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There’s a new excitement around the WNBA this season

By Leah Asmelash, CNN

(CNN) — Ticket sales for the Chicago Sky have jumped. Celebrities are wearing Indiana Fever jerseys. Google searches for the league are higher than ever.

Everyone is talking about the WNBA. And the hype is real.

Spearheaded by the star power of Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and other top college players, women’s basketball is enjoying a surge of popularity — even eclipsing men’s hoops at times.

Last month’s women’s national championship game between the University of South Carolina and the University of Iowa was the most-watched basketball game — including the NBA — since 2019.

Luxury fashion houses requested to dress players for the recent WNBA draft. Star rookies like Clark, Reese, Cameron Brink and others are already mainstays in national commercials, as are veterans such as the Seattle Storm’s Jewell Lloyd (catch her repping State Farm) and the now-retired Sue Bird.

So if you’re one of the new WNBA fans who doesn’t quite know where to start following the league, you’re in luck. Ahead of the league’s preseason, which tips off tonight, here’s your guide to all things WNBA.

Why is the WNBA getting all this new attention?

For a league that has largely been overshadowed by the NBA, the last few months have been a publicity avalanche, the likes of which the WNBA hasn’t seen since its inaugural year in 1997.

WNBA games have long drawn fewer eyes and earned less revenue than games in the NBA. The league’s players are less visible than their male counterparts, who have parlayed their fame into fashion endorsements, production companies and whatever other creative endeavors to which millionaires may aspire.

To say all of that is changing may be an overstatement for a league whose average salary hovers around $130,000 and whose teams still fly commercial (the average NBA salary is $9.5 million, and teams travel via private charter). And though 2023 saw a rise in WNBA attendance, average attendance is still only 6,615 people per game, compared to the NBA’s average of 18,324.

But there is certainly a buzz, a feeling that tides could be shifting. WNBA sales this year on StubHub have spiked by 93% compared to the 2023 season. At last month’s draft, “the excitement was palpable,” Candace Pedraza, who covers the league for WNBA news website Winsidr, told CNN.

Thanks to the recent changes allowing college students to profit from advertising and endorsements, women’s basketball stars now appear in commercials while they’re still in college, cultivating interest in their careers before they even turn pro. (Just look at Brink, who starred in New Balance ads while still at Stanford, alongside NBA stars Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard.)

The WNBA also has plans to add four more teams by 2028, and recently raised $75 million from investors to help “drive the league’s brand,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said.

And with the influx of new talent entering the league, joining existing stars like two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, the WNBA seems poised for a breakout year.

When does the WNBA season start?

Tipoff for this year’s regular season is May 14, but the preseason starts tonight, with Reese’s Chicago Sky and Clark’s Indiana Fever both in action. Fans can watch the league, colloquially known as the W, on either local channels or on WNBA League Pass. Some games may be nationally broadcast via ESPN, ION, Prime Video, or even X.

So far, there are 12 teams in the W — Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, Dallas Wings, Indiana Fever, Las Vegas Aces, Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty, Minnesota Lynx, Phoenix Mercury, Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics — divided into two conferences, East and West, much like the NBA.

The WNBA began play in 1997 but was not the first women’s professional basketball league. That was the American Basketball League, which launched in 1996 — a year after the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, led by star Rebecca Lobo, went undefeated, boosting interest in the women’s game and support for a professional women’s league. The ABL competed head-to-head with the WNBA for a year before folding in 1998.

The WNBA was the first league formed in partnership with the NBA, and was dominated early on by the now-defunct Houston Comets, who won the first four WNBA titles. To this day, many WNBA teams share the same ownership as their NBA affiliate, like the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota Lynx, and the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury.

How is the WNBA different from the NBA?

The women play 40 games in the regular season, which ends in September, rather than 82 for the men. The W season begins as the NBA is deep into its playoffs. And the WNBA features a slightly smaller ball.

In addition, the style of play in the two leagues is quite different.

While NBA games tend to be heavy on three-point shooting, the W is more “technically sound,” Pedraza said.

“If you’re a fan of the fundamentals of basketball, like protecting the ball, sharing the ball, things of that nature, you’re going to love watching WNBA,” she said.

Generally, there’s also more action in the paint — near the basket — rather than around the perimeter by the three-point line, though she noted that with long-range shooters like Clark entering the league, that could shift.

The NBA can sometimes devolve into a three-point shooting contest, while the women’s game tends to be more of a physical battle in the paint, which can mean more highlight-reel blocked shots.

And yet the league still does not always receive the same respect as the men’s. After a claim that a high school boy’s team could defeat the WNBA champion Aces went viral last year, 76ers guard Patrick Beverley defended the WNBA, saying they are “way more physical” than the men’s league.

“They hit you more. They screen harder. They hold their screens,” he said on a podcast. “It’s a physical-a*s game.”

The game is also shorter, with games divided into four 10-minute quarters versus the NBA’s 48-minute games. So when you see, for example, the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas recording back-to-back triple doubles, with less time to work with than the men, Pedraza said, “you can be doubly impressed.”

Who are the WNBA players and teams to watch?

In the last few years, the Las Vegas Aces have become something of a superteam, having won the championship in both 2022 and 2023. But a rivalry has been forming between the Aces and New York Liberty, who lost to them in the finals last season.

The Aces are led by A’ja Wilson — arguably the league’s top player — while the Liberty counter with star Breanna Stewart and sharpshooter Sabrina Ionescu, who narrowly lost to NBA great Steph Curry in a 3-point contest during the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in February.

Neither team made any huge moves in the off-season, Pedraza noted, betting on their existing players. But other teams have been making moves.

Look out for the Seattle Storm, Pedraza said. The Storm already have Jewell Lloyd — who leads the league in scoring — and picked up two more offensive weapons: former MVP Nneka Ogwumike, who was the league’s fifth-leading scorer in 2022, and six-time All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith.

“That’s like a three-headed monster when it comes to scoring,” Pedraza said.

Another team on the rise is the Phoenix Mercury, who acquired guard Rebecca Allen (Pedraza calls her “a secret sniper” for her underrated scoring abilities) and Kahleah Copper, MVP of the 2021 Finals.

The Mercury also re-signed former defensive player of the year Brittney Griner, who returned to the WNBA last spring after spending nearly 10 months in Russian custody on drug-smuggling charges after authorities there found cannabis oil in her luggage.

“They’re not the only high-caliber teams in the W anymore,” Pedraza said, speaking of the Aces and the Liberty. “Talent has definitely distributed itself.”

Hasn’t the WNBA faced some controversies?

One of the thorniest challenges facing the W has involved the race and sexuality of its players. The W is primarily made up of women of color — more than 60% of players are Black — and many, though estimates vary, are LGBTQ.

Though now retired, WNBA legend Sue Bird has been open about how she was forced into the closet when she entered the league in 2002. To be successful, she was told, she’d have to cosplay as heterosexual. Bird has since been outspoken about how the W is not as popular as women’s soccer, in part because many of its basketball players are Black and gay.

“Women’s soccer players generally are cute little White girls, while WNBA players, we are all shapes and sizes,” Bird told CNN in 2020. “A lot of Black, gay, tall women … There is maybe an intimidation factor, and people are quick to judge it and put it down.”

Only in the last few years has the WNBA embraced its LGBTQ players and fans. But Black players are still not always celebrated the same way as White ones, Pedraza said.

For example, the Aces’ Wilson, who is Black, lost the 2023 WNBA MVP award to the Liberty’s Stewart, who is White — an outcome that surprised many observers.

“A lot of people felt that was a little egregious,” Pedraza said, clarifying that she doesn’t necessarily agree or disagree with the decision. “But that was just one thing that happened last year that folks on that team felt like, ‘this is just another example of (Wilson) being shunned by media and by voters who would rather lift up this White player.’”

The WNBA did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Some observers believe the attention showered on Caitlin Clark has illuminated this perceived double standard, particularly when compared to her Black counterparts like Reese — who bested Clark in the 2023 national title game. Before entering the league Clark appeared in State Farm commercials and received a signature shoe deal with Nike.

The only other WNBA players who currently have a signature shoe deal? Stewart, Ionescu and the the Washington Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne, all of whom are White.

USA Today columnist Mike Freeman recently highlighted this racial disparity, writing: “The fact that only white women hold the power of the signature shoe now, as the WNBA enters its most high profile and prosperous phase, shows how Black women are being ignored in a league that they dominate.”

As the WNBA tips off its season, the league may have eyes on it like never before. It could be a legacy-defining season for women’s basketball — akin to the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry of the 1980s, which reignited the then-struggling NBA. Or it could be another incremental step towards greater visibility and compensation for women athletes.

Either way, for many fans it’ll be must-see viewing.

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