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Hoops Happening: The state of the WNBA at A’ja Wilson’s age

WNBA President Lisa Borders discussed the development of the league at age 22 during a press conference ahead of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. Here are the top takeaways. This is today in women’s basketball for Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018!

WNBA President Lisa Borders presents the 2018 Rookie of the Year trophy to A’ja Wilson during halftime between the Team Japan and Team USA exhibition at the Charles E. Smith Center at George Washington University in Washington, DC on Sept. 10, 2018.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

A’ja Wilson turned 22 in August and, by any measure, it is right to say that her young life has been marked by success and kissed by fate. She wears #22 on her jersey, for a reason.

In Wilson’s first year of playing professional basketball in the WNBA, Wilson earned a Player of the Week award, swept the Rookie of the Month awards for the 2018 season, made her first WNBA All-Star appearance, earned the 2018 Rookie of the Year award by unanimous vote, and was a unanimous selection to the WNBA All-Rookie Team.

But the lightening-quick speed of A’ja Wilson’s professional ascendance is rare.

Most among us experience a longer trajectory towards professional goals; some of us, still, feel fortunate if we ever reach them. And the same goes for businesses, with many starting with high hopes and potential, only to fold before ever gaining the intended traction. But the WNBA — born in 1996 — is still here today and in strong enough shape to buttress a player of Wilson’s caliber (who was born the same year).

It’s as if Wilson was born for the WNBA but, more importantly, that the league has been growing these last 22 years specifically to accommodate her unique talents and magnetism at this moment in time.

We know where things stand with Wilson at age 22. But what about the WNBA at the same age? During a press conference ahead of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals between the Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics, WNBA President Lisa Borders addressed the state of the league and answered questions about some of players’ and fans’ greatest concerns.

The WNBA at 22

The 2018 WNBA season is arguably the most exciting in recent memory. Interest in the league seems at a high point. How much has the league grown this season? According to WNBA President Lisa Borders, regular season viewership increased 31 percent, League Pass subscriptions rose 39 percent and merchandise sales increased 66 percent. And social media is proving to be a boon for getting WNBA content to the people, with video views reaching “a high watermark,” according to Borders, with 119 million views — a 7 percent increase, which Borders called “really extraordinary.”

Furthermore, Borders identified as a success that the WNBA is still here two decades on:

We are the youngest [league] at 22 years of age. We’re excited that we’re 22, but we know that there are lots of women’s professional leagues who never made it to 10 or 15 or 20. We have the privilege of being in the NBA family, and that gives us assurance that we have great infrastructure and great support.

As for the pace of growth and context, Borders reminded us of the ages of other professional sports leagues: NBA — 72; NFL — 98; and MLB — 125 years old.

Can players expect greater revenue sharing in the near future? In a word — no. Borders stated that she and the league welcome informed discussion with players on issues of concern to them. But, ultimately, the revenue does not appear to be high enough to make revenue sharing possible. In her explanation of the situation, Borders identified specific areas of growth that would positively impact the league’s ability for greater revenue sharing:

So unfortunately, running an arena or paying the coaches or paying the referees doesn’t change because it’s the women versus the men. We do not have the revenues today to support greater revenue sharing with our players, but it’s coming. We agree that they should be paid more. We challenge society. We challenge corporations. We challenge our sponsors. We love what we’re doing today, but we need to do more. And so we’ve still got work to do.

In the 2018 WNBA Playoffs, the Phoenix Mercury were forced to leave their basketball home of Talking Stick Resort Arena (due to a J. Cole concert) and the Washington Mystics were forced to leave their basketball home of Capital One Arena (due to renovations). What is being done to keep teams in their home arenas during the playoffs? Borders acknowledged the priority of keeping teams in their home arenas during the playoffs, and to work with teams to resolve scheduling conflicts when they become apparent. But it sounds like the onus is largely on the individual teams to identify those conflicts, report them to the league and then work with the league to resolve them.

Borders noted that the Seattle Storm took this very action concerning Game 1 of the WNBA Finals:

[W]hen we have a conflict, we try to work hand in glove with our teams to make [sure] they get what they need, and we were successful. So tip of the hat to ESPN, but most importantly to the Storm, for recognizing that by changing by one day, it would be helpful for them, but it also helped everybody get more rest, all of the players, the Storm players and the Mystics players. So it actually worked out very well.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that every scheduling conflict will have a solution, and perhaps individual teams must put pressure on their home arenas to compel them to give their teams preference and priority during the playoffs. In the case of the Mystics, who are displaced from Capital One Arena because of renovations, these repairs presumably could take place during a much less important time of the WNBA season — like, in the preseason, or in the early part of the regular season. It will be interesting to see what leverage teams apply moving forward, to hold onto their arenas during the playoffs.

Another hot topic for players and fans this season was the perils of commercial travel, highlighted by the travel nightmares experienced by the Las Vegas Aces resulting in their forfeit of a game against the Washington Mystics. Can players expect to trade in commercial travel for charter flights any time soon? Borders stated that travel is a topic that will be discussed in the offseason but, “[j]ust to be completely candid, we don’t have the revenue today to support charter travel.” Borders made the comparison that the NBA, founded in 1946, didn’t get charter flights until the 1970s or early ‘80s — pointing more to the fact that it took the league thirty years to gain the financial resources to support charter travel for its teams.

Borders also acknowledged the “advancements in air travel today,” but stated:

[C]harter travel is prohibitively expensive for our league. It’s also apparently prohibitively expensive for Major League Soccer. So it will come in due course but not today.

In research for this story, it was discovered that one charter flight company provides an estimate of “$4,600 to $7,600 per flying hour for a large cabin jet charter” (large cabin jets would be needed for a WNBA team). Going by these rates (and others discovered during research for this article that were in the similar price range), a two-hour flight between Atlanta and New York for a Liberty-Dream matchup, for example, would cost upward of $15,000, each way. (Presumably, taxes and fees have not been factored into the base per-flying-hour cost either.) Then, consider the cross-country flights — Seattle to Washington, DC, for example — and the cost becomes astronomical for 12 teams, 34 games per season.

Visibility as a means of moving forward?

No one wants to see a repeat of WNBA players sleeping on hard airport chairs, and that includes the WNBA. Even without hard numbers on what the WNBA is actually bringing in, we know that some arenas remain empty amidst struggling teams and/or shaky fan bases. Thus, further growth is definitely needed for the WNBA to incur the expense of charter travel (but hopefully even a slight increase in revenue sharing will come sooner).

But how does the WNBA attain the type of wealth that would foster the kind of growth that would give WNBA players everything on their wish list? Visibility.

People cannot follow what they cannot see, and flaws in media coverage remain a source of frustration for WNBA fans (and common sense shows that lack of coverage impedes growth). In short, many view ESPN’s treatment of the WNBA as the height of disrespect given that the network repeatedly chooses to broadcast poker and cornhole over key WNBA matchups, and it wouldn’t cut away from a collegiate football game for a previously-scheduled WNBA Semifinals game between the Washington Mystics and the Atlanta Dream.

So, Borders is right in alluding to the development of the league happening alongside societal evolution, in terms of how women are viewed and treated. However, in the Borders era, the WNBA has also pushed for equality and inclusion, such as with the WNBA Pride Night celebrations and the “Take A Seat, Take A Stand” campaign of the 2018 WNBA season. In her press conference, Borders called on various entities in society to step up their support of the league:

We challenge society. We challenge corporations. We challenge our sponsors. We love what we’re doing today, but we need to do more. And so we’ve still got work to do.

Given the undeniable power of mainstream media to influence, the chief parties that must do more to cover the WNBA are news outlets, starting with ESPN. Equality of coverage — starting playoff games with a pregame show and following them with a postgame show — will expose potential fans to the league and its players. Letting the world see players’ personalities and their terrific on-court achievements — yes, that means airing replays on SportsCenter, too — will draw fans and, therefore, revenue to the game.

Next up in the WNBA

Crucial Game 3 of the WNBA Finals tips off Wednesday, Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2! Will the Mystics make it a series or will the Storm grab the trophy?

Stay tuned for previews and other WNBA Finals content.

Team USA

The USA Women’s National Team has embarked upon a series of exhibition games, including an intrasquad matchup and friendlies against Team Canada and Team Japan.

Here are the results:

  • On Sept. 10, Team USA surged late in the game to claim a dominant 102-87 win over Team Japan. Team USA had trailed in the third but “outscored Japan 35-18 in the final 10 minutes” of the game.
  • In the Sept. 8 exhibition against Team Canada, Team USA got the 74-68 win. After the game, USA Women’s National Team Head Coach Dawn Staley praised the close game for the opportunity it provided for the team to build chemistry. To get the win, Team USA out-rebounded Team Canada 51-38.
  • In the Sept. 5 Red versus White intrasquad scrimmage, A’ja Wilson led the White team to a 100-75 victory, with 16 points and 7 rebounds.

The USA Women’s National Team will compete in additional exhibitions abroad ahead of the 2018 FIBA World Cup, Sept. 22-30, in Spain.

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