February 15, 2024 

Stephen vs. Sabrina is so much more than ‘Battle of the Sexes’ 50 years later

What are the implications of this first-of-its-kind shootout between a WNBA and NBA player?

Indiana Fever general manager Lin Dunn predicts that on Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET people all over the world will be tuning in to TNT. Why? For the first time in modern pro basketball history, the WNBA’s most-recent 3-point shooting champion, Sabrina Ionescu, will take on her childhood idol and two-time 3-point shooting champion Stephen Curry in a 3-point shootout airing during NBA All-Star weekend.

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Dunn imagines that viewers watching will have on their Sabrina 1s, they’ll be wearing their No. 20 jerseys (Oregon or New York Liberty) and they’ll also be thinking about how much respect they have for Ionescu’s challenger in NBA superstar Curry. Not only did he allow for this to happen, but he has been scheming alongside Ionescu for months to make it happen. 

“He wasn’t afraid to shoot versus a woman,” Dunn told The Next.

The lead-up to the shootout has garnered not only a lot of attention but has also reminded people of another marquee event in women’s sports history: the “Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Minnesota Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve remembers that 1973 battle, and she reminisced that in the early ’70s it was acceptable and expected for women to be marginalized. It was casual. Most women adhered to being valued less. Opportunities for women in sports were “next to nothing,” and getting sponsorships was like pulling teeth. 

Dunn too remembers the impact of the “Battle of the Sexes” for women everywhere. “It was historic for us,” she said. “I mean we can always claim that ‘Hey now, women can compete at the highest level.’” 

Fifty years later the WNBA and NBA are hoping for another pivotal, iconic moment in women’s sports history that will catch the eyes of millions and move the needle forward. Or as both Curry and Ionescu often remarked in their media conference Tuesday evening, the shootout will “change narratives” about what WNBA players are capable of doing on a large stage.

But the ripple effect that this shootout may or may not create has broader implications and raises holistic questions about how the NBA has supported the WNBA in the past, how it does today and who the WNBA should market itself to as the league continues its exponential growth within the mainstream sports world. 

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How Steph vs. Sabrina has evolved from King vs. Riggs

When Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was asked to respond to the news of the 3-point shootout between his player and Bay Area native Ionescu, he immediately was reminded of when King faced off against Riggs more than 50 years ago. “I’m envisioning Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King. … Maybe it’s the modern day “Battle of the Sexes,” he said.

Will it really be?

There are some similarities between King and Ionescu and the goals they share in two generations of women’s sports. King chose to play best of five sets rather than best of three against Riggs. Ionescu was intentional in announcing that on Saturday night she’s going to be shooting from the NBA line, which is 23 feet and 9 inches away from the basket, while in the WNBA Ionescu uses the line between 21 and 22 feet away from the basket. 

King didn’t want any excuses, and 50 years later neither does Ionescu. “It was a no-brainer from when it was first presented [with the idea] that I wanted to shoot from the NBA line and continue to just prove that we’re capable and we’re willing,” she said. “I shoot from there normally, and so why not go out on one of the biggest stages and try and do it again?”

The differences lie in not only who is competing against Ionescu, but also in what the competition itself entails. Shooting 3s is a skill that doesn’t require having the most strength or the best endurance. Shooting and making the most 3s requires a lot of skill, practice and a little bit of luck. 

Fifty years ago Riggs was a raging sexist who sat in direct opposition to King and the recently passed Title IX. There was a certain amount of machismo and spite attached to their infamous duel. It was symbolic of the tides that are usually met with progress. They all don’t rise together. Ionescu most likely won’t be presenting her challenger in Curry with a piglet. She most likely won’t be arriving to the competition Cleopatra-style. That is what went on in the 1970s, and King entertained the spectacle of it all while also riling up Riggs. It’s hard to imagine a similar style of pomp and circumstance on Saturday night.

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Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates after scoring a 3-point basket during the first quarter against the Utah Jazz at Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA on Feb 12, 2024. (Photo credit: Chris Nicoll | USA TODAY Sports)

Curry is a less-polarizing figure. He’s been on the front lines advocating for women’s basketball as not only a regular spectator at Stanford, but also in his brand SC30, a company for which Azzi Fudd is one of the primary faces. His relationship with Ionescu dates back to her college days, and Curry still to this day remembers the time Ionescu spent speaking to his children following some of her games as an Oregon Duck.

But on Saturday, Ionescu will take on this hefty mantle with more alongside her rather than against her, which is symbolic of how far women have come since 1973. “We’ve always known we’re badasses,” Reeve said. “But it’s the men in positions of leadership that are starting to understand women’s value.”

Some of those men include Curry’s peers. Leading up to the contest, reporters have been asking some of the most well-known NBA stars who they have coming out on top in the Stephen vs. Sabrina shootout. Curry’s Warriors teammates in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are split, with Thompson behind Ionescu and Green behind Curry. Kevin Durant also has his eye on Curry winning the battle, while Giannis Antetokounmpo has “his money” on Ionescu. 

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What can the WNBA gain?

There is a strong belief that the more visibility and publicity and the larger the stage that the WNBA can get, the better. While that holds true for Saturday night’s shootout, in addition to the other ways the W is leveraging NBA All-Star weekend, it’s been a struggle for both leagues to find organic and respectable ways to showcase the WNBA. 

In addition to the Stephen vs. Sabrina shootout, WNBA players will once again be participating in the NBA’s All-Star Celebrity Game which over the years has featured 2X MVP A’ja Wilson, Arike Ogunbowale and Chelsea Gray. Initially the NBA was trying to include the W and find a way to promote its players, and with many WNBA players overseas during the offseason, a PWHL at NHL All-Star-like showcase appeared improbable. 

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Arike Ogunbowale (24) dribbles against Marcos Mion in the 2023 NBA All Star celebrity game at Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah on Feb 17, 2023. USA. (Photo credit: Kirby Lee | USA TODAY Sports)

The NBA’s solution was to have the WNBA players who were available put into a game alongside celebrities like actor Simu Liu, comedian Lilly Singh and musicians like Janelle Monáe and Machine Gun Kelly. At first there was a reason to praise the decision as WNBA players were being regarded with the same respect as their celebrity counterparts. There also was a chance for WNBA players to network and get to know the celebrities they’d be on a team with. Those could be golden opportunities to encourage other celebs to attend a WNBA game. 

But the on court result didn’t allow WNBA players to be showcased. It was more like a fun, circus-like event that WNBA players happened to be a part of. “It was kind of a fun thing that really didn’t showcase any skill,” Dunn said. “I always worried that some of the celebrities would get injured. … It wasn’t really a game.”

Wilson, who took part in multiple NBA All-Star celebrity games, is coaching one of the teams this year. That was by design. The two-time WNBA champion thought that playing in those games was “a waste of time.” She didn’t feel comfortable to go out and show out alongside all the silliness. “I could easily cook everybody, but I choose not to for the sake of everyone else,” Wilson told The Next. 

But Wilson did have advice for Natasha Cloud and Jewell Loyd, both of whom will be participating in the celeb game this weekend. Her message is to not hold back and just let go. 

“Go all out,” she said. “I feel like that’s what I wish I should have done, which is just go hoop. Like go hoop, and they’re gonna talk about you either way. So if you’re gonna do it, do it. Like at least showcase your true talent.”

Las Vegas Aces center A’ja Wilson (22) during the WNBA game between the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 08, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

The Stephen vs. Sabrina shootout, however,  is meant to be a true display of WNBA talent and skill. Ionescu can shoot the way she typically does without worrying about anyone else. There isn’t a celebrity who she might be tempted to go easy on. The only celebrity she’s playing against is the person who used to be her phone’s screen saver and the peer who she had posters of in her childhood bedroom. 

Both Curry and Ionescu approached this creatively on FaceTime together hours after Ionescu’s triumph at WNBA All-Star last July. Their collaboration is an organic and a thoughtful attempt to give professional women’s basketball the platform it deserves. When WNBA players hold back during something like the celebrity game, there isn’t an opportunity for fans who maybe have never watched WNBA basketball to fall in love with the essence of the league’s basketball.  

The Battle of the Sexes was watched by about 90 million people. How will Stephen vs. Sabrina fair on Saturday night? What could a boom in ratings lead to for the WNBA? These are questions that both Curry and Ionescu can’t answer. But a successful evening, and one where ratings exceed expectations, is certainly a selling point for a league that has media rights deals expiring within the next couple of seasons.

“I don’t think either of us really understand — now obviously I’m speaking for Steph — but the gravity and magnitude that this could take on,” Ionescu said Tuesday evening.  “But knowing that we’re just a small piece of just changing the narrative and this isn’t really scripted. So to say that this isn’t something that we’re doing to try and check something off the box. It’s more like we’re really excited for the opportunity to do this.” 

Curry added that this event has the potential to reshape how people think about competition. Both he and Ionescu are envisioning a universe in which in gyms or outside playing pickup there’s more respect between young girls, young boys, men and women when it comes to playing basketball. “So whatever else comes out of it, we’re gonna continue to tap in and invest in moments like these that can move the needle,” he said.

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Who is the WNBA’s desired audience?

That universe that Curry and Ionescu envision isn’t one that everyone on earth is in lockstep with. Days after the NBA and WNBA announced that Stephen vs. Sabrina was officially happening, comments surfaced from Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. while he was on The Pivot Podcast. He compared the worth of women’s basketball players to Ping-Pong players while rehashing the old narrative about the WNBA lowering its rims.

While it’s been 50 years since 1973, it’s clear that there’s still so much more work to do. Ionescu enjoys the pressure of silencing haters. She’s on her way to becoming “a heel” of the WNBA. She views the opportunity on Saturday night to “shut a lot of people up,” including anyone out there with similar opinions to those of Porter. 

That’s another difference between 2024 and 1973. Women athletes aren’t as quiet anymore, and nor should they be. “We’re seeing that in the WNBA, as they are standing up for themselves, we’re accepting a lot less than what we’ve accepted in the past,” Reeve said. “Meaning not putting up with the stuff. We’re calling things out. So that’s a big, big difference.”

But Porter narrow-mindedness reveals a discord within the women’s basketball community when it comes to what audience the WNBA should be targeting. Should the league be expanding its outreach to be as wide and inclusive as possible? Or is there a case for not even trying to market or adhere to people who disrespect women’s basketball without any intention of giving it a chance?

Retired player and WNBA champion Devereaux Peters comes from the school of thought that the WNBA shouldn’t waste time trying to market itself to those who are a lost cause. But it raises the question: How could a league determine whether someone is a lost cause or whether they are just someone who has to go to a game to be proven otherwise?

Dunn encourages the league not to limit itself, and while the WNBA has historically hit the specific groups that Peters refers to, in 2024 there’s no reason to reach for visibility as wide as possible. “I think we should be hitting all audiences, all groups, we should be extremely inclusive,” she said. “This is a wonderful opportunity because we are so skilled.”

During a recent appearance on Locked On Women’s basketball, Imani McGee-Stafford expanded on Dunn’s perspective. She explained that the WNBA is still looking for more casual fans. In her eyes, the league can’t just pander to only its most passionate. 

“They want to know those stories,” she told Howard Megdal.  “And the more you tell them, the more we can engage the casual fan. We have die-hard fans, our fans are rain, shine, hail, sleet or snow. They’re gonna find us and they’re gonna support us. But we still are struggling with the casual fan, and those are the things that are going to bring the casual fan.”

Could the story of a 26 year-old WNBA player defeating her childhood idol be a story that lures in more casual fans? It’s quite possible. But even if Ionescu doesn’t come out of the shootout against Curry victorious, there’s more to her story as a basketball player. And the hope is that a lot more people will be interested in coming along for the ride.

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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