Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Why the WNBA’s popularity continues to grow

Posted on 5 March 2021 by Dami Adewale

Co-written with Bailey Keogh and Lewis Pangratiou

The WNBA is deservedly being recognised for what it is: one of the most entertaining leagues in world sport. Because of that, it’s not slowing down. Its global outreach is expanding, and it’s set to make an impact for years to come. 

In recent times, the league has been lauded for its players’ efforts on social justice. Naturally, it has been ever-aligned with the NBA, but if 2020 showed anything, it’s that these athletes deserve respect in their own right.

The league is exciting, the players are fantastic, and the quality of play is superb, so it’s a shame that the WNBA still has to fight sexism to be seen as more than just playing second fiddle to the NBA in today’s world.

Positively however, there has been some progress in making it more recognisable as a league full of quality.

The Sports Gazette spoke with NBA producer, Colin O’Hanlon, to get his thoughts on the matter: “I think it’s going in the right step, [the] right direction,” he said. 

“It just takes people to actually sit down and watch it, [so] they can [be] blown away [by] the brilliance of each of these women.”

Impacting Society  

Their brilliance has not just been seen on the court, but off the court as well. Pioneers like Maya Moore, Renee Montgomery and the Atlanta Dream have been pivotal in displaying the rising influence of the WNBA in society.

Moore has been prominent in criminal justice reform. Jonathan Irons, a prisoner who had been serving a 50-year-sentence since the age of 16, was eventually freed with the help of her team. Since his release, the two have grown ever closer, and resulting in their marriage last year. 

The story of Montgomery and the Atlanta Dream is connected. In 2020, the WNBA heavily supported the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). However, the Dream’s owner at the time, then Senator of Georgia, Kelly Loeffler, expressed her disdain for the movement.

(Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

In an interview with the Guardian, Loeffler said: “I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.” 

Clearly, the WNBA athletes had a different idea of what tolerance and inclusion meant. Loeffler’s opponent, Reverend Raphael Warnock, eventually won the election largely thanks to players who contributed to the improvement of voter turnout in the state. 

Moore and Montgomery have managed to produce fantastic results, which is commendable, especially considering what they have given up to claim those victories. 

Both players sat out seasons because of their work outside of the game, and have since retired. Focusing on her newest venture, Montgomery claimed an ownership stake in the Dream – her former team – ridding the league of Loeffler and her way of thinking once and for all. 

Relationship with the NBA

The valiant social justice efforts are not the only reason the league has grown in popularity. NBA players have also played their part. 

“I think it’s amazing to see the support the NBA players are giving the WNBA players,” said O’Hanlon. 

He specifically praised what happened last summer, as stars including LeBron James, Chris Paul and Jayson Tatum, wore WNBA hoodies to show that they too were fans of the league. 

But WNBA stars have also shown that they don’t need to lean on the NBA. 

We saw how the likes of Michael Jordan elevated the game in the 1990s, and a similar pattern is emerging now. 

(Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

O’Hanlon believes that if the WNBA continues to add talent to their ranks, like they have done recently with Sabrina Ionescu, it will keep growing: “I think it’s just a case of year in year out getting the best players in the world to go there.” 

Ultimately, the future bodes well, and that’s not just because of the hard work of the players. 

The success of the WNBA bubble, alongside the induction of the Commissioners Cup, has resulted in greater broadcasting and revenue for the game.

In fact, this season, which runs from May to September, will see over 100 games nationally televised in the USA – the most in the leagues history – and the remaining games, which are not airing on a national platform, are available on League Pass, which costs just $16.99 for the entire season, making the WNBA that little bit more accessible to viewers who’d like to watch it.

O’Hanlon said: “I’m sure in ten years time we’re going to hopefully be talking about the WNBA in terms of standings and levels, in a much greater profile than what it is now.”

Let’s hope his prediction is right so that the league gets the best possible acknowledgement it quite frankly deserves, and the athletes are properly praised for their astounding efforts on and off the floor.

The WNBA draft is on April 15 which is just under a month before the league kicks off on May 15. So, will you be watching?

Read more from this writer here