Allow Us to Reintroduce Ourselves

Courtesy of Chiney Ogwumike

This moment that you are seeing right now is a moment that has been molded by every woman who has ever picked up a basketball. Every woman who has put their blood, sweat, and tears into playing and growing this sport. 

For so long, people looked at women's basketball as something to make fun of. “No one watches women’s basketball.” “They need to lower the rim.” “Get back in the kitchen.” Somebody please tell Alexa to play “Heard It All Before” by Sunshine Anderson.

Heard it all before…

All of ya lies, all of ya sweet talk

Baby this, baby that

But your lies ain't working now

Look who's hurting now

See I had to shut you down

I had to shut you down…

We heard it ALL before. And now look at us…. we shut it down. We just had 18.9 million people tune in to the women’s basketball championship, 4 million more than the men’s championship game. Over 2.4 million watched last month’s draft. The WNBA just approved full-time charter flights for the first-time. Caitlin Clark’s Fever jersey broke the record for most jersey sales for a draft pick ever, across all sports. We have stars like Caitlin, Angel, and Kamilla coming to the W to prove themselves against the likes of A’ja, Stewie, and Diana. Plus there are plenty of rising stars like Juju, Paige, and Flau’jae ready to carry the torch in college. Fans are on a first-name basis with those players. We’ve gone from being a corny bit on an SNL skit to having one of our own steal the show. 

From being the target of jokes, to putting up juggernaut numbers. 

Women’s basketball is shining.

But even with the unparalleled interest we’re seeing right now in the women's game, there’s still a lot of misinformation. Which is why now is the perfect time to break the cycle.  To talk about the real issues — because there’s a lot at stake. There’s room for exponential growth. Room for more storytelling. More investment. More roster spots. More viewership. And yes, higher salaries.

You have questions. I have answers. So just like I say daily on-air at ESPN, let me talk nerdy to you….

Why is Caitlin Clark making less in the WNBA than NBA mascots? 

Let’s talk about those rookie deals. I know y’all looked up your favorite players from the draft and saw their salaries. It happens every year and the screenshots get to flying everywhere. But this year hit different. People were upsettttt about it. Which honestly is a GOOD thing. Because the conversation finally shifted from, “Well, y’all don't generate enough money to pay these players!” to “$76K for Caitlin Clark??? We gotta fix this immediately.”

But there is no quick fix when you are governed by a collective bargaining agreement. With every CBA, you are fighting for incremental growth. The current CBA was ratified in 2020, and it nearly doubled salaries for top WNBA players, going from $118,000 to $240,000 (the supermax in 2024). It also addressed other areas of importance like player travel standards and fully paid maternity leave. BUT one thing we fought for that the league made out of reach was an equitable share of basketball-related income for the players (because the W’s “business wasn’t ready for that.”) Here’s the twist: ever since then, the business has been jumpin’, jumpin’ *in my Destiny’s Child voice.* In 2019, the W made around $102 million in overall revenue. Since then, revenue overall has more than doubled per year and the upcoming media rights deal will bring in a record amount of dollars. (Plus, the WNBA raised $75M on a billion-dollar valuation). Yet unfortunately all the while, players’ salaries as a share of total revenue shrank from 11.1% to 9.3%. Not cool.

Here’s the good news: the recent business growth is already moving the needle in a significant way as the WNBA just approved league-wide charter flights (a $25m per year cost for the league). Plus, the union has an option to opt out of the CBA by the end of this upcoming season. If that happens, the CBA will be renegotiated at the end of next season. And those revenue numbers should work to everyone’s advantage. It’s time for WNBA players to get a higher percentage of the league’s basketball-related income. They deserve much more than the 10% that the players earn now. And when that happens, the rookie salary won’t look as crazy, instead it would hit a solid six figures.

Why should players turn down NIL money to go to the WNBA?

This is for the people that say it’s not “smart” for top women’s players to give up NIL money for the W.  *cough cough Darren Rovell*

Ultimately, the reason why Angel Reese and every other rookie who made bank in college signed up for the WNBA is because of two things. 

One, they understand the value of this league on and off the court. At the pro level, financial opportunities and the freedom to pursue them have no limits. Which enables players to take their star to an entirely different galaxy. For example, when you are a top player in college, you have to wear the shoes on court that the university negotiated. And on top of that, NIL deals can only exist for the duration of the student athlete’s time at the school. But by going pro, these players who have been at the pinnacle of the sports world during March Madness can now leverage their opportunities into long-term deals. Point and case, Caitlin Clark had a Nike NIL deal but now as a pro she’s able to secure the Birkin bag long-term for 8 years/$28 million … while alsooooo doing a deal with Gainbridge, which has the naming rights to her WNBA arena. That wouldn’t likely happen with Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

And two, they want the challenge. Simply put, being in the W allows them to prove themselves against the best players in the world. This is how I’ve always seen it: High school makes top players. College makes stars. The W makes legends.

Allow Us to Reintroduce Ourselves | Chiney Ogwumike | The Players' Tribune
Matthew Holst/Getty Images

By the way, we’ll see every young star have their welcome-to-the-league moment. I will never forget mine (Tamika Catchings crossed me up and I touched earth; I still thank her every time  I see her for not making the shot and putting me on SportsCenter). The WNBA tests young stars like nothing else and reveals what you’re made of. 

The foundation of your basketball career is established in high school and refined in college. But the W is where you cement your legacy. 

Is this the most important moment for the future of women’s basketball?

Heck yeah! But to know where we are going, you first have to appreciate where we came from. 

The WNBA launched in 1997, with icons like Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley — fresh off of Olympic gold — igniting the League. And obviously, the Texas girl in me has to shout out the Houston Comets dynasty where Sheryl, Tina, Cynthia and co. won 4 championships in 4 seasons. But after that, a lot of the growth in the women’s game came from the emergence of young stars in college hoops: Diana and Sue winning titles at UConn, Candace Parker changing the game (becoming the first woman to dunk in the NCAA Tournament) at Tennessee. Then came the hardest person that I’ve ever had to guard, Maya Moore, who dominated in college and received the GOAT’s blessing by becoming the first EVER Jordan Brand female athlete. But despite all of her success, nearly 10 years ago she used this exact platform to highlight the biggest issue in women’s hoops: INVISIBILITY. In other words, the dropoff in visibility that women’s players experience after entering the pros. 

In her article, Maya manifested the moment we are in right now:

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.

Allow Us to Reintroduce Ourselves | Chiney Ogwumike | The Players' Tribune
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

There has never really been a moment when both the professional AND college ranks of women’s hoops are being seen at the same time until now. Season tickets and jerseys are selling out and arenas are upgrading due to demand. We’re here — largely due to the simultaneous displays of what Maya dubbed “authentic greatness.” For example, in the last two years alone, we witnessed A’ja in a battle of super teams lead her Las Vegas Aces to back-to-back championships … and Sabrina giving Steph a run for his money at NBA All-Star. Pair that with the most successful back-to-back women’s college seasons to date. 

But the ultimate goal is so much more than this long-awaited moment.

The ultimate goal is sustainability. What can take us there? 

This is where we have to take a minute to appreciate where our brothers in the NBA came from. Respectfully, if you’re older, you actually watched the Showtime Lakers. If you’re young, I know you watched Winning Time. Many believe that the inflection point for the NBA was the incredible college rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, as their transition to the pros consequently ushered in a new era of hoops. Interest spiked, the games shifted from tape delay to must-see TV. And the rest is history.

The men’s game captured a moment, and built off of it.

There are parallels from that moment in hoops history to the women’s game right now. (Go check out the actual timelines of both leagues).  The stars at Iowa, LSU and South Carolina caught people’s attention and activated so many different subcultures (gender, race, politics and general bad*ssery) to bring the game to the mainstream in a way that we’ve never seen before. The fans are following the stars from the Final Four to the WNBA draft and now to season tip-off. 

But our game cannot rely on just a few stars to grow the league. We need all of them.

And we need to be able to give them the spotlight they deserve.

Which means the W needs expansion. New franchises. More roster spots. More destinations for its stars. (That’s something that the transfer portal forced us to realize: gone are the days when the program > the player.) And as our visibility grows, so does the need for continued investment. 

Why is women’s basketball good for business?

Because the business is finally changing. 

League executives once stated that the WNBA loses $10 million annually, and we are grateful for all that their leadership has done to fill in the gaps. But people have to realize that statement was made around 2018, when the W was reported to have $60 million in revenue. In 2023? We were estimated to have made around $200 million in revenue. If I told you that you had a business that experienced a $140-million jump in revenue over five years … and now, on its own, was valued at over $1 billion? You would be jumping for joy.

And that sums up the significant shift in approach for our league: standing on its own success. 

I remember in 2019 the NBA invited those of us on the WNBPA Executive Committee to learn more about the business of the NBA and WNBA.  I’m sitting in the meeting as they’re presenting these slides about the overall professional basketball family and all their sponsors. They show us the NBA sponsors and I’m like, Wow, these are some amazing companies. Then they turned to the next slide and said, “And these are our WNBA sponsors.” I looked to my left and then to my right, trying to figure out if the slide had even changed. I gave my sister a befuddled look and raised my hand. “Is that a glitch? Do you guys not realize that those slides are exactly the same?” Fast forward to today and those slides look much different. 

We are women. We have different stories, we have different brands, we have different needs. It’s like when Elizabeth Williams pointed out that our logo had a lowercase w and not a capital W. We changed it for a reason: to signal how we needed real autonomy for our league.

If I told you that you had a business that experienced a $140-million jump in revenue over five years … and now, on its own, was valued at over $1 billion? You would be jumping for joy.

Not too long after, we were introduced to the first commissioner of the WNBA, Cathy Engelbert. What I love about Cathy is that she requested the title Commissioner, which was truly emblematic that she received an equal title to Adam Silver. Adam (a tremendous ally) was demonstrating to the world that we had the blessing for the W to stand alone in its success, in partnership with the NBA. 

What can I do to support the women’s game and what’s next?

I always find this question so funny. What can you do? You can do the same dang thing you do with all other sports! You can buy the jersey, watch the games, get excited when they’re on your TV. But most of all? Just enjoy it. The game doesn’t change because we’re women, and neither should the support.

Allow Us to Reintroduce Ourselves | Chiney Ogwumike | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy of Chiney Ogwumike

So if you’ve been with us from the jump, thank you. You already know what it is. And if you’re a new fan wanting to support our game — you know what to do. 

Honestly, I feel like women’s basketball for so long has been the Hunger Games. Every generation has fought to move the game forward. But now we are Catching Fire. We are bringing that main character energy. We have flipped from the chapter titled Survive to the chapter called Thrive

So this was my public service announcement about the state of the game for those who are joining the party. We saved you a seat.

And in honor of this … Alexa, you might as well play the song by Jay-Z.

Allow us to reintroduce ourselves.