I’m not asking for much this holiday season — just a few simple things to help make the New Year bright for the WNBA. Coming off another successful season, with a continued rise in viewership and fan interaction across the board, there’s a lot to look forward to this upcoming season. But there are also some things the WNBA can and should improve upon next season.
In the spirit of the holidays, I present my 10-item WNBA wish list for 2023.
Ahead of the regular season in 2021, the WNBA partnered with Nike to create a collection of new jerseys for each team in the league. The set featured three editions — Rebel, Heroine and Explorer — that were well-received by players and fans alike. But there have been no additions to the collection since then. NBA teams, on the other hand, have an average of four jerseys in their rotation, and recently, they’ve released new designs every season.
The WNBA is due for more jersey editions to stir up preseason hype among fans. How cool would throwbacks look for each team? Give me a 1997 New York Liberty design or a Las Vegas Aces/San Antonio Silver Stars retro look. Imagine how quickly they’d fly off the shelves.
WNBA free agency has never been more exciting. Just as the weather turns particularly cold and bleak in February, things heat up in the WNBA. While fans speculate, players take meetings with teams around the league who are desperately trying to lure them in. When the free-agency period kicks off, watching JWS analyst Rachel Galligan and others break new signings left and right only adds to the fun. This year, there are some big-name free agents in the mix, including Breanna Stewart, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Alysha Clark, Brionna Jones and about half of the Chicago Sky roster — Candance Parker, Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot, Emma Meesseman and Azurá Stevens.
Taurasi and Griner have both indicated they will stay in Phoenix, but other decisions are up in the air. Will the Sky keep their core together? Will Stewie return to her home state to play for the Liberty? Will the Ogwumikes stay in Los Angeles as a package deal under new Sparks head coach Curt Miller? I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.
One of the many reasons the 2021 Finals series between the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury was so captivating is because of the on-court and off-court action. There was trash-talking, memes, Twitter beef, chippy play, a fist-fight with a locker-room door and some amazing basketball on display. But the rivalry didn’t extend into the following regular season as many had hoped, and currently, there’s no real WNBA rivalry to get behind. Remember Los Angeles Sparks vs. Minnesota Lynx? Detroit Shock vs. Phoenix Mercury? And Los Angeles Sparks vs. New York Liberty back in the day?
The WNBA needs team rivalries. They’re good for the league and fun for fans, making for must-see-TV during regular season broadcasts and upping the competitiveness for the players.
Let’s be honest: WNBA All-Star Weekend could be so much more organized than it is, especially for fans. While last year’s festivities in Chicago were a success in terms of fan turnout and viewership, there were also some notable missteps. Saturday’s 3-point contest and skills competition were not held at Wintrust Arena due to a scheduling conflict, and fans were unable to attend. Additionally, location and event schedules weren’t released until Friday, causing confusion for attending fans.
The WNBA would benefit from getting ahead of schedule and planning accordingly this year, well before the regular season gets underway (there is already a report that the All-Star Game will return to Las Vegas in 2023). That would allow for fans to book flights, make hotel accommodations and prepare for what should be a celebratory and memorable weekend for the league.
While we’re on the topic of All-Star Weekend, let’s talk about adding more activities. The WNBA could get extra creative, mixing in events that are fun for both the fans and players. Giving fans a chance to watch and enjoy the skills competition is a top priority, of course. But how about expanding Saturday’s lineup? Add some one-on-one games — a Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson matchup would be prime viewing. Host a rookie versus vets game, or a rookie showcase game. Invite celebrities to come and participate. There’s a lot to explore and plenty of room for All-Star Weekend to grow.
At times, it feels like there is a disconnect between the WNBA’s past and present, especially from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Aces owner Mark Davis set the bar this season by making it a point to honor former San Antonio Silver Stars — the Aces’ previous franchise — during Aces home games. The WNBA as a whole can follow suit and become more conscious of celebrating its lineage. That might include catching up with former players on a regular podcast or video series, acknowledging them on national broadcasts throughout the season, or featuring them in articles that explain what they are up to now. There’s a rich history with the league that is worth revisiting on a more regular basis.
Between live broadcasts and streaming, the WNBA showcased a total of 147 regular games in 2022. Disney’s group of channels (ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC) aired 25 nationally televised games, which accounted for the league’s most-viewed season since 2008. Overall, viewership between CBS and Disney networks was the highest in the WNBA’s history with those partners. Each team in the league will play 40 games in 2023, and the WNBA has yet to release its broadcast and streaming schedule. But one thing is clear: There need to be more games on television and on channels where people can easily find them. As the fan base continues to grow, those viewership numbers will keep rising.
Some of you might not remember the WNBA commercials from the late ‘90s — but I do. They were so well-written and funny. For those who didn’t know who Tina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes or Cynthia Cooper were, those TV spots put a face to players’ names. They also built momentum for the league and kept the start of the regular season on peoples’ minds. What happened to them? I don’t know, but they remind me of the league’s marketing possibilities.
Last February, the WNBA announced that it had raised $74 million in investment capital. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert pledged to use a portion of that money toward marketing efforts. The league needs to keep attracting fans in order to grow, and an overall marketing strategy helps give players opportunities, lure in would-be viewers and keep the WNBA relevant during quiet periods.
In my recent conversation with Angel McCoughtry, the WNBA veteran made it a point to talk about the league’s lack of promotion of players during the offseason. The WNBA season is short compared to those of other major sports leagues, and from October to April, there’s a recognizable lull in coverage. With more and more players opting to stay stateside rather than compete overseas during the offseason, there are plenty of stories worth telling. Players are participating in the 2023 Athletes Unlimited basketball season, juggling multiple business ventures, getting into broadcasting, connecting with their alma maters as coaches and mentors, taking on modeling and fashion gigs, etc. The WNBA (and more independent media outlets) could provide fans with updates, pulling back the curtain on players’ lives when they’re not balling.
Brittney Griner was unjustly detained in Russia in early February 2022, and after 10 months was finally released on Dec. 8. I can’t even begin to imagine the emotional, mental and physical ramifications of her imprisonment, and I hope she recovers in all three aspects of her life. It was encouraging to read her statement that she intends to play in the WNBA this season with the Mercury, and to see that she dunked after picking up a basketball for the first time in almost a year. My biggest holiday wish is that BG heals fully from this experience and ultimately basks in the joy of being on the court again.
Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. 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.