Since it’s inception, women’s basketball has struggled to achieve the same mainstream success as the men’s game. Whether that's due to the lack of history as opposed to the decades long lineage of the NBA & NCAAM, lower viewership numbers, less familiar stars, society’s view of women sports, or maybe it’s a combination of all those factors. However, as of late 2023, there has been a cultural shift in the way women’s hoops is viewed. The NBA often credits the Bird & Magic era as the period that “saved” the league, and how Micheal Jordan’s dominance in the 90’s took the sport of basketball into mainstream culture like we’ve never seen. A similar era may be on the horizon for the women’s game. One that may see the game reach new mainstream heights. Here, we will take a look at why that may be the case.
The College Game is More Popular Than Ever
One thing men’s college basketball has struggled with over the last decade is the “One & Done Rule” and the rise of new amateur leagues taking all the best talent. The women’s game forces players to stay at least 3 years at their school before going pro. While some are against the rule, it has actually worked in the favor of women’s college ball. Fans are more familiar with players since they get the opportunity to watch them develop & grow before heading to the pros. Angel Reese & Caitlin Clark are two of the most talked about players in women’s basketball today. Their National Championship matchup last season brought in around 9.9 million viewers and that title winning LSU team became mainstream names in the sports world. Appearing in countless commercials, interviews, award shows, etc. All while Clark continues to break on-court & viewership records for the University of Iowa. Both girls achieved pro athlete levels of notoriety all while still being on their own respective campuses. And the hype coming into this current season was enough for LSU to get their season opener vs Colorado on Primetime TV. Reese & Clark aren’t the only high profile names in the college game. Freshman JuJu Watkins from USC has already received cosigns from celebrities like Chris Brown & 2Chainz, and from NBA Players like Kevin Durant, James Harden & Lebron James. And she appears poised to be one of the biggest stars in the next generation of women’s basketball. Paige Beuckers is returning with powerhouse UCONN, Cameron Brink appears pro ready at Stanford, Hailey Van Lith has joined Reese at LSU. And other talent that will burst onto the season this year has the college landscape jumping.
The WNBA Has A Dynasty
The WNBA just wrapped up their 27th season and the league’s popularity is reaching new heights. This past year’s finals was the most watched in nearly 20 years, with each game raking in around 730K viewers. Fans were treated to a finals in which both teams had superstars plastered all over the place. A’Ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Sabrina Ionescu, Kelsey Plum, Courtney Vandersloot, Chelsea Gray, Candace Parker (DNP for The Finals) are just some of the fantastic talent that was on the court for this series. The Las Vegas Aces brought home the 2023 WNBA Finals Trophy, making them the first repeat champion since the 2001 Sparks. What makes this great for the sport of basketball is with the growing popularity of the women’s game, new fans now have a team they can follow and the league itself has a juggernaut full of stars they can promote & market. Now that’s not to say there aren't any other talented teams in the league; The Aces had to overcome The New York Liberty who went 32-8 on the year and have a future hall of famer in Breanna Stewart running the show. Other elite talents such as Alyssa Thomas, Elena Delle Donne, Nneka Ogwumike, Jackie Young give the league star power they can promote & further push the game into the mainstream. What sets the Aces apart is the fact they have multiple stars on one team and they dominate. Throughout basketball history, certain teams define their eras. The Lakers & Celtics ran the 80s. The Chicago Bulls ran the 90s and pushed the league into mainstream pop culture. The Shaq & Kobe Lakers brought flashiness & star power in the 2000s. The Miami Heat & Golden State Warriors basically split the 2010s. The WNBA has that franchise that can have that similar impact on their league.
Narratives Are Changing
It’s no secret that the narrative around women’s basketball (and women’s sports in general) hasn’t always been a positive one. There was once discussion of lowering the rim in order to make it easier for these world class athletes to play similar to their male counterparts. It also doesn't help that there have been some sharp criticisms from players & fans aimed at the leadership regime for the WNBA. However, there appears to be a somewhat change of mood amongst players, coaches & fans. While not everything is perfect, the WNBA appears to be gaining more traction mainstream wise. Will it ever be viewed in the same light as the NBA, likely not. However, it doesn't need to be. As long as the league remains a viable option & goal for young female hoopers, the WNBA will only grow in popularity. What was once a product that rarely gets mentioned on SportsCenter is now leading off the show in many instances. The rise of content creators & social media has made players in all sports more accessible & has risen engagements in many aspects of the game. You now have big college & professional women’s games getting higher viewership numbers than major males sports games. Also, the rise of NIL in the college ranks has now given these young women the opportunity to build their brand before they even play a minute of pro ball and brands are taking notice. What was once an afterthought in the grand scheme of things in the basketball world is not an industry leader.
What The Future Holds
As the sport of basketball becomes more global, the women’s game will continue to grow as well. The college ranks has a handful of future game changers making noise on their respective campuses before they even go pro. The WNBA’s popularity is continuing to rise and they also have a handful of stars that are making the game more popular both on & off the court. Business wise, more young women will continue to make life changing money through NIL and the WNBA is already beginning expansion with a new team coming to San Francisco in 2025. Also, the global growth of the game has now seen women go overseas and have success outside of North America. More college talent, league expansion, overseas exposure, the sport of basketball is thriving and the women’s game is finally having motion. And it’s about time.