FC Barcelona on a new two-year deal that will run through 2026. The agreement includes an option for a one-year extension. 

The two-time Ballon d’Or winner has been with Barcelona for 12 years, and her previous contract was set to expire next month. However, she’s spent the better part of the last two seasons battling injuries, starting with an ACL tear that kept her out of the 2022 UEFA European Women's Football Championship and limited her participation in Spain’s FIFA Women's World Cup win last summer. 

Putellas returned in March from her latest injury setback, making 25 appearances across all competitions for Barcelona this season and scoring 10 goals. 

In total, the midfielder has made 400 appearances for Barcelona. Among her 20 major trophies with the club include eight Liga F titles and two UEFA Champions League titles — including helping the team to its first European trophy in 2021. 

She then won the Ballon d’Or in back-to-back seasons in 2021 and 2022. 

Putellas could add a third Champions League trophy next weekend, when Barcelona faces familiar foe Lyon, a team they’ve lost to in two previous Champions League finals. Should they secure the UWCL, they would win the quadruple for the first time, having already won Liga F, the Copa de la Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

WNBA on Pace for Record-Breaking Season

onquel Jones #35 of the New York Liberty rebounds during the game against the Indiana Fever on May 18, 2024 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn
Indiana's game against New York on Saturday was the most-watched WNBA game to ever air on ABC. (Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA continues its historic trajectory one week into the season, with attendance and viewership skyrocketing across the board. 

Indiana’s Saturday game against the New York Liberty was the most-watched WNBA game ever on ABC, drawing 1.71 million viewers. The Sparks vs. Aces matchup that followed became the third most-watched WNBA game broadcast on ABC with 1.34 million viewers.

On Monday, the tense finish between Indiana and Connecticut drew 1.56 million viewers to ESPN, the second most-watched WNBA game to ever air on cable.

Outside of the league’s viewership, both in-person attendance and merchandise sales have also been on a meteoric rise. On Saturday, the game between New York and Indiana shattered the single-game ticket revenue record in the WNBA, with the Liberty pulling in $2 million in sales. 

New York and Indiana played their home openers in front of more than 17,000 fans, with attendance up 14% year-over-year, according to the league. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Aces, the Liberty, the Wings, the Dream, and others have already sold out of their 2024 season ticket allotments.

Since April’s WNBA Draft, revenue from the WNBA’s official online store is up 2,260%, already blowing past total sales for the entire 2023 season.

While the numbers may cool somewhat as teams settle into their seasons, the pop in demand has already overwhelmingly delivered for the WNBA in 2024.

Angel Reese Adds USL Team Owner to Growing Résumé

chicago sky rookie angel reese speaking at an event
Star rookie Angel Reese is all in on the USL Super League. (JC Olivera/Variety via Getty Images)

Chicago Sky rookie Angel Reese continues to add to her résumé, becoming the newest member of the DC Power Football Club’s ownership group

The No. 7 pick in the WNBA draft joins an group that includes the MLS team DC United as well as other DC-area community members and business owners. One of the USL Super League’s inaugural clubs, DC Power FC is set to begin play in August. 

"I want to help grow women's sports and elevate female athletes across the board," Reese, who's from Maryland, said in a statement. "We're taking over, and I'm honored to be able to support Power FC and invest in women's soccer in the DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia) community."

The USL is a sanctioned Division I league, meaning that it is on par with the NWSL and MLS in the United States. The league's eight current clubs are Brooklyn FC, Carolina Ascent FC, Dallas Trinity FC, DC Power FC, Fort Lauderdale United FC, Lexington SC, Spokane Zephyr FC, and Tampa Bay Sun FC.

DC Power FC will also be playing their home games in a familiar location: Matches will be hosted at DC’s Audi Field in partnership with MLS side DC United. Audi Field also home to the NWSL’s Washington Spirit.

"Angel's decision to be a founding investor alongside us in Power FC is groundbreaking," Jason Levien, DC United's CEO and co-chair, said in a statement. "As a Maryland native, Angel is so passionate about being a catalyst for positive change in women's sports in the DMV as well as globally while inspiring the next generation of female athletes. We're looking forward to her partnership in the boardroom as an equity partner."

It's been speculated that the Super League ultimately intends to compete outright with the NWSL. But in its first year, the league will focus on featuring the depth of women's soccer talent in the US.

Former NWSL players like Taylor Aylmer (Spokane), Jordyn Listro (Tampa Bay), Erika Tymrak (Tampa Bay), and Domi Richardson (Tampa Bay) have already announced a return to professional soccer via the USL.

The league is aiming to provide counter-programming to summer women's sports in the States, with a season running from fall to spring like the European calendar.

In a social media post, Reese said that she’s "grateful & blessed" to be part of the new ownership group. It’s the latest move in what has been a whirlwind spring for Reese, which included getting drafted, attending the Met Gala, signing a new partnership with Good American, and debuting with the Chicago Sky, among other achievements.

"Looking forward to creating new opportunities for women in professional soccer," she tweeted. "I’ve always had to desire to invest in a local team as a Maryland native!"

Reese is the latest female athlete to buy into a women’s sports team, joining the likes of Naomi Osaka, who owns a stake in the North Carolina Courage, and Serena Williams, who's part-owner of Angel City FC. 

Other pro athletes involved in women's sports team ownership include Patrick Mahomes, who shares ownership responsibilities of the Kansas City Current with his wife Brittany. Kevin Durant and Eli Manning are part-owners of Gotham FC, while NFL superstar Tom Brady is part-owner of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.

Nelly Korda Continues Unprecedented LPGA Run

LPGA golfer Nelly Korda poses with Mizuho Americas Open trophy
Nelly Korda took home the title at the Mizuho Americas Open on Sunday. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Nelly Korda continued her unprecedented LPGA run on Sunday, winning her sixth tournament in the last seven starts. 

The 25-year-old Florida native took home the title at the Mizuho Americas Open, becoming the first LPGA player to record six wins in a single season since 2013 — and that’s with three majors and a little over half the season left to play.

"Oh, my gosh, six," Korda said after the win. "I can't even really gather myself right now with that, the head-to-head that Hannah and I had pretty much all day. Wasn't my best stuff out there today, but fought really hard on the back nine."

Korda is just the fourth player on tour to win six times before June 1st, joining LPGA Hall of Famers Babe Zaharias (1951), Louise Suggs (1953), and Lorena Ochoa (2008).

Should her victory run continue, Korda could break the current record for single-season wins, currently set at 13 by Mickey Wright in 1963.

Korda ended Sunday's tournament one shot ahead of Hannah Green, finishing the 18th with a par putt to win it all.

"I mean, to lose to Nelly kind of like is — it's sad, but then it's also Nelly Korda," Green said of her second-place finish. "You know, like she's obviously so dominant right now. To feel like second behind her is quite nice. Unfortunately the bogey on the last has a little bit of a sour taste."

Next up is the US Women’s Open, a tournament that Korda has yet to win in her career. 

"Obviously it's on the top of my priority list," she said. "I just know there is never any good when you put more pressure on yourself. Just going to stay in my bubble that week and take it a shot at a time."

Earlier this year, Korda became the fastest player to collect $2 million in prize money over a single season. This latest win earned her an additional $450,000, bringing her season total up to $2,943,708.

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