Before being shut down by the Coronavirus, the many levels of women’s basketball were buzzing with excitement.
Maybe it was the result of multiple exciting seasons—both past, present and future in the WNBA and NCAA. Perhaps it was WNBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement and its subsequent free agency—all portending greater player movement and empowerment.
Maybe it was the fact that Sabrina Ionescu became the first player—male or female—in NCAA history to record 3,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. Or it was the great form that Breanna Stewart—perhaps the game’s best player—showed during her first games back after a severe Achilles injury made her miss last season.
— EuroLeague Women (@EuroLeagueWomen) February 26, 2020
It’s safe to say all of those factors played a big part.
The WNBA had surging levels of interest going into 2020, just as women’s March Madness was (finally) set to receive increased air time and media coverage. The only hope now is that the global pandemic doesn’t crush any of that momentum.
One reason we are seeing a rise in popularity is the aforementioned increased media coverage. But this is not just any old media coverage: The WNBA is one of the few leagues that possibly has just as many women covering it as men.
Arielle Chambers runs social media for Bleacher Report and is known for her catchphrase ‘The WNBA is so important’. She is a proud and powerful voice and is thrilled by the current rise in women covering sports:
— Arielle (Ari) Chambers (@ariivory) October 29, 2018
“There’s a loudness about women in this current climate that cannot be ignored. We’re here. We’re present. We’re good. We take up space. And we’re not sorry. The excellence in our leagues reflect that.”
Like any sport, a large number of faces, voices and columns are taken up by men. But the nature of the WNBA means that there is greater interest, and generally more support, in women taking on the roles that are usually dominated by men in other sports.
But Chambers doesn’t see it as a league that has more women covering it: For her, the word is more ‘collaborative’.
“We need male allies,” she explains. “We need women supporting women. We can’t fight for more if we’re going to ostracize a large group of people. If the passion exists within the men who start new platforms, I would never criticize their involvement. Numbers come from both sides. We are not going to get anywhere by shutting out the other.”
This feeling is a common one. Rachel Galligan is a scout and covers women’s college basketball for HERO Sports and WNBA for Winsidr, but she agrees that the W is better when it’s covered, regardless of gender:
“My focus is adding coverage. I love women’s basketball and women’s sports. If a man wants to cover it, that is a major win in my eyes. It means he is interested, he cares and he has a boatload of buddies he will go talk to about it and get them interested too. I just want increased coverage and I celebrate every time we get that.”
The male/female media balance is seen as a positive then, but for The Athletic’s WNBA Features Writer Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, it could still go further.
“There needs to be more women, women of color and LGBTQ individuals in sports media as a whole”, she says. “Having men support that and support the coverage of women’s sports is key.”
D’Arcangelo believes it’s not just women’s basketball that is driving the increased coverage. There’s been growth across women’s sports:
“It’s as if the entire women’s sports industry has become one entity, supporting each other and advocating for change. I wouldn’t say that basketball is a driver for increased coverage, I think they all are.”
According to Iberdrola.com, tennis and athletics generate more interest for women than men, and Nielson’s 2018 report said basketball finishes ninth on the list of sports that women are interested in. While soccer sat just behind it on the list in the United States, all three women I interviewed felt the sport was important.
Galligan adds, “I really need to make note of our Women’s National Soccer Team and all they have been able to accomplish. They have become a true force in the world on and off the field. I have to credit them for their dominance and push for equality.”
This was on full display recently when the US women’s soccer team wore their jerseys inside out for the official match photo earlier in March.
It was done in response to a ruling that said women’s soccer doesn’t possess the same level of skill.
There has been a similar push in the WNBA for recognition via the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations, which has resulted in a groundbreaking pact.
For Chambers, seeing the league take such strides in the new CBA isn’t just exciting as a content producer, it hits much closer to home:
“It means that people are finally investing in women or making strides to invest. We’re worth it. They’re worth it. It means that when I do finally have a child, and maybe birth a little girl, that the ceiling would’ve been shattered and she can dream the biggest, with no limit.”
Galligan is more reserved about the CBA, but she has a similar sense of optimism.
“Is it perfect? Nowhere near it,” she says. But this is a league that has had to scrape and claw for everything since day one, so these victories are huge. It tells me the game truly is growing and the world is taking notice.”
While the world might indeed be taking notice, the latest COVID-19 blow is a difficult pill to swallow. At present, the WNBA is still set to begin in May, according to a statement on March 12.
League commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said, “We continue to scenario plan around our upcoming events and season.”
WNBA Statement Regarding COVID-19 pic.twitter.com/Lj5d8TVaqU
— WNBA (@WNBA) March 12, 2020
But the way things are going, we might not see a season take place at all. However, the moment the WNBA returns, the women covering it will be ready.
D’Arcangelo explains, “It is a tough industry right now, yes. But for those of us who are in it, we do it because of our love of sports and we want to hold up the women we cover.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it’s bigger than money. I write about sports because I love it. And I love what I do. If someone were to ask me about covering basketball, I’d ask them this first: Would you do it for free? Not that I’m advocating them to do so. But if you love something so much you’d do it for free, that means you have the dedication, willingness and love to stick to it.”
The love for the sport came through with each media member interviewed. They all entered the industry in different ways, and are cognizant of the fact that there is still some growth required for the industry. However, Nielsen’s report highlighted how 66 percent of people are willing to pay for coverage of women’s sport.
Chambers says, “When covering women’s basketball, you’re entering a space that isn’t always lucrative. And that’s ok. But just make sure your heart is in it, that way, it’ll translate in the work you produce.”
Galligan feels the presence of superstar quality talent has helped improve coverage:
“We have great players like Elena Delle Donne, Breanna Stewart and Liz Cambage that fans are gravitating towards. They have become a cultural presence as well as the best players of the world.”
With so many cultural figureheads in possibly the most diverse sports league in the world—one that includes black, white, Asian, Australian, European, gay, straight and mothers and wives—it’s not as though the media is lacking narratives to build around.
Whenever the WNBA comes back, the league will have plenty of storylines told by some of the best up-and-coming reporters in the world
Huw is a TBW staff writer who grew up in Wales and currently lives in England where he coaches a local basketball team. He loves all sorts of basketball: men’s, women’s, wheelchair, international, good and bad. He has bylines with the NBA/WNBA’s UK broadcast rights partner Sky Sports, has featured on Sporting News covering FIBA events and is a Lead Writer with UK-based basketball website and podcast Double Clutch. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @coach_huw where he often posts about how Tim Duncan was the best player of his era.