Val Ackerman patrolled the passageways of the then-Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati at the 1997 Final Four. The first WNBA president sought to sell her still-nascent league to top collegiate stars. Although backed by the financial support of the NBA and bolstered by a seemingly savvy marketing campaign, NCAA All-Americans rightly remained skeptical of a women’s professional basketball league with a ten-week summer season and low salaries.
Ackerman and the WNBA would entice Southern California star Tina Thompson to enter the WNBA Draft, yet many of college basketball’s top talents, such as Stanford’s Kate Starbird and Connecticut’s Kara Wolters, opted for the more-established ABL. Having debuted in the fall of 1996, the ABL promised higher salaries, albeit in smaller markets and with less marketing muscle.
At the following year’s Final Four in Kansas City, Ackerman enjoyed a more amenable audience, as the WNBA exceeded expectations in its inaugural season. Although some college stars still would select the ABL over the WNBA, evidence already indicated that the WNBA was better situated to offer the opportunity for professional success to the sport’s most promising young stars.
As Ackerman then told reporters:
My sense is we’re being perceived differently than this time last year for a lot of reasons. ... The feedback I get has just been great from coaches and players. It’s a better time than ever to be a player.
Now, at age 23, the WNBA appears to provide evermore possibilities.
WNBA players occupy an increasingly prominent presence in basketball culture. For instance, Candace Parker not only hams it up with Shaq, Baron Davis, Jason Terry and other former NBA players on TNT’s Players’ Only broadcasts, she also recently introduced her Captain Marvel-inspired colorway, which Donovan Mitchell rocked on the NBA hardwood.
Kristi Toliver can be sighted during television broadcasts behind the Washington Wizards’ bench, with the other coaches — broadcasts that just so happen to feature the commentary of Kara Lawson. The opportunities enjoyed by Chiney Ogwumike, A’ja Wilson, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and others further demonstrate the doors that a WNBA career can open.
And these accomplishments only account for those directly related to the sport of basketball.
Unrecognized instability of the WNBA
Seemingly, the league no longer needs to be sold to the nation’s best women’s college basketball players.
With less than a month until the 2019 WNBA Draft, approximately two months until the start of the 2019 WNBA season, and more than five months since former WNBA president and CEO Lisa Borders stepped down, the league remains without a leader. NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum has overseen the league on an interim basis since Borders’ resignation. In October, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated that “a search for a new league president will commence immediately.” Yet, five months on, the top leadership position in the WNBA remains unoccupied.
However, despite the increased visibility of and appreciation for many of the WNBA’s most notable stars, college basketball’s best might need to be just as skeptical of the WNBA as their predecessors were in 1997.
The WNBA, buoyed by the NBA, proudly promotes its inspiring symbolism. As it should. Yet, inspiring symbolism does not excuse uncertain institutional integrity. Unfair compensation that necessitates supplementing one’s WNBA salary by playing overseas, inadequate air travel accommodation that prevents players from always being best prepared to play and a limited number of roster spots that, with injury or another extenuating circumstance, could sink one’s professional career, represent only three of many potential concerns possessed by prospects.
Yet, no WNBA president exists to assuage these anxieties.
If not for the WNBA’s player-presidents ...
Elite collegiate stars have the right to expect WNBA leadership to express the intention to address the priorities outlined by the WNBA Players’ Association in president Nneka Ogwumike’s post in The Players’ Tribune. Instead, the administration of the WNBA and NBA appear to take for granted the league’s appeal.
This assured assumption depends on the unpaid emotional labor of WNBA players. The league is fortunate that its stars eagerly accept the responsibility of promoting their sport, navigating the swirling ills of social media in order to ensure that the WNBA maintains its cultural purchase and social purpose.
As such, it is WNBA players, not the WNBA as an institution, that guarantees the league attracts and inspires the college stars of 2019.
That Oregon triple-double threat Sabrina Ionescu is considering forgoing her senior year of college to play in the WNBA points to the powerful potential embodied by the WNBA’s players. In the upcoming CBA negotiations, players certainly should leverage their demonstrated effectiveness as public ambassadors because their effectiveness effectively has obscured the league’s lingering institutional uncertainties.
Kristi Toliver, most especially, can speak to the gap between inspiring symbolism and inadequate substance.
Most likely, Ionescu, Asia Durr, Teaira McCowan, Kalani Brown, Arike Ogunbowale, Katie Lou Samuelson and other top prospects will not miss meeting the still-mysterious WNBA president during the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they daily see the multidimensional successes of Toliver, Parker, Ogwumike, Wilson and Bird — allowing them to embark on the next stage of their careers, with confidence.
Let’s hope the future president appreciates this sustaining symbolism, agreeing to a new CBA that adequately supports the aspirations, anxieties, and expectations of the next generation of women’s professional basketball players. If so, she/he truly will have no need to sell the league to future prospects.
To make all of this happen, wouldn’t the league be better served by scrapping the role of a president serving under the NBA commissioner and employing a more powerful and fully autonomous WNBA commissioner?