Fans love the WNBA stars, but take a critical eye on the league

Fans love the WNBA stars, but take a critical eye on the league

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CHICAGO – Benita Harrison-Diggs traveled from Virginia Beach to hang out with friends at the WNBA All-Star Game over the weekend. In the year She recalled the excitement of the league’s “special” inaugural season in 1997 and hoped 2022 would match it.

Harrison-Diggs, 63, was among hundreds of fans outside Wintrust Arena to cheer on the best women’s basketball players in the country. “The atmosphere is electric,” she said, smiling.

But as excited as Harrison-Diggs was to be in Chicago for All-Star weekend, she also felt disappointed.

“I’m a little disappointed that these women don’t get the same recognition that the NBA gets for how much they’ve played,” she said. “You don’t get the same exposure, coverage and especially the same money.”

Harrison-Diggs came to the arena with friends for a WNBA skills competition and 3-point shooting contest, but made sure they were held inside the nearby convention center, which was closed to the public. Instead, she and her friends were in a nearby courtyard watching the events like people at home: on a TV screen. The match was originally scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN, but was moved to ESPNU at the last minute, and ESPN showed the end of the men’s doubles tournament at Wimbledon. Many fans can’t access the less popular ESPNU channel, and some have complained on social media. ESPN later announced it would rebroadcast the skills competition.

“I wouldn’t have hit the guys,” Harrison-Diggs said.

As the WNBA enters its 26th season, participation and enthusiasm have grown, but the league’s growing fan base has also brought a critical eye. Much of the league’s goodwill was built on a group of stars like Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Falls and Candace Parker. But as they begin to retire, the WNBA is transitioning to a major league with a younger, social-media-savvy talent and fan base.

“I would love for them to see what they really want this weekend to look like, some thought, some foresight, what they want,” said Andrea Palmer, who traveled from Atlanta for the All-Star Game.

Palmer, who is black, was 6 years old when she made her WNBA debut. She was immediately hooked. “It was the first time I saw women basketball players who looked like me, especially female athletes: ‘Oh, I can grow up and do this,'” Palmer said.

Palmer grew up to be a teacher, but she’s also a fan of the Atlanta Dream. She said the league has changed for the better in many ways, but All-Star weekend is a prime example of an area for improvement. It feels like some things were thrown together last second, she said. But the fans should still come out and have a good time.

The WNBA said it did not have access to Wintrust Arena until Saturday night because it was being used by a cookware convention. The league has hosted fan events and invitation-only concerts outdoors, but Commissioner Kathy Engelbert said the safety concerns surrounding the mass shooting prompted the league to close the concerts to the public. A spokeswoman for the city and the Chicago Police Department declined to comment on the filing.

On Sunday, 9,572 fans packed into the 10,400-seat Wintrust Arena for the All-Star Game. Aja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces and the Minnesota Fowls captained Team Wilson, while Breanna Stewart and her Seattle counterpart, the Fowls, led Team Stewart. Team Wilson defeated Team Stewart 134-112.

Brittany Griner, a seven-time All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury, was named an honorary starter. She has been imprisoned in Russia since February on drug charges. Griner’s wife, Cheryl Griner, sat courtside. The 22 Stars wore jerseys bearing Griner’s name and number 42 for the second half.

Aaron Brown of Chicago, a longtime Foles fan, said “for the world” he wouldn’t have missed the All-Star Game. Brown said most men think women’s basketball is “boring,” but to him, the women’s game is “cleaner and more fun.”

“The beauty of women’s basketball is the fundamentals — they play with an IQ and skill level that the boys don’t,” he said. “You really have to use your mind, not just your body. Most of the time, guys can get away with athletics, but they don’t have the fundamentals.”

Brown said his favorite player is Aces guard Kelsey Plum. She tied Maya Moore’s All-Star Game record with 30 and was named Most Valuable Player. Brown said Plum doesn’t get the same attention as other players like the league’s biggest names.

“They only push the same five or six,” he said. “There are a lot of good players who are here now and won’t be leaving in two years. They deserve to shine,” he said.

Patrick Schmidt of the Detroit area agreed; “In addition to the legends they’re making, the league wants to see Black showcase their superstars,” he said.

Some fans also talked about the pay gap between WNBA and NBA players.

In 2022, the salary cap for each WNBA team is about $1.4 million, and the maximum player salary is just under $230,000. In the NBA, the team salary cap will be over $123 million for the 2022-23 season, and the top players will earn about $50 million a year.

“It doesn’t make sense that a star player in women’s basketball is doing anything less than a bench player in the NBA,” said Sterling Hightower, a Chicago fan. “I’m a big NBA fan. There are people in the NBA that I don’t even know who do more than Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.

“Out of sight is out of mind,” says Cynthia Smith, a Freedom Ticket holder for 24 years. She added, “I don’t know if we’ll ever get pay equity, but we need exposure equity.”

Over the weekend, several players echoed the fans’ sentiments, such as Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. “We put more on TV,” she said.

Fans have long complained about how difficult it is to watch games on multiple platforms like ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and the Buggy WNBA app.

“They tell me I have to go through three applications, I’m not looking at that. Let’s be honest here,” Wilson explained. “I think that’s the key to how the league grows.”

Plum agreed, saying she wanted the league to make it easier for her to watch games. “We understand that the product is great, and people love it when we get them to watch the game,” she said. But the hardest part is getting people there.

Bird, who is retiring this year after 21 seasons in the league, said the key is to renegotiate the television rights over the next two years.

“That’s the time,” said the bird. This could really open things up and change the entire direction of our league.

Nneka Ogumumike, a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the WNBA Players Association, said the league is “in the midst of something that could really turn into something big.”

“The magic word is expansion,” says Ogumumike.

There are 12 teams with 12 roster spots each. She said the league is analyzing demographics, women’s basketball “fandom” and viewership data from 100 cities, and new teams could be on the horizon by 2025. She also said that getting the right media package is her “number one business” for this year.

One of the major growth directions for the league is social justice. Supreme Court Roe v. After overturning Wade, the next wave of activism will likely be around abortion rights. Stewart called the decision “disgusting” and “heartbreaking” and said she expected a discussion soon about how to handle incidents in states where abortion is banned.

“As we continue to fight these social issues and injustices based on race, gender, sexual orientation, everything, the league needs to have our backs in every way possible,” she said.

Bird says the change to address social and political issues has brought about a big change among players.

“I look back on my career, and I was part of a generation of shut-ins and we did that – we didn’t complain a lot or talk about things a lot, because we were afraid,” she said. “We found our strength in our voices, and I’m proud to be a small part of this at the end of my career.”

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