The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The WNBA once worried about survival. Now it has a bolder vision.

Seattle guard Sue Bird shows off the WNBA trophy after the Storm defeated the Las Vegas Aces to win the 2020 title. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
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As it begins its 25th season, the WNBA aims to do more than celebrate survival. Existence isn’t enough anymore; it hasn’t been for a long time. Everyone, all the builders and sustainers and stakeholders, wants better.

They aren’t asking, either. As striking as the “We Got Next” slogan was during the league’s inaugural campaign, it comes across as so late 1990s now. Back then, it was an ideal recasting of basketball jargon to lay claim to a new era. To say it now, into the noise of an obnoxious, male-centric sports audience, would be too damn polite.

The motto for this year is “Count It.” The primary promotional ad, which counts the league’s many multifaceted accomplishments, captures an appropriate level of pride. It hints at audacity, which should replace survival as the prevailing theme of a league that has come of age.

For most of the past quarter-century, existential questions ruled the conversation about women’s professional basketball in America. Is the WNBA sustainable? Can it exist with greater independence from the NBA? Will more markets remain committed and curb the turbulence of folding and relocation? Will more men support it?

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Seldom has the focus been on getting lost in the game, on falling for the vibrant personalities and special skills the players possess, on seeing basketball their way and learning to appreciate what women can do, free from the context of the men’s version of the sport. To expedite growth, the WNBA must be seen that way.

For a long time, the league expended too much energy on fitting in, hoping to make an appeal to some staunch and possessive male gatekeepers, thinking they were the tastemakers. That doesn’t seem to work for anything fresh and different. But over the past decade, the WNBA has evolved from fitting in to leaning in, amplifying everything that it is, with confidence and without apology.

It has become a league of many textures, a truly inclusive conglomerate in which players, coaches, staff and executives feel more comfortable being open about their sexual orientation, race, value systems, passions for social justice, challenges balancing work and life, demands for gender equality and every other facet of their lived experience. Maybe this would be too messy for other leagues to manage. In the WNBA, it works because the people are honest, unafraid of conflict and held together by a shared mission.

Last season, as the WNBA made social justice a priority and outsmarted former Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler in her attempt to use the league as a political weapon, the influence of the sport was on display, and it provided a window into its potential. This season, no longer in a Florida bubble and with an anniversary to commemorate, the WNBA has an opportunity to tell a powerful basketball story.

The audacity of the league off the court generated curiosity, and some of those onlookers will stick around. Now there’s a chance to make a reintroduction that might propel the WNBA into an ambitious future.

“I’m so proud of what the league has turned into,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, one of the league’s founding stars, said in an interview last month. “It’s a powerful thing. They’re leading voices for change.”

That call for change continues in a different way. The WNBA persists, grateful but unsatisfied. The greatest way to honor a quarter-century of perseverance is a renewed push to grow the game. But this time, it is not about wooing the gatekeepers. It is not about having next. It’s about building on its own terms.

Before the coronavirus took over our lives, the players and owners negotiated a game-changing new collective bargaining agreement that enhanced player salaries and did much to bring the league closer to becoming lucrative and supportive enough that players (particularly elite talents) could think twice about going overseas. The WNBA has always been a good option but not necessarily the option. It’s too much, this need to play in multiple leagues and compete almost year-round. The money, amenities and player enticements aren’t perfect, but the new CBA is a pathway to get to ideal. It also builds pressure for the league to create more revenue, and a pandemic hasn’t helped there.

On the other side of this catastrophe, it’s critical that the sport win this bet it made on itself. But in betting on itself, the connection to a larger movement is clear. This is a period of heightened awareness of racial and gender inequality, and smart businesses are seizing the opportunity to monetize what society sorely lacks: safe spaces for diverse and underappreciated talent. Why wait for next when you can have your own court?

Prominent male and female athletes are developing media companies that focus solely on women’s sports. In a country struggling to agree about its core principles, universality isn’t as attractive as it used to be. Authenticity is in style, and there’s always a deeper connection to what’s real. It is fair to debate whether businesses are casting a wide enough net, but in the WNBA’s case, efforts to attract the broadest possible audience may have distracted the league from bolstering its base.

It is evolving wisely. It does little for the league to market itself to people predisposed to ignoring the game. It’s time to go deeper and target the open-minded.

As the WNBA has celebrated all the dimensions of its identity, it has not alienated an audience as much as it has clarified one. The people really down with it should feel seen, not conflicted because the league is devoting too much time to a broad appeal. And then there are others from the outside who want to connect with something different specifically because it is different. And loud. And not budging.

“They’re saying: ‘We’re going to speak out. And we don’t care who doesn’t like it,’ ” Lobo said.

In all those years focusing on survival, the cynical voices were given a preposterous amount of room to criticize. In this audacious time, the WNBA is telling them to shut up. It’s a much more comfortable place for those who like women’s basketball.

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