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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.