header-image

Take the W: Entry Points

A WEEKLY COLUMN ON WOMEN’S PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL FOR BOTH LONGTIME FANS AND THE CASUAL OBSERVER

Take the W: Entry Points

Katie Heindl
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter
Credit: Creative Commons, johnmac612, CC BY-SA 2.0.

When I started writing “seriously” about basketball eight years ago (before that, I wrote NBA fan fiction for David Roth’s irreverent and sadly defunct sports site, The Classical, and did some light basketball blogging at the also defunct Vice Sports) I was trying to emulate other sports journalists—they were my entry point. I was citing stats, describing technical highlights, nodding to games the night before. Early on, my blogs and articles were, in their lightly coded ways, small handshakes with the audience I imagined was reading them, and beyond them, some larger gatekeeper. I wanted to write about the game to fill all the gaps I saw in sportswriting—who were the athletes, really? What were the larger metronomic forces at work? How far did the cultural reverberations go?—but I still succumbed to its codex. 

All art does this, to some degree. Frameworks are borrowed, built on, changed and improved. I came to realize the emotional references and cadence I was squeezing in around convention was what I actually wanted to write about. That my form—writing “around” basketball—was about the function of basketball, what it touched on in life and what was so elemental about it. Quiet beats, like body language and tics in postgame pressers and the tangled, live action of the floor, and big issues, like franchises and entire leagues that moralize while covering for bad behavior. Pressing down on these underlying pulses, there’s no end to the entry points.

Primers, as maps of a world already in motion, assume some understanding of that world. You likely know what the WNBA is, but maybe you didn’t know this is its twenty-eighth season. You might have read about the discrepancy in salaries between athletes in the WNBA and athletes in the NBA. But maybe you didn’t know the difference comes down to revenue sharing: the WNBA made $200 million total revenue in 2023, the NBA $10 billion in 2022. It also comes down to broadcast deals, athletes in the W not getting cuts of their own merchandise sales, the NBA having a fifty-year head start, and most importantly, the historic undervaluing of women’s games. There are plenty of entry points into this fully formed universe. It is a universe now set to expand, with the Bay Area’s newly announced Valkyries, Toronto’s yet unnamed team, and two more expansion franchises (cities with interested parties include Portland, Philadelphia, and Nashville), bringing the league franchise total to sixteen by 2028, according to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

The WNBA is, more than other pro leagues and more than the NBA, teeming with ways in. That seems to be the main frustration of the people who have spent their careers covering it, building it, and trying to get people to take notice. It’s compelling, its storylines driven by a mix of player proficiency, adaptability, celebrity, in-game and interpersonal drama that in other leagues skew the conditions to imperious, even haughty, but here, stay workaday. It’s fun. 

Being such a small league, W athletes are often in on the fan-made jokes. They also tend to have a better sense of humor and a broader repertoire of experience—maybe since most WNBA players take their “summers” to play overseas—than men who have never had to venture outside the pipeline of American basketball. In matters of politics and social justice, W athletes are outspoken and organized, kicking off movements, while their contemporaries lag behind. The games have pace, the rivalries have layers, the bravado is unmatched, and the conversations, refreshingly, do not reduce lives and bodies to their income value. 

Recently, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and former ESPN and Athletic reporter, Ethan Strauss, invented a problem with the WNBA’s naming conventions on The Bill Simmons Podcast. Strauss said it was difficult to remember twelve additional team names, and that WNBA teams should, by name, mirror their NBA counterparts. “Why force people to learn about the Fever,” he asked. “Why not just have the W Pacers?” Beyond the blatant paternalistic bent, what struck me was Strauss’s urgency. He prefaced his point by saying it was the “one thing” the WNBA should have done, and that there was still time to do it. For Strauss, there are too many identifiers for a league he doesn’t really care about. It’s important to have entry points if you’re looking for a way in. Strauss, with the doors open right in front of him for years, isn’t. All he’s doing is bragging about how long he’s spent looking the other way.

Here’s a way in many new fans have recently followed: Caitlin Clark, the biggest name in the league right now. If you didn’t hear about her last spring, then you probably did in the bright thaw of this past one. The intense and competitively laconic Clark smashed the NCAA’s all-time scoring record in her senior year at the University of Iowa, for men and women, with 3,685 total points in her college career, broke and set a lot of other NCAA records, and had Indiana Fever games selling out before the team even drafted her at number one. Clark’s popularity has proven to be its own entry point. We’re curious about her—seeing her stalk and space the floor, pull-up from logos across the league. She’s already responsible for a handful of WNBA teams shifting games into larger arenas when she and the Fever come to town. 

Clark would be quick to tell you she’s not solely responsible for the explosion of popularity in women’s basketball, that it flourished through Angel Reese, the dynamically athletic LSU forward who sized up competition serenely, below her signature long lashes, before dispatching them completely—and who the Chicago Sky just snatched up. It grew through Stanford’s towering Cameron Brink, now with the LA Sparks, UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards, picked by the Washington Mystics. And it will keep growing through USC’s JuJu Watkins (the second coming of USC legend Cheryl Miller) and Paige Bueckers (next year’s projected number one pick). Clark would tell you that 292,456 fans attended the women’s first- and second-round games in the NCAA’s March Madness tournament this year, compared to 274,873 people, for the whole women’s tournament, in 2019. Well, she might not give you the exact numbers, but she grew the game by playing it, modeling her own after her idol, four-time WNBA Champion Maya Moore, who modeled her game after four-time WNBA Champion, Cynthia Cooper.

“It’s a full-circle moment. I remember being ten-year-old Maya, going up and hugging Cynthia Cooper,” Moore said after she’d been snuck into the Hawkeyes arena to surprise Clark on an ESPN broadcast in early March. “Just to see that we’re still able to be connected, to be inspired by each other, to be family.”

It was an echo of what Clark had told ESPN seconds before. “That’s what means the most to me: seeing the young girls and the young boys that scream and wear my jersey every single night,” Clark said. “That’s what makes it so special. I used to be that young kid, and time goes really fast. You try to make as much time as you can for them.”

The Caitlin Clark effect has so far been about the way she’s exploding women’s basketball outward, well beyond its high-water marks; what it’s also doing is slowing things down, extending invitations to a world already spinning. It offers a way in by tracing the roads all the way back.

In my haste to catch you up on the emotional lay of the land, I haven’t highlighted its landmarks. So here’s an overview—like pen scribbles on a paper map, or dropped pins on a digital one—of the WNBA as it is right now, at the start of a promising season:

It would be misleading to call what A’ja Wilson does on the defensive end of the floor an entry point. As a league leader in blocks the last two seasons and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Wilson is a curt blockade. Whether she casually clips the ball with a light hand, resetting its split-second-before-sure trajectory to the basket, or vaults to swat it out of the air, crashing wide, Wilson collapses the offensive inroads. Fine for us, the ones watching, but not for her competition. She pummels ego and opportunity, really any green shoots of momentum, facing her on the floor.

The Dallas Wings will climb back to contention, though they might be clipped until Satou Sabally returns after the Olympics. Arike Ogunbowale—grinning, off-balance with her frenetic handle just to take two steps back and shoot languidly from that new distance—is a getaway driver.

Diana Taurasi, the desert lifer, entering her twentieth season with the Phoenix Mercury and still capable of blistering heaters, hasn’t lost a step. When asked in April what the biggest adjustment for Clark and her rookie class (but mostly Clark) would be, Taurasi, warned: “reality is coming.”  “Big Reality” isn’t a bad potential new nickname for Taurasi.

The Connecticut Sun seem inevitable. Tireless competitors with the drive to get back on top. The Minnesota Lynx, strong already with Napheesa Collier, are stronger now with actual point guards—Courtney Williams is light and easy where Minnesota was used to plodding. The Seattle Storm, with the retirement of Sue Bird and the arrival of Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith: just a whiff of petrichor for now.

Dynasties don’t have to come in threes, but in the W there’s precedent, which is why the Las Vegas Aces, with their back-to-back titles, are eyeing a third. The Houston Comets, now defunct, are the only WNBA team to have won four championships in a row, led by a big-three dynasty of their own—Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson. The Aces can do it, they play like a team idly lapping the rest of the league, waiting for them to catch up. And because Becky Hammon, as unbothered by rapturous attention as she is by doubt, coaches with all the acuity of several decades of chips on the shoulder, with none of the weight.

The New York Liberty are a bonafide superteam, with the star-power of Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart, the engine of Jonquel Jones, and the plotting eye of veteran guard Courtney Vandersloot. After a dispatching Finals loss at the hands of the Aces, they’re also a superteam with something to prove. 

There’s a lot more, but we’ll get there. We have the map. 

More Reads
Web Exclusives

Take the W: Collier

Katie Heindl
Web Exclusives

Take the W: Bodies

Lorie Shaull; Creative Commons; CC BY-SA 2.0. The recent surge in the WNBA’s popularity has had a side effect I didn't anticipate: all this discussion about women’s bodies. ...

Web Exclusives

Take the W: Business Moves

Katie Heindl
More