Going Pro: The Success of the WNBA

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Professional women’s sports have had a hard time gaining traction in America over the past century. Different leagues have come and gone but none have really made it to the forefront of American culture or parked the same reaction from fans that many male professional sports do.

David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, had some experiences in the early 1990s that helped him to see the potential for a women’s basketball league in the USA. He began to work towards making the plan a reality by presenting NBA owners with the idea of the WNBA.  His vision and ability to market his idea found traction and many owners and investors began to give the idea some serious consideration. When speaking retrospectively on the WNBA, David Stern said, “It was a huge opportunity because, I felt, that tapping into the other half of the population, even though it would take some time, would open up a whole new area for basketball and when kids play it and they will be watching people that look like them and they’ll have female role models, it was, we thought, a very good opportunity.”  The NBA’s involvement and dedication to the WNBA helped to solidify it as a league, and also helped it to outlast many other leagues that tried to start up.

The USA hosted the Olympics in Atlanta that year and basketball was seen as a marquee event for both men and women.  As the Men’s team continued their dominance of other countries, the women’s team did the same thing. The team was loaded with superstar players such as Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Rebecca Lobo and generated a lot of fan interest in the sport of women’s basketball.  The NBA had met earlier that year and the Board of governors had voted in favor of starting Women’s professional basketball league known as the WNBA.  The teams would be subsidiaries to NBA teams that were already in existence. The Olympics were seen as a trial run or market research on the amount of interest that the league would generate from fans. The Women’s Team did remarkably well and won the gold medal at that Olympic games.  The team dominated the competition, won the gold medal, and became the best women’s basketball team in the world.  The level of domination was accompanied by a very large fan following, which showed that there was a market for women’s basketball in the USA.

In 1997, the WNBA started in 8 cities around the US.  In a business model that hadn’t been used in previous attempts to open women’s leagues, the WNBA attached its teams to cities that already had existing NBA teams.  This was done so the teams could use some of the already existing capital such as stadiums and other facilities to help their teams grow.  The league opened its inaugural season with eight total teams in Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Utah. Some of those teams are still in existence, while others have moved to other cities, others have disbanded to make way for new teams. There are currently 12 teams in the league that give players the opportunity to showcase their abilities and talents.  As the league gained a stronger fan base, the league was able to change its ownership structure to where teams now have independent owners and some of the teams moved to cities where they are the main attraction without an accompanying NBA team. The WNBA also has signed lucrative TV deals with ESPN and ABC that ensure that the league will be broadcast on national TV through 2022.  The money that comes from that deal will help the league to be able to bring the highest level of basketball to fans across the country.

The WNBA, now going into its third decade in existence, has had great impact on many women around the world. Before its inception, the opportunities for elite basketball players to continue their basketball careers were few and far between. The options usually consisted of playing on the national team, or playing overseas. The WNBA gave women a chance to showcase their talents for fans of all backgrounds. Many of the current WNBA players gave credit to the league for validating their love for the game and letting them know it was acceptable for girls to play basketball and love the sport the same way that men do. The WNBA has outlasted its predecessors and has shown no signs of slowing down.  It will continue to provide elite athletes a place to showcase talents and abilities, and to be role models for both male and female basketball players.

Voepel, Michelle. “Stern Was “mastermind” behind WNBA.” ESPN.com. January 31, 2014. Accessed December 03, 2016. http://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/10382007/wnba-nba-commissioner-david-stern-changed-women-basketball.

Swoopes. Directed by Hannah Storm. Performed by Sheryl Swoopes and David Stern.

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