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WNBA to tip off amid extraordinary anticipation

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in April the increased attention and investment could allow the league to expand by four teams before 2028.
LSU's Angel Reese, left, poses for a photo with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert
Posted at 7:35 PM, May 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-13 20:35:26-04

Coming off the high of a 2023 season that saw the most-watched WNBA finals in 20 years, and record viewership during this year's WNBA draft, the league kicks off what could be a dazzling season Tuesday.

Superstars joining the league's ranks include Caitlin Clark, the Iowa record-setter and NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer who's now the overwhelming favorite to win Rookie of the Year with the Indiana Fever.

"I think I'm just grateful for, you know obviously, the support, the excitement," Clark said in a preseason news conference. "I think, you know, this is what the league and the players in this league have deserved for a really long time."

She's part of a star rookie class with names like Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso and Cameron Brink.

"I don't necessarily think that we're anything special," Brink said. "I think we're really good players, and I do think we're — if you look at other draft classes, we're a really strong class — but I think it's just been time, and the women before us."

At the LA Sparks practice Monday, players said the league's momentum refocuses their attention on the game.

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"It changes in that there's less pressure on the players to like, 'Grow the league, grow the league' like we're trying to find the solutions to grow the league," Layshia Clarendon, the Los Angeles Sparks' veteran guard, said. "We can just show up and do our jobs now, like our jobs is to put on a really good show every night, to play like really gritty, talented basketball and be entertaining for people to try and win games."

"I'm just happy for the vets, they've worked so hard to get the league where it is," Rickea Jackson, the Sparks' star rookie out of Tennessee, said.

The momentum is tangible. The WNBA announced it will invest $50 million over the next two years to charter flights for teams during the season. That alleviates growing concern about player safety and comfort as they travel between games while trying to rest their bodies.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in April the increased attention and investment could also allow the league to expand by four teams before 2028.

"It feels like, 'bout damn time, kind of like we really deserve this moment," Clarendon said.

Yet amid all the growth, player pay as a share of the WNBA's revenue has shrunk. Clark, for one, will make under $77,000 this year from her WNBA contract. That's the maximum allowed under the latest contract negotiated between the league and its players association. That agreement runs through the 2027 season, but players could opt out after the 2025 season if they elect to do so before Nov. 1 this year. It could be a real possibility if money keeps flowing into the league.

"Corporate sponsors jumping on board — hear me, corporate sponsors" Curt Miller, the Sparks' head coach, said to a recorded Zoom with reporters last week. "They see the viewership, they see the bang for their buck right now in women's sports in general, but especially the WNBA."

This season, the Las Vegas Aces will try for a third back-to-back championship against tough competition and star power in places like Seattle, Los Angeles and Indianapolis.

The season starts when the New York Liberty play the Washington Mystics Tuesday afternoon, the Indiana Fever play the Connecticut Sun, the Phoenix Mercury take on the Las Vegas Aces and the Minnesota Lynx play the Seattle Storm.

Scripps Sports will, for a second season, broadcast WNBA Friday night games on ION. The first of those installments comes May 17 with a doubleheader: Washington plays Connecticut and Seattle plays Minnesota.