CHICAGO — Benita Harrison-Diggs traveled from Virginia Beach to spend a weekend away from the WNBA All-Star Game with friends. Recalling the excitement surrounding the competition’s “exceptional” first season in 1997, she was hopeful that 2022 would match it.
Harrison-Diggs, 63, was one of hundreds of fans outside Wintrust Arena eager to cheer on the best women’s basketball players in the country. “The atmosphere is electric,” she said with a smile.
But as excited as Harrison-Diggs was to be in Chicago for the All-Star weekend, she also felt disappointed.
“I’m a little disappointed that these women, no matter how hard they play, aren’t getting the same recognition as the NBA,” she said. “They don’t get the same exposure, the coverage, and most importantly, not the same money.”
Harrison-Diggs came to the arena with friends for the WNBA’s skill contest and the 3-point target shooting competition, only to find that they were closed to the public and held at a convention center next door. Instead, in a nearby courtyard, she and her friends watched the events just as people would at home: on a TV screen. The matches were scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN, but were shifted to ESPNU at the last minute as ESPN showed the end of the men’s doubles tournament at Wimbledon. Many fans are unable to access the lesser-known ESPNU channel and some have complained on social media. ESPN later announced it would be rebroadcasting the skill contest.
“They wouldn’t have bumped the men,” Harrison-Diggs said.
There has been a surge of engagement and enthusiasm for the WNBA as it enters its 26th season, but the league’s ballooning fanbase has come with a critical eye. Much of the competition’s goodwill is built around a core group of stars such as Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker. But now that they’re retiring, the WNBA is moving into a new era of younger talent with social media savvy and a fan base demanding more from the league.
“I would have liked this to really feel like they’ve put a little bit of thought into it, some foresight, about what they actually want a weekend to look like,” said Anraya Palmer, who traveled from Atlanta for the All-Star Game.
Palmer, who is black, was 6 when the WNBA made its debut. She was instantly hooked. “It was the first time I saw female basketball players, especially female athletes, who looked like me, ‘Oh, I can really grow up and do this,'” Palmer said.
Palmer grew up to be a teacher, but she’s also an Atlanta Dream fan. She said the league had changed for the better in many ways, but the All-Star weekend was a prime example of an area for improvement† “It kind of feels like some things were thrown together at the last minute,” she said. “But the die-hard fans still come out and have a good time.”
The WNBA said it was not allowed access to Wintrust Arena until Saturday night because it was being used by a cooking convention. The league hosted outdoor events for fans and concerts by invitation, but Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said security concerns over mass shootings contributed to the league’s decision to close concerts to the public. City and Chicago police spokesmen declined to comment on the file.
On Sunday, 9,572 fans came to the Wintrust Arena, which seats approximately 10,400, for the All-Star Game. A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces and Fowles of Minnesota captained Team Wilson, while Breanna Stewart and her Seattle teammate Bird led Team Stewart. Team Wilson defeated Team Stewart, 134-112.
Brittney Griner, the seven-time All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury, was named an honorary starter. She has been detained in Russia since February on suspicion of drugs. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, sat next to the court. All 22 All-Stars wore jerseys named Griner and number 42 for the second half.
Aaron Brown of Chicago, a longtime fan of Fowles, said he wouldn’t have missed the All-Star Game for anything. Brown said most men find women’s basketball “boring,” but for him, women’s game is “purer and more entertaining.”
“The beauty of women’s basketball is the foundation: they play with an IQ and a skill level that even the men don’t have,” he said. “You really shouldn’t just use your body, but your mind as well. Usually men can get by on athletics, but they don’t have the basics.”
His favorite player is Aces guard Kelsey Plum. She tied Maya Moore’s record for points in an All-Star Game with 30, and was named the most valuable player. Brown said Plum, like many other players, isn’t getting the same attention as the league’s bigger names.
“They’re really just pushing the same five or six,” he said. “There are so many other good players who are here now and who are not leaving in two years. They deserve to shine.”
Patrick Schmidt of the Detroit area agreed, saying he’d like to see the competition “show more of their black superstars alongside the legends they do.”
Some fans also talked about the difference in pay between WNBA and NBA players.
In 2022, the salary cap for each WNBA team is about $1.4 million and the maximum player salary is just under $230,000. In the NBA, the team salary cap will exceed $123 million for the 2022-23 season, with the top players earning nearly $50 million a year.
“It makes no sense that a star women’s basketball player earns less than a banker in the NBA,” said Sterling Hightower, a Chicago fan. “I am a big NBA fan. There are people in the NBA I don’t even know who earn more than Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.”
Cynthia Smith, a Liberty subscription holder for 24 years, put it bluntly: “Out of sight is out of mind”, adding: “I don’t know if we will get equality in pay, but we need equality in exposure.”
Over the weekend, many players, such as Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, echoed the fans’ sentiments: “Put us on TV more,” she said.
Fans have long complained about how difficult it can be to watch games, such as having to switch between multiple platforms, such as ESPN, Twitter, Facebook, and a buggy WNBA app.
“You tell me to go through three apps, I’m not looking at that. Let’s face it,” Wilson said. “I think that’s the key to how the league can grow.”
Plum agreed, saying she would like the league to make watching matches easier. “We understand that the product is great, and when we get people to watch the game, they love it,” she said. “But the hardest part is getting people there.”
Bird, who is retiring this year after 21 seasons in the league, said the key will be renegotiating the television rights in the coming years.
“Now is the time,” Bird said. “That can really open things up and change the whole trajectory of our competition.”
Nneka Ogwumike, a Los Angeles Sparks forward and the president of the WNBA players’ union, said the league was “on the precipice of something that could become really big.”
Ogwumike said, “the magic word is expansion.”
There are 12 teams, each with 12 grid spots. Engelbert said the league analyzed demographics, women’s basketball “fandom” and viewership data for 100 cities, and new teams could appear on the horizon by 2025. She also said that finding the right media package was her “top priority” for this year.
One of the biggest areas of growth for the league is social justice activism. The next wave of activism could be around abortion rights after the Supreme Court overthrown Roe v. Wade. Stewart called the decision “disgusting” and “heartbreaking” and said she expected discussions about how to handle events in states where abortion is banned would soon begin.
“As we continue to fight these social problems and injustices based on race, gender, sexual orientation, everything, the competition must support us in every way possible,” she said.
Bird said the shift to addressing social and political issues has been a huge transformation among players.
“I think back to my career, and I was definitely part of a generation that is silencing and that’s what we did – we didn’t complain too much and we didn’t talk too much about things because we were afraid to do that, ” she said. “We found our strength in our voice and I’m just proud to have been a small part of it at the end of my career.”