June 25, 2024 

How the WNBA really feels about Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark

Elizabeth Williams: 'I don't think we're complaining about eyeballs on our league'

With anticipation in the air and excitement palpable, clusters of fans dressed in Chicago Sky No. 5 or LSU No. 10 jerseys and T-shirts eagerly awaited a glimpse of Sky rookie Angel Reese on June 6. The following night, the atmosphere was just as electric, with enthusiastic fans clad in Indiana Fever or Iowa No. 22 uniforms for Caitlin Clark, all wanting to be part of the thrilling experience.

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Reese and Clark, two rookies who have quickly become the talk of the nation, showcased their skills on and off the court. They not only dazzled with their performances but also took the time to interact with fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. This personal touch made the fans feel appreciated and connected.

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Reese, a formidable post presence, recorded a double-double to lead the Chicago Sky to a 79-71 win over the Washington Mystics on June 6. Then Clark, renowned for her precision shooting, made an impressive seven 3-pointers and had her second career 30-point game as Indiana defeated Washington 85-83 on June 7. Their outstanding performances led their teams to victory while inspiring a new generation of basketball players and fans.

Reese and Clark drew large crowds in Washington. The Mystics, recognizing the unprecedented demand for tickets, had moved those games from the 4,200-seat Entertainment and Sports Arena to the much larger Capital One Arena. This strategic decision not only accommodated the growing demand but also provided an opportunity to showcase the games to larger audiences, further highlighting the impact of these rookies on the WNBA.

The game between the Mystics and the Fever was played before a sellout crowd of 20,333 — the league’s largest single-game attendance since 2007. This was a night after Sky-Fever drew 10,000 fans, which was the capacity the Mystics set for that game. This is a clear and significant indication of the WNBA’s surging popularity.

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark dribbles the ball with her right hand and sticks out her tongue as she exerts herself trying to drive by Washington Mystics wing Karlie Samuelson.
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) drives to the basket against Washington Mystics wing Karlie Samuelson (44) during a game at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Reese and Clark have not just been two reasons why the WNBA is enjoying significant growth and much more attention. They are the catalysts. Before they entered the league, the WNBA was rising in popularity, but their presence has accelerated this trend.

“The ability to flex up to bigger arenas is, I think, really helpful,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters in Washington in May. “Teams moving games, having the flexibility to flex up from an arena like here or in Atlanta is great. … And think about it: If you’re trying to build and grow a business, the more seats you can fill, and primarily when you’ve heard about the [record single-game ticket revenue] in New York, you probably heard about what happened in LA with 19,100 fans.

“So even in Toronto, there’s been discussion that [the expansion team is] going to start in a smaller arena, but flexing up to Scotiabank, and then maybe playing across Canada in big arenas, like where hockey plays in both Vancouver and in Montreal. So that’s a sign of a growing league that we’re looking at bigger arenas for hopefully all of our teams longer term but certainly shorter term, flexing games up to bigger arenas.”

Recently, the Las Vegas Aces announced that all their home games were sold out, making them the first team in WNBA history to sell out their entire regular-season slate of 20 home contests. Additionally, the Atlanta Dream and Dallas Wings reported that their season tickets had sold out. The Fever’s home attendance for their first five games this season surpassed their total home attendance in 2023

The Mystics, who played in Capital One Arena full-time from 1998 to 2018, announced on Wednesday that their season finale on Sept. 19 against Indiana is also being moved to the larger facility. The Atlanta Dream moved their Friday game against Indiana from their cozy, 3,500-seat arena to State Farm Arena. The move paid huge dividends for the Dream as 17,575 fans packed State Farm Arena and set a Dream record for single-game attendance. The previous record was 11,609 in 2008 at the same facility.

Mystics forward Emily Engstler was happy to play consecutive games at Capital One Arena earlier this month.

“It means a lot to the women’s game to play here,” Engstler said before the game against the Sky. “The fact that we don’t have this capacity at our home arena makes this a proud moment for women’s basketball. This was our first time walking around and my first time here, so seeing how beautiful it is here was cool.”

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A special time

It’s a special time for the WNBA, driven by a transcendent rookie class and the culmination of years of determined growth. Business is booming. Now, there’s more attention, more viewers, more national television coverage — more of everything.

People are tuning in, too, as six networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, ION, NBATV and CBS) have set ratings records for their most-watched WNBA games ever this season. Every single one has featured Clark, including a June 16 game against Reese’s Sky that averaged 2.25 million viewers on CBS. It was the most viewed WNBA game in 23 years, and it peaked at over 3 million viewers.

“I think I am a part of history, so I’ll take it,” Indiana Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell said after the June 7 win in Washington during the postgame press conference. “It’s good thing for women’s basketball … We embrace it. I’m pretty sure our organization can feed off of it and the state of Indiana. … We can be happy with where the women’s game is going. It’s pretty positive.”

Chicago Sky forward Angel Reese walks off the court. She smiles and raises both arms in the air, and a fan reaches over the railing to touch one of Reese's outstretched hands.
Chicago Sky forward Angel Reese (5) waves to fans as she walks off the court after a win over the Washington Mystics at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 6, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

In tandem, WNBA App active users and League Pass subscriptions have grown significantly from last season, according to the WNBA. And fans watched the most minutes, on average, in the first two weeks of the season on League Pass in WNBA history.

“It’s cool to see the league is moving in the right direction,” Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young told The Next after a loss to the Seattle Storm on June 7. “There’s a lot of eyes on the league right now. The most viewership we’ve had. It’s cool to see people watching women’s basketball. We’re professional athletes, and it’s cool to see people locked in on us and supporting us. It’s our job to go out and put on a show for them every day.”

Opening the floodgates

The WNBA’s increased visibility has sparked heated discussions that have stirred emotions, especially on social media. Yet it has also allowed some of the league’s most talented players and breakout players to become household names, players like Connecticut Sun guard DiJonai Carrington, New York Liberty wing Betnijah Laney-Hamilton, Minnesota forward Napheesa Collier, Seattle center Ezi Magbegor and Phoenix Mercury Kahleah Copper. People are discussing the WNBA regularly.

While too much focus may have been placed on the shove heard around the world, from Chicago’s Chennedy Carter against Clark, and divisive comments from national pundits, several storylines are emerging during this condensed WNBA season. They include Connecticut’s 13-2 start, New York’s 14-3 start, the Lynx’s 13-3 start and the historic brilliance of Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson.

The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup contests were clustered in a 13-day stretch earlier this month. The Lynx will visit the Liberty on Tuesday night at UBS Arena in Long Island in what should be a fantastic championship contest.

Fans are discovering the excellence of the WNBA’s top power couple in Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner and the return of Seattle’s Skylar Diggins-Smith after a 20-month hiatus. There is also the consistency of New York’s terrific triumvirate of Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Sabrina Ionescu as well as the remarkable starts for Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale and Minnesota guard Kayla McBride.

The level of play across the league has never been better.

“When you open the floodgates, everybody comes in,” Storm forward Nneka Ogwumike said after the game against the Aces on June 7. “It’s part of the exposure. What I would want to tell people is however you figure it out or enter this space, learn a little bit more about it, diversify your interests a little bit. Find things that you like or love about this league and let it lead you toward places that can maybe teach you something new about a player, a franchise or the league itself. Be in discovery mode … Do your best not to divide but learn more.”

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Minutes after holding a baby and posing for photos with fans following the Storm’s postgame meeting, Ogwumike leaned against the wall outside the locker room with her arms crossed and a satisfied look on her face. It could’ve been the instant gratification from the Storm’s impressive victory over the two-time defending champion Aces at Michelob ULTRA Arena, or it could’ve been because she was tired.

Seattle Storm forward Nneka Ogwumike holds the ball at her waist while Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier defends on her back.
Seattle Storm forward Nneka Ogwumike holds her position against Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier during a game at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 17, 2024. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

However, for Ogwumike, the comfortable pose represented progress and gratitude for the hard work of those who came before her. As president of the WNBPA and a 13-year veteran of the WNBA, Ogwumike is happy to see plenty of eyeballs on the league this season. It’s been a long time coming.

“It feels good,” Ogwumike said. “I think I’m mostly grateful for those who came before us that were really in the trenches when women’s sports was searching just for basic equality and equity. I entered the league when it was still on the come-up, but I’ve played through what it feels like almost a few generations of the growth. We would not be here without the pioneers. We would not be here without the day ones. We would not be here without the people who recognize the investment and resources to put into women’s sports.”

Women’s sports are surging

Women’s sports have enjoyed a landmark year, beginning when 92,003 fans watched Nebraska volleyball defeat Omaha at Memorial Stadium in August. It was the largest crowd to witness a women’s sporting event in the United States.

While at Iowa, Clark played in front of 55,000 fans in an exhibition game against DePaul in November. Then national championship game between Iowa and South Carolina in April had a record 18.9 million viewers.

Texas and Oklahoma’s matchup in the 2024 NCAA Women’s College World Series (WCWS) Finals drew 2 million viewers. It was the most-watched WCWS Finals ever, an increase of 24% from 2023 and 3% from 2015, the previous all-time high.

The momentum has accelerated. The investment in women’s sports is yielding huge rewards.

The first two weeks of the WNBA season saw 400,000 fans attend at least one game, the most since 1998. There have been numerous sellouts, a 156% increase from last year, which has made a difference in the atmosphere at most games.

In addition to the talented players, the in-game experience has also been a positive vibe. The energy in most arenas is electric. Celebrities have shown up at games. Las Vegas has the High Rollers dance team. New York has Ellie the Elephant, who has a growing TikTok following based on her halftime outfits rocking the latest styles.

Veteran Chicago forward Elizabeth Williams is thrilled to be part of the growth of the WNBA. Throughout her career, she has advocated for social justice and led discussions to enhance opportunities for players.

“It’s great,” said Williams of the increased interest in the WNBA this season. “I don’t think we’re complaining about eyeballs on our league. It’s great for us. It’s great for women’s sports as a whole. It’s great for a league of Black women that we’re being seen and we’re visible. I’m excited for it. I think there has been a concerted effort from people that have invested in this league for a long time, and it’s coming together with a really dynamic rookie class that understands their value on and off the court.”

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Social media beast

Fans are buying WNBA merchandise in record numbers this year. Overall transactions have increased 756% compared with the same time frame in 2023. Boosted by interest in players like Reese, Wilson and Clark, the online WNBA Store has already set a record for single-season sales.

The 2024 rookie class has been transcendent on and off the court. Many of them had large followings when they played in college, and it’s been evident in the support they have received from fans this season. Clark, Reese, Los Angeles Sparks rookie forward Cameron Brink and Aces rookie guard Kate Martin all helped drive engagement across the WNBA’s social media platforms, as each player had a moment that ranked among the top five most viewed since the season started.

Overall, WNBA social channels are buzzing with content. There were 157 million video views through the first week of the season, according to the WNBA.

“We’re selling out games that weren’t normally sold out. I feel like a lot of noise is being made, and it’s because of social media,” Mystics guard DiDi Richards told The Next. “Watching the WNBA grow from when I was young to now is exciting and tremendous. It also shows where the sport can be. What makes it kind of scary, it’s nowhere near done because this is the tip. There’s so much more growth to be had and more fans to be brought into the sport. So I’m excited to see where it goes from here.”

Washington Mystics guard DiDi Richards attempts a right-handed jump shot as an Indiana defender is too late to contest it.
Washington Mystics guard DiDi Richards (12) attempts a shot in a game against the Indiana Fever at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Bright future

The WNBA’s future is bright. The entire league is now flying charter for all games, which is a significant step forward from the commercial flights in past seasons. An upcoming media rights deal is projected to dramatically surpass the current agreement, which is believed to be around $60 million.

“I have said since I walked into this league I want charters for these players,” Engelbert said. “We’re going to do it without jeopardizing the financial viability of this league.”

Expansion is a reality, as the Golden State Valkyries will begin play next season and a Toronto franchise will commence in 2026. Excitement is high, as many cities are interested in supporting a WNBA franchise. There could be more expansion soon, as Engelbert would like to get to 16 teams.

However, everything circles back to Reese and Clark, who are massive parts of the WNBA’s future. They will be forever linked even though they play different positions. They had two intense meetings in the last two NCAA Tournaments, with Reese and LSU beating Clark’s Iowa for the 2023 national championship. In this year’s NCAA Tournament, Clark got the upper hand in an Elite Eight victory over Reese and LSU. Clark’s Fever has beaten Reese’s Sky team twice in three meetings this season.

Even though Reese mentioned earlier this year that she’d gladly play a “villain” role to help with WNBA viewership and growth, she shouldn’t have to have that mindset. Her dynamic and energetic performances should be compelling reasons why people are paying attention. Reese is special. She finished with her eighth consecutive double-double in a win over Indiana on Sunday and ranks second in the league in rebounding.

Suppose the Sky and Fever both become elite down the road, like the Mercury and Lynx of the mid-2010s. In that case, Reese and Clark will meet in many meaningful contests, like Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, who led those teams through transcendent and memorable playoff battles.

Ah, yes, Taurasi. Fans tuning in for the first time this season are also witnessing the 42-year-old guard drink from the fountain of youth, as she’s still going strong.

“As I’ve been looking at what we’ve been building, I was thinking about this for six months and scenario planning it,” Engelbert said. “And then as we started to get into what happened in the NCAA, with 24 million people watching, the media paying attention, all the interest we have from media, as we’re negotiating our next round of media rights. … [We’ve had] big rivalries, obviously huge viewership this year. So I think that’s great. … We’re going to maximize the value. … We were just surviving back then coming off the [COVID-19] pandemic, and now we’re thriving.”

The Next’s Jenn Hatfield contributed reporting for this story.

Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by SI.com, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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