This year marked the WNBA’s 25th anniversary. Launched in 1996, the WNBA’s incremental success has been one of the biggest sports stories since the turn of the millennium. Unlike other major league sports, the NBA’s launch of its female branch has weathered the tests of time, unlike similar attempts by the MLS and NHL.

Sports analysts and pundits have explored the topic of failed women’s sports leagues from a variety of angles, including talent, interest, investment, resources, and broadcasting deals. However, now that the WNBA is entering its 26th year as a viable league, many are wondering what the league has done right.

In other words, what has made the WNBA the first exception? While the NWLS (soccer) has now hit a stride and the PHF (hockey) is entering its seventh season, the WNBA is beaten only by the LPGA (golf) and WTA (tennis) in terms of player earnings. Additionally, the WNBA is now included alongside NBA betting odds, much like the LPGA and WTA for the men’s PGA and ATP. 

A closer investigation reveals a handful of ongoing developments that have helped solidify the league as profitable and popular, from video game representation to inclusion in NBA betting odds to improved CBAs. Keep reading for more information on the WNBA’s ongoing evolution.

A New Collective Bargaining Agreement

One sign that a league has hit a healthy rhythm is an update to its CBA, which covers rules and standards from player eligibility to contract rights to the ever-important salary cap. In early 2020, the WNBA released an updated CBA which saw huge salary improvements across the league. 

The updated CBA allows players to earn more than $500,000 annually in cash compensation, though the average number is likely to linger around $130,000. Meanwhile, salary caps jumped to $215,000 from the previous $117,500. This means that, for the first time in women’s professional sports (aside from LPGA and WTA), female athletes are consistently earning six figures.

Backing from NBA Stars & 2K Sports

While the updated 2020 CBA highlights just how much the WNBA’s position has improved, the league has had its fair share of support from the NBA. First and foremost, this has come from men’s pros who have backed the league. For example, prior to his death, Kobe Bryant was an avid supporter of the WNBA who was regularly seen courtside at live games and wearing WNBA sweatshirts.

This type of support wasn’t part of a political or financial agenda for Kobe; he just loved the league and wanted to help elevate it. Social proof goes a long way in helping make a new venture popular, but Bryant wasn’t the only one taking a chance on the WNBA.

 Back in 2017, EA Sports made a huge leap by adding certain WNBA players and rosters to certain gameplay modes for NBA Live 18. The release was largely received with positive reviews related to the WNBA inclusion. This year, 2K Sports added expanded lineups and modes for NBA 2K22—which even includes a cover feature for star Candance Parker.

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A Push for Social Justice

One key element of the WNBA (and the NBA) is its participation in social justice movements. Compared to other major league sports like the NFL, the NBA has been transparent about its support of certain social justice movements in the US.

Typically, a North American sports franchise will need to placate its owners when it comes to divisive social rhetoric. However, the WNBA has shown one of the most unified approaches to speaking out against injustice of any global sports league.

For example, multiple WNBA stars spoke out against former US Senator Kelly Loeffler because of comments the lawmaker made in 2020. But Loeffler isn’t just a political elite—she’s also the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA team. Despite pressure to adhere to previous sports franchise models in which owner ideology was kept separate from a team’s culture, the Atlanta Dream bucked tradition. 

Loeffler went on to lose the next election in the state of Georgia and has since been de-seated from the Senate. She also sold her stakes in the Dream to former player, Renee Montgomery, making Montgomery the first retired player to become a co-owner. This has led some to credit the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream to an era of increased social and political engagement from sports fans.

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