Entering into the 20th season, the WNBA has reached unimagined heights, with young college stars and headline-grabbing storylines helping increase the league's popularity. Between that milestone, a historic level of talent, and the Olympics falling in the middle of the season, this year's WNBA slate will be one for the ages.
The timing couldn't have been more perfect. After breezing through the preliminary round with a point differential of +168, the 1996 US Women's Basketball team dominated the tournament. Their performance set the stage for the first WNBA season in 1997, with the league declaring proudly, "We Got Next."
From Sheryl Swoopes unexpectedly emerging as the league's first star, to Lisa Leslie anchoring the Sparks' dynasty in the early 2000's, all the way to the famed draft class of 2013, the WNBA has continued to grow and develop, garnering interest in fans and investors alike. Now with 20 years soon to be under its belt, the league shows no signs of slowing down.
This time last year, basketball fans were worried about Diana Taurasi's decision that rest and money were big enough factors to keep her from the WNBA. What would that say about the league if an all-time legend could be swayed to stay off the court?
But the league responded in a big way. Elena Delle Donne validated the hype with arguably one of the greatest single-season performances in basketball history. Delle Donne capitalized on the headlines off the court as well, giving her thoughts on altering jerseys, lowering the rims, and even reading mean tweets about herself online, all to shed some more spotlight on the game.
But it's not just Delle Donne's stardom that's helping the league increase its profile. WNBA storylines have been prevalent all throughout the offseason. The discussion of lowering the rims for women created a war of words between the league's reigning MVP in Delle Donne and a former MVP in Diana Taurasi.
The University of Connecticut made history with their fourth consecutive national championship, and sent Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck all to the WNBA as the first, second, and third picks in the WNBA Draft; no school had ever achieved that honor in any major sport.
Meanwhile, the back of the house operations were just as busy as the on-court product. Laurel Richie's resignation after five years made way for bold new President Lisa Borders. Besides being both a super-fan and seasoned corporate executive, Borders has already made a point to make the conversation about strengthening the league, from the stabilizing the existing teams to incorporating advanced statistics and celebrating the upcoming Olympic season.
Borders has the opportunity to capitalize on even more momentum. The Tulsa Shock's relocation to Dallas helps bring the WNBA to one of the biggest markets in the country.A new playoff format hopes to emulate the excitement of the NCAA tournament with the first two rounds being single elimination.
The postseason format also removes conference restrictions by making it possible for two teams in the same conference to play in the finals, ensuring the best two teams of the postseason will play for the championship. And with a historic season almost in the books for the men's league, the WNBA is, always, hoping to capture some of the fervor from the NBA.
After 20 years of existence, the milestone of being the longest running women's professional sports league is enough for celebration. But the WNBA isn't satisfied with celebrating existence. Players, executives, and owners alike have shown their deep commitment to finding new ways to grow the game. Borders has committed to treating the WNBA like the business it is, focusing on steady growth that's sustainable for the long term.
With the ambassadors of the WNBA becoming more vocal year after year, the future of the league looks bright. Between the fresh crop of stars and the legends soon to say good-bye, the on-court talent is sure to amaze. It's time for the league to leverage their skills off the court now. There are enough marketable personalities to go around in the league this year. The stories are there. The skills are there. A successful marriage of the two would be the best 20th birthday gift of all.