2018: The Year of the WNBA

By Dorothy J. Gentry

What a year the WNBA is experiencing.

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We have witnessed records being smashed league wide by players and coaches. The WNBA is becoming the topic of conversation and social media campaigns are springing up all over the place. Professional athletes from other sports, most notably the NBA, are coming out vocally in support of the league, wearing player jerseys and attending games.  

Let’s just call 2018 “The Year of the WNBA.”

“It’s a really exciting time for the WNBA,” said Dallas Wings center Liz Cambage who set two records herself this week: scoring the most points in a WNBA game (53 – previous record was 51 set in 2013 by Riquna Williams) and becoming the first player in WNBA history to record 35 points in consecutive games.

“There’s just so much talent on every team. It’s stacked with superstars. I don’t know what it  is. I feel like when I was growing up there were only a handful of big names but now you’ve got every team and there’s just girls balling out on every team. It’s exciting to be a part of.”

Here are just a few of this year’s milestones:

  • Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) became the first ever WNBA player ever to reach 1,000 career 3-pointers; and first player to reach 8,000 career points.

  • Taurasi also recorded a 7 for 7 start from 3 (first ever WNBA player) to do so.

  • Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury) became the fastest WNBA player to reach 500 career blocks.

  • A’ja Wilson(Las Vegas Aces) became the fifth WNBA player  to score 300 points in her first 15 career games (301).

  • Liz Cambage (Dallas Wings) set a WNBA record by scoring 53 points in a single game and becoming the first player to score 35 points in consecutive games

  • Coach Mike Thibault (Washington Mystics) became the first WNBA head coach to win 300 regular season games.

Milestones and records were even set for viewership of WNBA games this season. Among them:

  • The league’s season opener between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks on ESPN2 (a rematch of the last two Finals) was watched by 297,000 viewers, up over 38 percent over last year.

  • Through the first three games of the season, ESPN2’s audience for the 2018 WNBA season was up +58% on ESPN2 compared to the first three games on ESPN2 in 2017. At that point (end of May), the season was averaging 266,300 viewers.

  • The first three games in 2018 on ESPN2 also earned a +26 percent viewership gain over the first four games of 2017 that aired on ESPN and ESPN2.

As if all the above wasn’t proof enough that this is the Year of the WNBA, the league unveiled a new format for its Verizon WNBA All-Star Game, which will be played on Saturday, July 28 in Minneapolis, and launched “Take a Seat, Take a Stand,” its new women and girls empowerment program for the 2018 season.

Under the program, for each ticket purchased, the WNBA donates $5 to one of six organizations of the fans’ choosing in addition to a ticket to send a young woman or girl to a game. Fans can also choose to donate tickets directly to one of the organizations.

Taurasi attributes her record-breaking and record-making season to a quiet offseason.

“I had a really good offseason. It was the first time I didn’t play overseas for the whole eight months so I was able to be fresh mentally, physically and come into the WNBA season really at my best,” Taurasi said. “I don’t think I’ve done that in a while, physically.”

Taurasi said it’s a good time to address the idea of expansion and promotion of the league while the conversations about the WNBA are happening.

“In my years in the WNBA we’ve had good years and bad years; we’ve had expansion, we’ve had teams move and leave,” Taurasi said. “I think right now  is a great time to start that conversation again in expansion and making sure that this league is strong and it’s in different parts of the country. I think there is a need for that (WNBA) in a lot of places and I hope we can get there.”

The league’s “Watch Us Work” campaign – where WNBA players show “how they work” and prepare for the game of basketball and life – has really helped to focus attention on the WNBA, said Indiana Fever guard Cappie Pondexter.

“There are so many NBA players, so many young fathers out there with young girls that are striving and really wanting to play in the WNBA so it’s becoming a necessity,” Pondexter said.

“I think this is the year of women and as this is the year of women, we are helping to raise young girls and for me, it’s all about that.”

Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault – who reached 300 regular-season wins earlier this month – acknowledges the conversation swirling around the league and said it’s a tribute to women and their strength.

“I think it’s mostly positive,” Thibault said of the WNBA talk. “I think women athletes are in the news more for some bad reason and some good but as we saw with the ESPY’s it is all a great tribute to the courage and strength of women athletes.

“One of the things I’ve learned since I’ve been in the league is that whatever criticism that has come from the outside about the WNBA or other women’s sports isn’t coming from male athletes. They (male athletes) understand, they appreciate (the female athlete). It’s the people that, I don’t know, they are just ignorant as to what goes into the sport. I think this is the deepest our league has ever been because we have more great athletes, bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. I think the depth of the league is the best it’s been since I’ve been in the league.”

WNBA legend and Hall-of-Famer Dawn Staley said all the talk surrounding the WNBA as of late “is a great thing,” but wants it to not turn into personal attacks.

“I don’t like the conversation to demean people. You can not like the WNBA but let’s not talk about something that God gave us … don’t go for people like that. Stay in your lane.

“I don’t like WNBA/I don’t like women’s basketball; stay in that lane,” Staley said. “Don’t come to their  (the player’s) lane. It’s the game that we love, It’s the game that we put our hearts, our bodies, our souls on the line to play this game at the  highest level and if you can’t appreciate that, then you’re not really a sports fan, of men or women.”

The fact that all eyes are on the WNBA at this point in time could point to real change within the league, Staley believes.

“This brings about conversations that touches the players, but it goes up the chain. I know WNBA president Lisa Borders, I know she’s listening. I know the shareholders in the league, they’re listening,” Staley said. “And there’s going to be change, there’s going to be movement to help each and every player that has put on a WNBA uniform and made this product what it is today which is incredible.

“It’s incredible. The product that is out there on every team, every single team. So I think it’s great conversation. Although not always conversation we want to hear but we shall overcome and this too shall pass in a way that will help us.”