I was 11 years old when Lisa Leslie draped herself in the American flag and trotted around the basketball court in glory after the U.S. Women’s National Team won gold in Sydney. They’d been equally victorious just four years earlier in what would become my future home of Atlanta. In between those two vivid and glorious moments in women’s basketball, the WNBA was founded. These powerful women were not only making history but they were dominating. You could see it happen before your eyes. I could see it. Here they were — other female athletes who’d accomplished what, at that age, I could only dream … and I did. Suddenly, there was a path for young girls to follow: high school, college, pro and national.
I played basketball for hours in my driveway. Jumpshots. Layups. Threes. I loved being in the air. My goal sat just behind a curb so I’d throw the ball so it hit at just the right angle and bounced up in a pass to myself for an alley-oop. Pass. Bounce. Oop. Time and again, raising the height of my rim as I grew older and stronger. Do it enough and it becomes something like a beat. There’s a rhythm to the game, and I found it at a young age.
My favorite player was Cynthia Cooper. I loved the Houston Comets. There wasn’t a WNBA team local to where I lived in Missouri, so I was a band-wagoner. There was so much excitement around the league in that first year but watching the Comets — those four players of Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Janeth Arcain — was inspiring. I owned Comets hats, t-shirts, the Swoopes Nike shoes. I even owned a Los Angeles Sparks jersey. I had more WNBA swag than NBA. I remember carrying my WNBA ball everywhere. I still have it to this day. There were national commercials featuring these players. It was powerful to see these women playing professionally, and being celebrated in the mainstream.
I saw myself in them and them in me.
That’s the key: visibility.
Visibility is nuanced and it can take many forms, from organized youth leagues all the way up to marketing and sponsorships on the professional level. If we want to grow the women’s game, we’ve got to grow the visibility. With four years in the league behind me, and as I grow deeper into my adulthood, I take it with great responsibility to do just that.
It starts with the youth. I started playing organized basketball when I was eight. My mom signed me up for a 10 and under league, and I played up. Eighty-five percent of my development at that age can be attributed to playing competitively with girls older than me. Opportunities to not only watch women’s basketball on TV, but to actually participate, are critical. You develop not only your talent and skill, but also a sense of family. You learn how to share, work hard, be accountable. It fosters passion. I was excited to go to every practice. My mom never had to say, “Come on, Maya, we have to go to practice.” It was, “Mom, let’s go! We’ve got to go to practice!”
As I grew, I paid more attention to the collegiate teams. Duke, UGA, Tennessee, UConn — my favorite team would change every year. I watched every college game that I could. That could be me one day, I thought — playing for multiple championships at UConn, where I ultimately committed, with games broadcast live on national television. At a program like UConn’s, you grow accustomed to media attention. It wasn’t unusual to see my team talked about on SportsCenter and any number of networks throughout my years as a Husky. This is incredible, I thought. All kinds of sports fans — young, old, men, women, you name it — were exposed to elite women’s basketball regularly.
After four years and two national championships, I went No. 1 in the 2011 WNBA Draft. That’s when I felt the drop.
There’s this unnatural break in exposure for the highest level of women’s basketball in the world. Wait, what happened here? That’s a question we as WNBA players ask ourselves. We go from amazing AAU experiences to high school All-American games to the excitement and significant platform of the collegiate level to … this. All of that visibility to … this. Less coverage. Empty seats. Fewer eyeballs. In college, your coaches tell you to stay focused on your team and the game — not the media attention. But you know you’re on national television. You know people are following you. You can feel the excitement. And then as a professional, all of that momentum, all of that passion, all of that support — the ball of momentum is deflating before my eyes.
It’s frustrating on several levels. We professional female athletes are continuing to grow and evolve, and trying to make an impact on our communities and other young lives — all of those things we maybe didn’t have time for as student-athletes. And now, there are fewer eyeballs to even inspire or influence because the exposure to the players and our game isn’t as great. It’s hard. Somewhere up the chain of command — in companies that, in many ways, dictate what is “cool” — people are making choices not to celebrate the WNBA and its players. We have a great deal with ESPN — they renewed our contract to televise a certain amount of WNBA games, which is great. It’s a huge reason of why we’re going to continue being successful as a league. But engaged and invested cultural influencers and partners in corporate America are crucial in elevating the profile of the WNBA. We have a product worth celebrating.
Our own marketing is something that needs to improve, no question. Every player in the league knows this. The marketing needs to match our product. There should be more time and effort spent celebrating the basketball. Make the uniforms more flattering, people say. I don’t want to compromise our identity as basketball players to become something that we think people will like on a superficial level. Celebrate us for the things that matter — the stories, the basketball, the character, the fiery competitiveness, our professionalism.
I want someone to watch me play because of my jump shot, not my tight shorts.
At least that’s what will sustain people — the greatness of the game. Imagine if Jordan had an awe-inspiring design but then you put on the shoe and it’s a really terrible shoe. No one is going to buy those shoes anymore. A cool appearance might initially get you to buy something but you’re not going stay if the product isn’t good.
We have an incredible product in the WNBA. It’s amazing when you come in person and see how powerful and strong and fast the women’s game is. It’s beautiful and exciting, with the energy of a college game and the quality of world-class pros. We have a short season and only 12 teams so every game is important. There aren’t blowouts. Every game is competitive. But even off the court, there are so many amazing people in the WNBA who don’t get enough praise for what they’re doing in their community or for being the role models that we are. Those things matter, too. Those things make you more invested in the game. When you feel like you know somebody or there’s something that you admire about a player off the court as well as on, you’re going to watch. When you know the women on the court stand for things worth believing in, you’ll take your kids and then they will take theirs.
Think about what you know about LeBron James. Now think about what you know about Diana Taurasi. Or Sue Bird. Or Seimone Augustus.
What do you know about me?
There’s a humility that comes with being a female athlete. I knew early on that I was the minority. People want to compare the women’s basketball game to the men’s — the WNBA to the NBA. Oftentimes, when our players are paid a compliment, it’s some variation of “she plays like a guy.” We get what that means, and take it for the compliment that it is. But as a league, we play the game differently, and many dismiss our version as “less than.” It’s interesting — you talk to NBA players and coaches, and they love the WNBA. They respect the way we play.
It seems the core of the issue is that celebrating the female athlete is a challenge. I see a lot of females being reduced to — and males to a certain extent — just physical celebration. It’s pretty shallow. It disrespects everyone involved, including the fan. Not that we can’t celebrate the beauty of athletes because for sure, attraction has always been a part of human nature and our physical makeup is part of what makes us so great. But let’s dive deeper into what makes us unique. Try harder. Make efforts to help people understand why our game and players should be celebrated. Tell them we are cool. There’s a balance, of course. You obviously can’t spend an amount that isn’t proportionate to the reality of the demand. But at least match the reality. Look at the response to Sue as “Summer Bird” with State Farm. Fans are always asking when “Betty Lou” will return again. There’s a demand that’s not being met. It might not be on the scale as the NFL or NBA, but there’s a want. Just meet the want and it will grow from there.
I hear people ask, Why do we not have a Diana Taurasi shoe? Where can I buy your shoe, Maya? When you walk into a sporting goods store or even look to purchase online, why can you not find an authentic WNBA jersey? Or why can’t men find them in their size if they can find them at all? It should be easy to be a fan — to fall in love with what we’re doing. You’ll see more response when it’s easier to be a fan. Invest and watch the growth.
It’s my hope to one day have answers to those questions. I’m going to do my part.
The same year I was drafted into the WNBA, I was also named the first female ambassador for Jordan Brand. It was symbolic and substantial; the most visible athlete in the entire world saw something in me, and elevated me to a platform to give back visibility in spades to young female athletes everywhere.
I couldn’t have possibly imagined as an eight year old that I’d be a part of helping change basketball culture. Doing that in partnership with the man whose greatness changed basketball worldwide is mind-blowing.
Last month, we made history together: Jordan Brand Classic hosted its first-ever All-American game for high school girls. It was a big statement but moreover, it was a tangible investment in the women’s game and the visibility surrounding it. We’re committed to the growth of this game, and will continue to provide resources for the female athlete and fan. I’m anxious to see how this evolves beyond the game — the shoes, the apparel and beyond. These young girls are the future of the WNBA. I want to make sure that they continue to become the reason the league is what it is — why we are role models, why we are great businesswomen. I want to keep them inspired.
I think a lot about that young girl who’s in her driveway practicing her moves and pretending to be Maya Moore. Or Tina Charles. Or Sue Bird. I’m very aware of my platform because I was that kid. I still feel like that kid. I have an opportunity to encourage people and inspire. And that doesn’t always have to be on the court. There seems to be a higher standard for women but that’s OK — it forces you to rise.
When you rise, when your greatness is authentic — that’s what captures imaginations.
That’s when people see you.