Women’s Basketball Has ‘Next’ When It Comes to Growing the Game

No matter where you go, it’s inescapable these days.

Women’s basketball is no longer an afterthought that’s easily forgotten about and even easier to ignore.

As we saw during the most recent chapter of March Madness, the women’s game has evolved into a made-for-mainstream-TV event, the kind that moves more girls to want to be clutch like Caitlyn, be unapologetically authentic like Angel and do the damn thing like JuJu.

Oh, and move the needle in unprecedented fashion across just about every metric you can imagine.

But the women’s game has been strong for a long time.

It’s just that now more than ever, the institutional misogyny, homophobia and racism, while still prevalent, pale in comparison to the game’s proven bodies of work—Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese for example—and the potential for even more growth in the future with access to the best players expanding at a seemingly exponential rate.

We will see the latest installment of the game’s growth play out on April 15 during the WNBA draft in what’s shaping up to be the most important draft class in its history.

Why is this one so important?

Because the attention and adulation that this league has sought for so long, is here. And there has never been a better time, a more opportune time, to amplify the women’s game than now.

We have all seen the eye-popping ratings throughout the women’s NCAA basketball tournament which eventually ended with South Carolina capping off an undefeated season by beating the Caitlin Clark-led Iowa Hawkeyes.

Even before the Gamecocks’ unprecedented victory, there were undeniable signs of the women’s game being on a different plane than past years.

The WNBA enjoyed one of its greatest seasons ever in terms of engagement and overall synergy that extended beyond the players and the league’s small, tight unit of followers, fans and influencers.

The 2023 WNBA Finals between the Connecticut Sun and the Las Vegas Aces had the highest TV viewership for the WNBA Finals in 20 years, highlighted by a 36% spike in attendance from the previous season.

That Nike commercial from back in the day with Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley—the baller Dawn Staley who preceded the Dawn Staley better known today as South Carolina’s wildly successful head coach—proclaimed, “We got next!”

Well, ‘next’ is now for the WNBA.

Part of this shift is increased interest courtesy of its current TV deal. With that interest comes increased criticism from men who, for too many years to count, ignored the women’s game altogether or viewed it as a less-than-desirable passing of time—like a root canal.

This reality really hits home for Black women who are often nailed with a double-whammy of bias based on their race and gender. This means the opening comments by Commentator Emmanuel Acho earlier this month were both sad and comical at the same time.

“I’m about to give a gender-neutral, racially indifferent take,” said Acho as part of his opening monologue.

This always has an unapologetic apology feel to it, like “I’m sorry what I’m about to say will offend you” which is different from “I’m sorry for what I said.”

Oh, the double-whammy we talked about.

And 3 … 2 … 1.

“Angel Reese, you can’t be the big bad wolf but then kind of cry like Courage the Cowardly Dog,” Acho said. “Because if you want to act grown, which she has, if you want to get paid like you grown, which you are, if you want to talk to grown folks like you’re grown, which you did post-game when you told a coach from an opposing team, ‘Watch yo mouth.’ If you want to tell people to ‘Get your money up,’ then post-game when you take a L, you just gotta take it on the chin.”

You don’t have to agree with him, but there’s a certain logic to his words that one can understand.

It doesn’t feel as though he’s fueling a narrative based more on personal feelings than facts … until he capped it off with this little nugget.

“Nobody mourns when the villain catches an L,” he said.

Here’s my problem.

This line of thought, this branch of thought, perpetuates a contrived narrative about Angel Reese that too many folks—mainly men—are way too comfortable peddling.

She’s outspoken, brash and speaks her mind in ways that make many folks who don’t look like her, who don’t understand, appreciate or value her or women who look like her uncomfortable.

But does that make her a villain?

It’s a lazy assumption that too many—especially men—are willing to promote over and over again, even if the overall impact of her on the game has been positive.

That positivity for those who are on the come-up in women’s basketball will continue to grow and evolve while the predictable, misogyny-laced and biased takes will become more of an afterthought and eventually ignored altogether.

Updated: April 12, 2024 — 9:02 pm