CHICAGO — Benita Harrison-Diggs traveled from Virginia Beach to make a weekend out of the W.N.B.A. All-Star Game with friends. She remembered the thrill across the league’s “exceptional” inaugural season in 1997 and was hopeful that 2022 would match it.
Harrison-Diggs, 63, was one among tons of of fans outside Wintrust Arena desirous to cheer on the very best women’s basketball players within the country. “The atmosphere is electrical,” she said, smiling.
But as excited as Harrison-Diggs was to be in Chicago for All-Star weekend, she also felt let down.
“I’m just a little disenchanted that these women, as hard as they play, don’t get the identical recognition that the N.B.A. gets,” she said. “They don’t get the identical exposure, the coverage and particularly not the identical money.”
Harrison-Diggs got here to the world with friends for the W.N.B.A.’s skills competition and 3-point shooting contest, only to search out that they were closed to the general public and being held in a convention center round the corner. As a substitute, she and her friends were in a close-by courtyard watching the events very similar to people at home: on a TV screen. The competitions were scheduled to air on ESPN but were shifted to ESPNU on the last minute while ESPN showed the top of the boys’s doubles tournament at Wimbledon. Many fans should not have access to the lesser-known ESPNU channel, and a few complained on social media. ESPN later announced that it might rebroadcast the talents competition.
“They wouldn’t have bumped the boys,” Harrison-Diggs said.
There may be a swell of engagement and enthusiasm for the W.N.B.A. because it plays its twenty sixth season, however the league’s ballooning fan base has include a critical eye. Much of the league’s good will has been built around a core group of stars like Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker. But as they start to retire, the W.N.B.A. is transitioning right into a latest era of younger, social-media-savvy talent and a fan base demanding more of the league.
“I’d have liked to see this actually feel like they put some thought into it, some foresight, about what they really need a weekend to appear like,” said Anraya Palmer, who traveled from Atlanta for the All-Star Game.
Palmer, who’s Black, was 6 when the W.N.B.A. made its debut. She was immediately hooked. “It was the primary time I saw women basketball players, especially women athletes, that looked like me: ‘Oh, I can actually grow up and do that,’” Palmer said.
Palmer grew as much as be a teacher, but she’s also an Atlanta Dream fan. She said the league had modified for the higher in some ways, but All-Star weekend was a primary example of an area for improvement. “It type of seems like some things were possibly thrown together last second,” she said. “However the die-hard fans are still going to return out and have time.”
The W.N.B.A. said it didn’t have access to Wintrust Arena until Saturday night since it was getting used by a cookware convention. The league hosted fan events and invitation-only concert events outdoors, but Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said security concerns due to mass shootings contributed to the league’s decision to shut the concert events to the general public. Spokesmen for town and the Chicago Police Department declined to comment on the record.
On Sunday, 9,572 fans filed into Wintrust Arena, which seats about 10,400, for the All-Star Game. A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces and Fowles of Minnesota were the captains of 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 on drug charges since February. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, sat courtside. All 22 All-Stars wore jerseys with Griner’s name and No. 42 for the second half.
Aaron Brown of Chicago, a longtime Fowles fan, said he wouldn’t have missed the All-Star Game “for the world.” Brown said most men think women’s basketball is “boring,” but for him, the ladies’s game is “more pure and more entertaining.”
“The great thing about women’s basketball is the basics — they play with I.Q. and skill level that even the boys don’t,” he said. “You really should use not only your body but additionally your mind. Mostly men can get by off athleticism, 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 beneficial player. Brown said Plum, like many other players, doesn’t get the identical type of attention because the league’s larger names.
“They type of only push the identical 5 – 6,” he said. “There are such a lot of other good players who’re here now and never going to go away in two years. They need to shine.”
Patrick Schmidt of the Detroit area agreed, saying he’d wish to see the league “showcasing more of their Black superstars along with the legends that they do.”
Some fans also spoke in regards to the disparity in pay between W.N.B.A. and N.B.A. players.
In 2022, the salary cap for every W.N.B.A. team is about $1.4 million, and the utmost player salary is just below $230,000. Within the N.B.A., the team salary cap will probably be greater than $123 million for the 2022-23 season, and the highest players make nearly $50 million per 12 months.
“It is senseless that a star women’s basketball player makes lower than a bench player within the N.B.A.,” Sterling Hightower, a fan from Chicago, said. “I’m a giant N.B.A. fan. There are people within the N.B.A. I don’t even know who’re making greater than Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.”
Cynthia Smith, a Liberty season-ticket holder for twenty-four years, put it bluntly: “Out of sight is out of mind,” adding, “I don’t know if we’re going to get equity in pay, but we want equity in exposure.”
Over the weekend, many players, like Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, echoed the fans’ sentiments: “Put us on TV more,” she said.
Fans have long complained about how difficult it could be to view games, corresponding to having to toggle through multiple platforms, like ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and a buggy W.N.B.A. app.
“You tell me I’ve got to undergo three apps, I’m not watching that. Let’s be honest here,” Wilson said. “I believe that’s just key as to how the league can grow.”
Plum agreed, saying she’d wish to see the league make it easier to observe games. “We understand that the product is great, and once we get people to observe the sport, they find it irresistible,” she said. “But the toughest part is getting people there.”
Bird, who’s retiring this 12 months after 21 seasons within the league, said the important thing can be renegotiating television rights over the subsequent couple of years.
“That’s the moment,” Bird said. “That would really break things open and alter the whole trajectory of our league.”
Nneka Ogwumike, a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and the president of the W.N.B.A. players’ union, said the league was “on the precipice of something that may really turn into something big.”
Ogwumike said “the magic word is expansion.”
There are 12 teams, with 12 roster spots each. Engelbert said the league was analyzing demographics, women’s basketball “fandom” and viewership data for 100 cities, and latest teams could possibly be on the horizon by 2025. She also said finding the suitable media package was her “top business priority” for this 12 months.
Considered one of the best areas of growth for the league has been activism around social justice. The subsequent wave of activism could possibly be around abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Stewart called the choice “disgusting” and “heartbreaking” and said she expected there to be discussions soon about find out how to handle events in states where abortion is banned.
“As we’re continuing to fight these social issues and injustices based on race, sex, sexual orientation, all the things, the league must have our back in every way,” she said.
Bird said the shift to addressing social and political issues marked an enormous transformation amongst players.
“I believe back on my profession, and I definitely was a part of a shut-up-and-dribble generation where that’s what we did — we didn’t complain an excessive amount of or discuss things an excessive amount of, because we were scared to,” she said. “Now we have found our strength in our voice, and I’m just proud that I got to be a small a part of it at the top of my profession.”