Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
When it comes to the question of individual starpower, the WNBA actually has a lot in common with, well, just about every field under the sun. Talk with anyone about the sport or league or genre or medium or discipline they’re most passionate about, and you’re sure to hear some elaborate argument about how the face of that sport or genre or discipline is nowhere near its best or most deserving participant. In music those take artists (I am certainly among them) are derided as hipsters; in sports, they often get paid millions to pontificate on TV — or nothing to tweet prolifically on the topic — which describes the vast majority of those debating the relative merits of WNBA players (again, including me).
Yet in the W, the stakes of that standard line of debate can feel so much weightier. More than a quarter-century in, the league is still stuck trying to prove that professional women’s sports are sustainable in the face of widespread skepticism from just about everyone whose opinion matters. This column has spent plenty of time exploring the myriad ways in which the WNBA’s mistakes reinforce that status quo rather than challenging it, but the fact remains that in spite of positive news around ratings, ad buys and expansion, the league has yet to break through into pop culture’s mainstream in a sustained way.
In short, it needs starpower more than most of its men’s equivalents or even the other various realms in which we so often debate who deserves time in the spotlight. Though there isn’t much good data with which to gauge general interest in the W, responses to the self-selecting online surveys that do exist are pretty grim; anecdotally, talk to anyone who doesn’t work in sports or consider themselves a devotée and you’re lucky if they can name one WNBA player — if it’s not Sue Bird (or now, for much more grim reasons, Brittney Griner), you’ve probably also looked up and seen some airborne pigs.
In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the league’s visibility actually receded over time, and has only begun to return to the kind of popularity it had during its initial push. Players like Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie appeared on network late night shows and were fixtures in advertisements for blue chip corporations in the league’s first half-decade; we’re still so far from that heavily funded glimpse at a brighter future, in spite of the (welcome!) PEOPLE-ification of Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe’s relationship and Candace Parker’s crossover reach as a TNT NBA analyst.
The cover announcement for the “WNBA Edition” of the NBA 2K23 video game stoked the flames of this ongoing discussion among WNBA fans and media. It features Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, two veterans who are certainly not playing their best basketball right now despite their legendary status — and at least in Bird’s case and very possibly Taurasi’s case, are in their last year of playing. Of course there are plenty of equivalents in men’s sports, with legendary players serving as media black holes long past their primes — but again, the stakes aren’t as high, and the persistence of prejudice is less egregious (at least in 2022). To ignore the young, Black women who make up the majority of the league (as well as, as writer and editor Howard Medgal observed, the legendary Sylvia Fowles, who is also in her last season) in favor of two players who have sucked up the very limited limelight for their entire, lengthy careers feels egregious. There are so few windows to boost visibility for WNBA athletes — this was one, and it was wasted.
ESPN’s Katie Barnes covered this topic in their recent profile of Jonquel Jones, which used Jones’ tweets about being frustrated with the lack of media interest in her story as a jumping off point to explore why the WNBA’s largely Black and often queer base of players is so often ignored (Jones being chief among them). They acknowledge that ESPN itself is culpable, though it has attempted to amp up its WNBA coverage over the past couple years.
Ahead of a WNBA All-Star weekend that has been plagued with the usual lack of information and ceremony, the question of who gets to be a star feels as urgent as ever. Most people don’t know most of these players’ names, which might be true of the NBA as well — but plenty of people also don’t even know that the WNBA exists.
There is still no easy fix, because the problem isn’t that some players are more charismatic or inclined to self-promotion than others. The challenge facing the WNBA is the same challenge facing all of us, in a much bigger way: how to build a more equal and inclusive society.
It simply cannot flourish without a large contingent of people being willing to accept a number of different challenges to the status quo, starting with women playing sports and ultimately reaching beyond the gender binary itself. There is no way there that doesn’t involve pushing, even when it feels futile and trivial and silly, because this battle is about so much more than fodder for talking heads (who, of course, won’t touch the topic with a ten-foot pole). It’s about the kind of inclusivity that is still somehow radical, the kind of inclusivity that the WNBA stands for in spite of itself.