WNBA at 25: From the Basketball League's Origins to Its Groundbreaking Activism Today
Founded on April 22, 1996, the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) was first conceptualized as a counterpart to the men's National Basketball Association (NBA). In fact, ahead of its inaugural season in 1997, the WNBA centered its marketing campaign around the phrase "We Got Next." The slogan had a literal meaning; that inaugural picked up just after the NBA's season wrapped, but it also indicated something more. "It's the three-word ticket to play in street-corner basketball," Alison Roberts wrote in The Sacramento Bee 25 years ago. "At long last, it's now the women's turn to say it â and to play it."Â
Over two decades later, the WNBA has carved out its own reputation as a premier professional sports league replete with scores of talented players, from greats of the past, like Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes, to some of today's most decorated athletes, like Candace Parker, A'ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird. One of league's more recent mottos was "Watch Me Work," a notion that extends beyond the boundaries of a basketball court and into the realm of league-wide social justice initiatives.
To mark the league's 25th year, we're taking a look back at the WNBA's origins, standout moments and exciting future ahead of this season's first weekend of games.Â
College Basketball Helped Garner Enthusiasm for the Creation of the WNBA
When you think of college basketball, thereâs a good chance the University of Connecticut comes to mind. And, most likely, youâre thinking of the women of UConn, who, alongside long-time coach Geno Auriemma, have consistently pushed the game to new heights. But there was a time when the dynasty wasnât known for breaking records or shaping some of the greatest basketball players of all time. In fact, UConnâs now-iconic legacy really took shape in 1995.
Just over 25 years ago, the Huskies had an all-star team led by greats like Jamelle Elliott, Jennifer Rizzotti, Kara Wolters, Nykesha Sales and, of course, Rebecca Lobo. During regular season play, the â94-95 Huskies dethroned the seemingly insurmountable (and then-No. 1) Tennessee, which helped the team clinch an undefeated season. The first 35-0 season record in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) history is reason enough to celebrate, right? Well, UConn did one better when March Madness rolled around by winning their first national title. And, to do so, they once again defeated Tennessee.
While UConnâs win was monumental for the program, the reverberations extended far beyond Storrs, Connecticut. "Two years after the title, Lobo became a pillar of the newly created WNBA," Alexa Philippou wrote in the Hartford Courant, "a league whose very existence owed in part to how the â95 Huskies inspired the country to embrace womenâs basketball in a way it hadnât before."
The Women's National Team Changed Everything at the 1996 Olympic Games
Togethxr, a new, women-led media venture founded by Chloe Kim, Sue Bird, Simone Manuel and Alex Morgan, is producing a six-part documentary podcast series, called Summer of Gold, about this very Olympics. Bird, one of the pod's hosts, has even credited the '96 Games with, among other things, launching the WNBA. So, while UConn's nationally televised then-underdog victory was momentous, it wasn't the only piece of the puzzle.
As longtime fans will recall, the 1995-96 Women's National Team had a real watershed moment at the '96 Olympics Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Even U.S.A. Basketball is quick to point out that "[the national team] had seen its dominance in the international game wane," and, undoubtedly, there would be no better time for the team to reassert themselves than on the "home court" of a world stage.Â
Implementing a more rigorous training program than ever before was a must. Not just because U.S.A. Basketball wanted to clinch the gold medal, but because the association had "adopted a secondary goal of elevating the popularity and visibility of women's basketball throughout the U.S."Â
To prep its Olympic squad, U.S.A. Basketball mapped out a 52-game schedule: The soon-to-be Olympians would face off against top NCAA programs as well as international teams. This landmark training regimen also gave fans the chance to see pro basketballers in action. For instance, the team's game against UConn drew a crowd ofÂ 8,241 attendees â an impressive stat considering that it was just an exhibition game.Â
By the time the Olympics rolled around, the gold-medal momentum was there. "It was a school-girl level of excitement," U.S. National Team Director Carol Callan recalled in a 2016 interview with ESPN. "People were screaming on the bus. They'd been playing and training together for a year, and it was time to see the end result." In fact, the '95-96 National Team ended their run with an impressive 60-0 record â 52 pre-Olympic wins and eight victories at the games, all of which amounted to the team earning the gold.Â
"There's never been a more dominant team in the Olympics in any sport than the U.S. women's national team," UConn's Auriemma, who has since coached several gold-medal national teams at the Olympics, told ESPN. Without a doubt, the team's victory in Atlanta launched the careers of several now-legendary players â Leslie, Lobo and Swoopes â but it also changed the entire landscape of women's basketball, creating enough momentum to spawn two pro leagues, one of which had the NBA's backing.
The Early Days of the WNBA
When the WNBA was announced, another professional league, the American Basketball League, also cropped up. Unfortunately, that league, which began play a year before the WNBA in 1996, would shutter during the '98-99 season, but the fact that women's basketball had enough momentum behind it to sprout two leagues remains impressive.Â Back in '97, the WNBA was comprised of eight teams:
- Charlotte Sting
- Cleveland Rockers
- Houston Comets
- New York Liberty
- Los Angeles Sparks
- Phoenix Mercury
- Sacramento Monarchs
- Utah StarzzÂ
And, with the full backing of the NBA, it managed to clinch a number of well-known players, including Leslie, Lobo and Swoopes â the first women's basketball player to get her own signature shoe. On June 21, 1997, the league held its first game, which saw the New York Liberty taking on the Los Angeles Sparks in LA. In those early years, the Houston Comets dominated the league, winning championship titles in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Comets' breakout star wasn't necessarily Swoopes, butÂ Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, who ended up being namedÂ the WNBA Finals MVP in all four of those winning seasons.Â
The WNBA Proves That Visibility Matters
Over the years, some teams have moved or disbanded, but, overall, the WNBA has expanded. Currently, the league's 12 teams are:
- Atlanta Dream
- Chicago Sky
- Connecticut Sun
- Indiana Fever
- New York Liberty
- Washington Mystics
- Dallas Wings
- Las Vegas Aces
- Los Angeles Sparks
- Minnesota Lynx
- Phoenix Mercury
- Seattle Storm
Of these teams, two are tied for the most championship titles: Both the Minnesota Lynx and defending champs Seattle Storm have won four. But the league has always been about more than on-court victories, perhaps because professional athletes playing in leagues like the WNBA have always had to continually "prove" themselves.Â
For one, there's the issue of accessibility â that is, game broadcasts aren't as easy to come by as, say, NBA broadcasts. Fans might tune into ESPN, Twitch or CBS, or sign up for the WNBA's League Pass to hunt down games. In "(In)visibility," a 2016 essay for The Playersâ Tribune, former Lynx star Maya Moore discusses her frustration with the disconnect.Â âWe need the marketing to match our product,â Moore wrote. âCelebrate us for the things that matter â the stories, the basketball, the character, the fiery competitiveness, our professionalism.â
Not to mention, Moore should be as much a household name as Michael Jordan. Sports Illustrated has dubbed her the "Greatest Winner in [the] History of Women's Basketball"Â â and for good reason. Back when she played for UConn, Moore nabbed two NCAA titles and finished her college career with a staggering 150 wins and just four losses. That winning record continued in the WNBA, where she became a four-time champion and bonafide star of the Minnesota Lynx. "Visibility is nuanced and it can take many forms, from organized youth leagues all the way up to marketing and sponsorships on the professional level," Moore noted in her essay. "If we want to grow the womenâs game, weâve got to grow the visibility."
Moreover, there's the issue of equal pay, which, in a sort of cyclical fashion, relates to the marketing and visibility issues Moore wrote about.Â With Seattle's 2020 victory, Sue Bird became the third person in WNBA or NBA history to win titles in three different decades. In fact, both she and NBA star LeBron James haveÂ four championship titles under their belts â but that wouldn't be clear if you looked at their pay. As NBCSports notes, "Fact is the average WNBA salary, slightly less than $100,000, is roughly 1.5 percent of the average NBA salary, which exceeds $7 million."Â
The WNBA Centers Activism & Uplifts Players
From Tommie Smith and John Carlos to Colin Kaepernick, athletes have always used their platforms and voices to bring visibility to causes and issues that exist beyond the boundaries of a field, court or ring. But, over the last decade, the WNBA has taken athlete activism to the next level. What sets the WNBA apart? It's not just players who are using the platforms, but a concerted effort from all 12 teams.Â
In 2014, the WNBAÂ became the first American pro sports league to openly market to LGBTQ+ fans, hosting Pride nights and printing off rainbow merch. What was initially framed as rainbow capitalismÂ has since evolved into something more inclusive and genuine, thanks in large part to openly queer, trans and nonbinary players (and their allies) who are consistently using their platforms to promote change and amplify their own visibility.Â
In 2017, WNBA players Brittney Griner and Layshia Clarendon published an op-ed that opposed Texas Senate Bill 3 (SB3), which aimed to regulate bathroom access based upon oneâs "biological sex" and block local anti-discrimination bills that protect trans folksâ rights to use the bathroom that matches their gender.Â Griner and Clarendon praised activist-athletes who paved the way for them, writing, "As beneficiaries of such brave efforts, we do not take our responsibility as activists lightly. We believe it is our moral duty to use the platform we have been given to speak out."Â
By 2018, the WNBA'sÂ Take a Seat, Take a Stand helped raise funds for GLSEN, an "education organization working to end discrimination, harassment, and bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression and to prompt LGBT cultural inclusion and awareness in K-12 schools" through Pride Night ticket sales. And the league is centering its queer players in a way other pro sports leagues simply aren't. From celebrating Sue Bird's recent engagement to soccer star Megan Rapinoe to upliftingÂ Clarendon when they shared they're trans and nonbinary and underwent gender-affirming top surgery, the WNBA has helped foster visibility â and allowed fans to see themselves in the players they love.Â
âWe are so proud that Layshia is part of the WNBA and we know that their voice and continued advocacy will not only support and help honor and uplift many other nonbinary and trans people,â WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert wrote in an Instagram story, âbut also encourage empathy and understanding for the community across all levels of sport.â
In a recent Sports Illustrated story, "Living Nonbinary in a Binary Sports World," Clarendon reiterated the connection between sports, belonging and visibility, saying, âThat feeling of belonging is invaluable as a young person. I loved the competitiveness of sports, chasing a goal, the camaraderie of being around teammates and how when I made a pass to someone and they scored it felt like we could accomplish anything.â
The WNBA Protests Police Brutality & Racial Inequality
In September of 2016, the Indiana Fever WNBA team joined other athletes â inspired by Colin Kaepernick â to kneel during the national anthem to protest ongoing police brutality against Black folks in America. But this protest was unique. The players took action just before a WNBA playoff game â a high-stakes event with higher viewership â and every single member of the Fever knelt, arms linked. This marked the first time an entire team in any pro sport protested during the anthem.
Just last year, the WNBA showed solidarity again with Black Lives Matter and Black folks in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. As protesters across the country fight against police brutality, the WNBA, and its teams and players, have added to the conversation. "The time for change is now. Enough is enough," the WNBA tweeted on May 29, 2020, along with a photo of empowerment that reads "Bigger Than Ball." But that wasn't where the solidarity ended.Â
With health risks and playersâ financial security accounted for during pandemic shutdowns thanks to the WNBA "bubble," the league could resume play over the summer â and remain at the forefront of change, especially when it comes to demanding racial justice. Nneka Ogwumike, forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the Women's National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), told The New York Times that the season could act as a platform for spotlighting activism, saying, "Weâve always been the first in line to speak about social issues, and we see this as a really magical moment for us to turn the unexpected into something that could be very beautiful, with 144 voices in the same place."
In July, WNBA players dedicated their season to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name campaign, which aims to bring awareness to Black women who are victims of police violence. In addition to wearing Taylorâs name on their jerseys for the duration of the season, players took some of the most radical actions in the pro sports world: Instead of kneeling for the national anthem, teams left the court for the duration of the song.
According to NPR, about 70% of the players in the WNBA are Black, and itâs clear that the league was ready to stand behind their players â and fans â and leverage the sportâs immense platform for good. For years, the WNBA has been leagues ahead of other professional sports leagues when it comes to pursuing societal change and justice, and 2020 cemented the leagueâs and playersâ places in history.
Everything You Need to Know About the 2021 WNBA Season
The 2021 WNBA season starts Friday, May 14, with the Indiana Fever taking on the New York Liberty; the Connecticut Sun facing off against the Atlanta Dream; the Phoenix Mercury playing the Minnesota Lynx; and the Los Angeles Sparks and Dallas Wings wrapping things up.Â After these season openers, games continue through the weekend, with the season running through September 19, 2021. From July 12 to August 14, the league will take a break for the Olympic Games.Â
Unlike last season, which saw teams attending a "bubble" in Florida to play pandemic-safe basketball, fans will be in attendance at this year's game, though reduced capacities and mask-wearing will be enforced. Additionally, teams will be playing slightly reduced 32-game seasons.
Since games are broadcast on a wide variety of networks âÂ ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, CBS, CBSSN, NBA TV, Oculus and Twitter â fans should double-check where each game is available. For those looking to watch this season's biggest match-ups and catch up on last year's play, the WNBA League Pass may be the way to go. Not to mention, the league has redesigned the official WNBA ball just ahead of the 2021 season. And, while you're browsing all the WNBA app has to offer, we recommend checking out the latest limited-edition jerseys, all of which pay homage to the teams' hometowns and the rich history of the WNBA.Â