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David Stern believed in women’s professional basketball

A tribute to David Stern, whose ideas and attitudes ensured that the WNBA would become one of the most successful women’s professional sports leagues in the world. 

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Olympics Day 15 - Basketball
David Stern celebrates with Seimone Augustus (left) and Sylvia Fowles (right) following Team USA’s gold medal victory at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The new year arrived with sad news for basketball fans. Former long-time NBA commissioner David J. Stern passed away on New Year’s Day at age 77. Stern had been hospitalized since Dec. 12, after undergoing emergency surgery for a brain hemorrhage. He died with his family, including his wife Dianne, by his side.

Tributes testify to how Stern, with a combination of vision and viciousness, made the NBA what it is today.

The same applies to the WNBA.

In his reflection on Stern, The Athletic’s David Aldridge related that Val Ackerman, the WNBA’s first president who currently is Big East commissioner, once told him that “the two most important figures of the second half of the 20th century when it came to advancing and empowering female athletes were Billie Jean King … and David Stern.”

The statement released by WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert echoed Ackerman’s sentiment:

We are deeply saddened by the passing of NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern. The WNBA will be forever grateful for his exemplary leadership and vision that led to the founding of our league. His steadfast commitment to women’s sports was ahead of its time and has provided countless opportunities for women and young girls who aspire to play basketball. He will be missed.

Critically, Stern did not just believe in women’s professional basketball; he believed in treating women’s professional basketball as professional.

Stern launches the WNBA

As shared by Jackie MacMullan on ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and the Hoop Collective podcast, David Stern always insisted that “it was never a question of if he was going to do a women’s league, only when.”

“When” would be the mid-1990s, with the success of Team USA at the 1996 Olympic Games serving as the ultimate impetus for a women’s NBA.

However, another group, led by sports entrepreneur Gary Cavalli, had similar aspirations, beating Stern and the NBA by launching the American Basketball League (ABL) in the fall of 1996. The earlier launch, as well as higher salaries, allowed the ABL to attract the majority of women’s basketball’s top talents, including nine members of the 1996 Olympic team. Yet, during its three-year tenure, the ABL would be seen as the lesser league. This was because Stern saw women’s basketball as big business.

In the late-1990s, only the most ardent women’s basketball fans would have recognized that the ABL, not the WNBA, had better players and, in turn, a better basketball product. The WNBA, however, was the superior sports entertainment product, which is what matters in the marketplace.

Stern understood this, as evidenced by the meteoric rise of the NBA soon after he assumed the role of commissioner. And just as Stern’s NBA marketed Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, so would Stern’s WNBA market Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes. And just as Stern realized the power of putting the NBA on national TV, so would he recognize the potential of putting the WNBA on national TV.

The blitz of NBA-backed marketing and promotion that announced the arrival of the WNBA drew notice. The Wall Street Journal’s Roger Thurow wrote in the summer of 1997:

[I]f that orange-and-oatmeal ball doesn’t bounce across your radar screen sometime this summer — you are either totally unplugged or vacationing on the moon. For the NBA isn’t merely launching a new sports venture. It is unleashing a marketing monster and sending it off on a fast break across the land to conjure up fans and give flight to women’s pro hoops.

Stern understood that sports, including women’s sports, must be a spectacle in order to succeed. The WNBA’s corporatized and choreographed rollout resulted in an inaugural season that exceeded expectations. But in an ever-crowded American sports culture, sustained success is rarely secure, and the WNBA soon would be in for its share of uncertainties and struggles. Nevertheless, the WNBA’s launch that Stern steered set high standards, associating women’s basketball with professionalism, polish and panache.

Stern himself would require the WNBA to continue to meet such standards.

Stern legitimizes the WNBA

Before the 2003 season, negotiations for the second CBA between the WNBA and WNBPA became quite contentious, a tone that much suited Stern. He would approach labor negotiations with the WNBPA as he did those with the NBPA — with wrathful righteousness.

While the WNBPA sought higher salaries and free agency, the WNBA, ultimately led by Stern, interpreted players’ demands as an absolute affront, evidence of an insulting lack of appreciation of all the sacrifices required to create and fund the league. With no deal imminent in the spring of 2003, Stern began to exercise his authority without apology.

On April 8, 2003, he announced that the NBA Board of Governors had voted to allow the sides only 10 more days to come to an agreement. After that, the 2003 season would be cancelled. The league also postponed the 2003 draft.

Such pressure, approved and applied by Stern, had the intended effect. The WNBPA relented, winning few concessions. Pamela Wheeler, chief negotiator for the WNBPA, admitted, “The deal is not that attractive for the players.” Journalist Jeff Jacobs put it more bluntly:

Calling the one-sided deal a CBA is a misnomer. More accurately, it’s the SBA: the Stern bargain-less agreement. On April 8, Stern issued a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum for April 18 and, sure enough, a five-year deal was struck on April 18. The union scratched out the kind of concessions only Woody Guthrie-era fruit pickers would accept and then marched away singing, ‘This land is Stern’s land. This land isn’t my land. From California to Madison Square Garden ...’

To supporters of women athletes, Stern seemed to be just that — too stern. He appeared insensitive to the historic social inequalities that WNBA players were seeking to overcome. Yet, such sternness was a sign that Stern took the WNBA seriously as a sports-entertainment venture. With this approach, he further legitimized WNBA players as real professional athletes. WNBA players, like their NBA counterparts, had to meet his expectations or suffer consequences.

Yet, is dedication never wavered. Recalling Stern’s commitment to the WNBA, Jackie MacMullan additionally related that he repeatedly said, “I will not let these women down.”

He didn’t.

For all his bluster and bombast, Stern would not abandon his women’s professional basketball project.

Thank you, David Stern

In Kicking Center, a study of women’s professional soccer, Rachel Allison explores the tension at the core of women’s professional sports in the United States — are women’s sports a business or a cause? Stern, better than most any other figure of power in American women’s sports history, balanced these perspectives, holding the WNBA and its players accountable to the demands of being a corporate, commercialized and capitalist sport while also remaining committed to the idea that women athletes deserve respectable, professional athletic opportunities.

His approach, while imperfect, was essential, and will be forever appreciated.