Women’s Basketball Is Growing, And Its Leadership Is Finally Acknowledging That

This week, the two biggest women’s basketball organizations (the NCAA and WNBA) in the country announced expansion. 

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.

This week, the two biggest women’s basketball organizations in the country announced something plenty of online trolls and ‘90s sports columnists have built reputations off of saying is impossible: expansion. 

NCAA women’s basketball and the WNBA are both adding games to their postseason. The NCAA is expanding the women’s basketball bracket to 68 teams, the same way the men’s side has been since 2011, and the WNBA is making all of its first round match-ups best-of-three series instead of single elimination games for the first time since 2016. Details aside, more games bring these women’s leagues closer to matching their male counterparts in investment and visibility as well as just actual playing time. 

It is, hopefully, a sign that in the ostensibly market-driven arena in which they are compelled to compete, their influence and appeal is beginning to trump the sexism that has made so many executives convinced that both leagues are charity cases. More games cost more money, require more ad buys, more marketing. If the CEOs with dollar signs in their eyes have decided that such expansion is worthwhile, that must be because more people are watching and caring about women’s sports than people like NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NCAA commissioner Mark Emmert have, for so long, insisted. 

It is not fair that ability to drive profit is, currently, the only sort-of effective antidote to inequality. That fact is at the core of just about every problem in our society. But: clearly women athletes are able to, as anyone who has been paying attention could tell you. This shift is evidence.

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There are plenty of aspects of these changes that are not self-evidently positive. With the NCAA women’s tournament, the addition of four more teams means the women will have their selection show on Sunday, March 13 just like the men, in order to make time for those first round games. Given the enormous fervor over the men’s selection show — 24-hour coverage, topline stories on every channel with even a tangential connection to sports — it’s not hard to imagine that the women might get lost in the shuffle, especially since their home network, ESPN, has not done a particularly great job of balancing the announcements in the past despite having all the rights to the women’s games. 

With the WNBA playoffs, it’s even more complicated. The addition of postseason games comes as the season itself is expanding from 34 to 36 games, the most WNBA players have ever played — and, as ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel and Kevin Pelton discuss in this thoughtful response, in the same year as the FIBA World Cup, which begins September 22, 2022. The 2022 WNBA schedule hasn’t been released yet, but it’s hard to imagine players will get much time off at all before that tournament and then starting their overseas seasons. It’s a lot of high stakes games in a very short period of time, when some players already struggle to keep up with the year-round obligations of being a professional woman basketball player. 

These kinds of growing pains are inevitable without a much more dramatic influx of cash and executive interest in promoting women’s sports.

The growth, though, is impossible to ignore.