The WNBA finals have ended, the Minnesota Lynx are once again the champions — and now we all have to wait until next May for more women's basketball. Since obviously need something to try to help us hold over until then, however, that makes now the perfect time look back on the proud history of the WNBA. It seems unbelievable that the league has already been around for almost 20 years, no? I mean, it seems like we were fangirling over Sheryl Swoopes just yesterday!
The WNBA was officially announced in 1996 with the first season beginning in 1997, and in the 19 season it's had so far, the league has proven itself to be pretty excellent. It also has staying power — despite the fact that it doesn't get anywhere near the same amount of money or coverage as it male counterpart, the league is still alive and well.
The WNBA did have a few things going for it that many women's leagues haven't had, particularly the fact that the NBA helped launch it and has fully supported the league even during the rough patches in its history. And as you'd expect from any new sports league — especially, sadly, one with female athletes — the WNBA has had its struggles. But 19 seasons later, they've beaten the odds and are still kicking ass and being awesome.
So here's a look back on some important milestones and how things have changed for the league over the years.
The WNBA's first season began on June 21, 1997 with a game between the New York Liberty and the Los Angeles Sparks. In this first year, the league had eight teams: The Charlotte Sting, the Cleveland Rockers, the Houston Comets, the Los Angeles Sparks, the New York Liberty, the Phoenix Mercury, the Sacramento Monarch, and the Utah Starzz. Star players like Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes, who were the first players signed, were much-hyped by the league (although Swoopes was out for most of the first season during her pregnancy). Other early stars included Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson, but the true standout was the incredible Cynthia Cooper, who led the league in scoring in the 1997 season and was the year's MVP. She also led her team, the Houston Comets, to the first WNBA championship.
The Comets continued to dominate the league for the rest of the '90s — as one would expect with the killer combination of Cooper, Thompson, and Swoopes. Houston won the championship four years in a row.
Attendance in the early seasons was also good — in the first season, more than one million people attended a WNBA game with an average attendance of over 9,000 a game, and those numbers held steady for the next few seasons as well. Plus, with TV partnerships with ESPN, NBC, and Lifetime, plenty of people were tuning in watch.
First All-Star Game
The first WNBA All-Star game didn't happen until 1999. It was held in Madison Square Garden and a sold-out crowd of over 18,000 turned out to watch. The Western Conference won and Lisa Leslie was named All-Star MVP.
WNBA All-Star games continue to be exciting and popular to this day.
Despite its initial popularity, the WNBA began to have financial trouble in the early 2000s. Although the league has typically been considered very well-managed, money-wise, it's had plenty of unprofitable years, and without the NBA supporting it, it most likely would have folded. In fact, in 2007, it was estimated that teams were losing up to $2 million a year. Several teams joined the league, but numerous teams folded, as well. And even with NBA financial support it didn't look good.
Fortunately, the league has stabilized since then. The Connecticut Suns became the first team in the league to have positive cash flow as of the 2010 season, viewership on both ESPN and NBC are significantly up, as are merchandise sales, Boost Mobile is now a league-wide sponsor, and the league now has a long-term deal with ESPN in which teams were paid television rights fees.
In recent years, about half of the league's teams have been profitable. Additionally, while in the past teams have folded due to lack of interested buyers, the Los Angeles Sparks had little trouble finding new owners in 2013. Hopefully, the financial stability only continues.
Teams Old And New
The WNBA team line-up looks a lot different now than it did in 1997. Over the years, there have been a total of 18 different WNBA franchises, though today there are only 12 active teams. Three of the original eight founding teams have since folded: The Cleveland Rockers folded in 2003 after the owner announced he wasn't interested in keeping the team and the league wasn't able to find another buyer; the Houston Comets — who had won more championships than any other team in the league — folded in 2008 for the same reason; and the Charlotte Sting folded in 2008 after a failed attempt to move to Kansas City. Additionally, the Sacramento Monarch disbanded after a failed attempt to move to San Francisco, while the Utah Starzz became the San Antonio Stars in 2003.
However, many other teams have joined the WNBA as well. The Detroit Shock and the Washington Mystic joined in 1998 (though the Shock now play in Tulsa). The Minnesota Lynx and the Orlando Miracle joined in 1999 (though the Miracle became the Connecticut Sun in 2003).
Four teams joined in 2000, though the Miami Sol and the Portland Fire only lasted three season. But the Indiana Fever and Seattle Storm are still playing — in fact, Indiana just made it to the final. More recently, the Chicago Sky and the Atlanta Dream have also joined the league, in 2006 and 2008 respectively.
In other words, it's been a turbulent 19 seasons, with teams coming and going and relocating quite a bit. But four of the founding teams are still playing today, and slowly but surely the league has grown, despite the shifting stage.
Community Outreach And Charity Work
The WNBA isn't just awesome on the court. The league also supports numerous charitable causes, including breast health awareness and their Read to Achieve initiative aimed at encouraging reading and on-line literacy in kids. They're working to reduce their carbon footprint, too, which is all pretty great.
The Current Era
Today, there's a whole new generation of players in the WNBA, including stars like Britney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, and Maya Moore — among many others. The Minnesota Lynx are the team to beat, having won the championship three of the past five years. And the level of play just continues to improve throughout the league.
Looking ahead towards next season, the future looks bright.