Fans love the WNBA All-Stars, but take a critical look at the league

Fans love the WNBA All-Stars, but take a critical look at the league

CHICAGO – Benita Harrison-Diges of Virginia Beach flew in for the weekend of the WNBA All-Star Game with friends. She recalled the excitement of the league’s “exceptional” inaugural season in 1997 and had hoped it would match the 2022 tournament.

Harrison Diggs, 63, was one of hundreds of fans outside of Wintrust Arena eager to cheer on the best women’s basketball players in the country. “It’s electric,” she said with a smile.

But as excited as Harrison-Diggs was to be in Chicago this All-Star weekend, she was also frustrated.

“I’m very disappointed that these women, as much as they play hard, don’t get the same recognition that the NBA,” she said. “They don’t get the same exposure and coverage and especially not the same money.”

Harrison-Diggs came to the arena with friends for a WNBA skill competition and three-point shooting competition, only to find that they were closed to the public and confined to a nearby convention center. Instead, she and her friends were in a nearby yard watching the action like people at home: on TV. The competitions were scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN but were moved to ESPNU at the last minute while ESPN showed the end of the men’s doubles championships at Wimbledon. Not many fans have access to the lesser-known ESPNU channel, and some have complained on social media. ESPN later announced that it would be rebroadcasting the skills competition.

“They wouldn’t have run into men,” said Harrison Diggs.

There’s a swelling of participation and enthusiasm for the WNBA as it plays its 26th season, but the league’s bloated fan base has come with a critical eye. Much of the league’s goodwill is built around a core cast of stars such as Sue Bird, Diana Torassi, Sylvia Fowles, and Candice Parker. But as their retirement begins, the WNBA is moving into a new era of young talent with social media savvy and a fan base that demands more of the league.

“I would have liked to have actually seen this like they put some thought into it, some insight, about what they really want their weekend to look like,” said Anraya Palmer, who flew in from Atlanta for the All-Star Game.

Palmer, who is black, was six years old when he made his WNBA debut. She was instantly addicted. “It was the first time I’d seen female basketball players, especially female players, like, ‘Oh, I can actually grow up and do it,'” 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 the All-Star Weekend was a prime example of a region to improve. “It feels like some things might have been thrown together at the last minute,” she said. “But die-hard fans can still go out and have a good time.”

The WNBA said it wasn’t able to get to the Wintrust Arena until Saturday night because it was being used by a conference for cookware. The league hosted outdoor events and concerts only, but Commissioner Kathy Engelbert said security concerns over the mass shootings contributed to the league’s decision to close the concerts to the public. City and Chicago Police Department spokespeople declined to comment on the record.

On Sunday, 9,572 fans turned out to Wintrust Arena, which seats about 10,400 people, for the All-Star Game. Aja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces and Fowles of Minnesota were the team captain for Wilson, while Brianna Stewart and teammate Baird in Seattle led Stewart’s team. Team Wilson defeated Team Stewart, 134-112.

Seven-time All-Star Center for Phoenix Mercury Britney Greiner has been named an honorary starter. She has been held in Russia on drug charges since February. Greiner’s wife, Cheryl Greiner, sat on the court. All 22 Superstars wore T-shirts bearing Greiner’s name and number 42 in the second half.

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

“The beauty of women’s basketball is the basics – they play with a level of intelligence and skill that even men don’t,” he said. “You actually have to use not only your body, but your mind as well. Mostly men can avoid sports, but they don’t have the basics.”

His favorite player is aces goalkeeper Kelsey Bloom. She tied Maya Moore’s All-Star Game record to 30, and was named the Most Valuable Player. Brown said Bloom, like many other players, doesn’t get the same kind of attention as the big names in the league.

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

Detroit-area Patrick Schmidt agreed, saying he would like to see the league “showcasing more of their black superstars as well as the legends they provide.”

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

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

“It doesn’t make sense for a women’s basketball player to be less of a star than an NBA bench player,” said Sterling Hightor, a cheerleader from Chicago. “I am a big fan of the NBA. There are people in the NBA who I don’t even know who earn more than Diana Torassi and Sue Bird.”

“Out of sight, out of mind,” said Cynthia Smith, a Liberty season ticket holder for 24 years, bluntly, adding, “I don’t know if we’ll get equity in wages, but we need equity in exposure.”

Over the weekend, several players, such as Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, echoed the crowd’s sentiment: “Put us on TV more,” she said.

Fans have long complained about how difficult it is to watch games, such as having to switch between multiple platforms, such as ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and the buggy WNBA app.

“He tells me I have to go through three apps, I just don’t watch it. Let’s be honest here,” Wilson said. “I think that’s just a key to how the league develops.”

Plame agreed, saying she would like to see the league make it easier to watch matches. “We understand the product is great, and when we get people to watch the game, they love it,” she said. “But the hardest part is getting people there.”

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

“This is the moment,” Baird said. “It could really open things up and change the entire trajectory of our league.”

Los Angeles Sparks forward Nika Ogomec and president of the WNBA Players Association said the league “was on the brink of something that could really turn into something big.”

“The magic word is expansion,” said Ogwumike.

There are 12 teams, each with 12 places on the list. Engelbert said the league was analyzing demographics, women’s basketball and viewing data for 100 cities, and new teams could be on the horizon by 2025. She also said finding the right media package was her “top business priority” for this year.

One of the league’s greatest areas of growth has been activism around social justice. The next wave of activism could be around abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. valley. Stewart called the decision “disgusting” and “heartbreaking” and said she expected there would soon be discussions about how to handle events in countries where abortion is prohibited.

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

Byrd said the shift to addressing social and political issues represented a major shift among the players.

“I’m thinking about my career, and I was definitely part of the silent and dodgy generation where that was what we did — we didn’t complain too much or talk about things too much, because we were afraid of it,” she said. “We found our strength in our voice, and I’m proud to be a small part of it at the end of my career.”

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