Over the course of its 27 year history, the WNBA has come to be defined by dynastic superteams and fierce rivalries.
It dates back to the league’s humble beginnings in the late 1990s, when the now-defunct Houston Comets won the first four WNBA finals, defeating the New York Liberty in three of them. The Minnesota Lynx were next, appearing in six finals between 2011 and 2017, winning four titles.
But those teams were built in very particular ways. The Comets became the WNBA’s first dynasty because the league distributed players to each team ahead of its inaugural season and had no idea how good four-time WNBA finals MVP Cynthia Cooper would be. Whereas the Lynx were built primarily through the draft, being fortunate enough to select Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus No 1 overall, and later trading for Sylvia Fowles.
The WNBA’s new superteam era is fundamentally different, because the rising tides in Las Vegas and New York were not born out of the league’s mistakes or chance in the draft, but through free agency. A new collective bargaining agreement ratified in 2020 gave players the freedom to choose their destinations for the first time in league history.
It came to a head this winter when two of the greatest players of all time headed for opposite sides of the US for two of the league’s biggest markets, with Candace Parker joining the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces and Breanna Stewart going to the New York Liberty.
As a result of an unprecedented level of player movement, the WNBA’s next era is going to look fundamentally different. But it could also be a whole lot better for everyone involved.
“I’m a big rivalry [person],” Parker said after a recent Aces practice. “You think about the foundation of every single thing and every single person that tunes into anything: college basketball has UConn and Tennessee, right? Put it on the map … You think about the NBA with the Celtics and the Lakers and their rivalry, right? And I think in order to [succeed], you need those types of rivalries.”
The Aces signed two-time MVP Parker this offseason after running away with the 2022 WNBA championship behind an MVP season from center A’ja Wilson. Parker will join a star-studded starting five of Wilson, finals MVP Chelsea Gray, MVP-finalist Kelsey Plum, and All-Star starter Jackie Young, giving them four former No 1 overall draft picks and four MVP trophies. There have been hiccups though: this week the team were docked a 2025 first-round draft pick and head coach Becky Hammon was given a two-game ban for “impermissible player benefits and Respect in the Workplace policies”.
Meanwhile, after selecting star guard Sabrina Ionescu first overall in 2020 and losing in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, the Liberty have joined the Aces as the clear betting favorites to win the 2023 WNBA championship after remaking their starting five. The Liberty traded for center Jonquel Jones before signing last year’s scoring leader and MVP runner-up, Stewart, adding two former MVPs. Courtney Vandersloot, the league’s active all-time assists leader and a former overseas teammate of Jones and Stewart, joined the picture too.
The WNBA was already seeing immense growth without any high-profile superteams or rivalries, with the 2022 WNBA season being the most viewed since 2006. Meanwhile, the WNBA is in the process of making games more accessible to viewers, signing a new TV deal with Scripps to televise Friday night games this season. And women’s basketball is growing, with this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament having its highest viewership ever, with the title game between Iowa and LSU drawing 9.9 million viewers.
But sports leagues are top-down structures. As much as the WNBA was growing organically, it needed a push to reach its full potential. After all, fans are often drawn by the biggest markets and best teams and go from there. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that the rivalry between Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers saved the NBA in the 1980s. While the four-year stretch between 2015-18 when LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors met in the NBA finals featured the highest NBA viewership of any span since Michael Jordan’s run in the late 1990s.
The WNBA has all the momentum in the world right now, and its new superteam era should bring in more casual fans.
“We’re trying to elevate the level,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said. “We’re trying to promote our game and create those rivalries. I think that’s great for the WNBA. Hopefully more fans can come and watch us, and we’re selling it… We think we got some pretty special players, but you know Vegas got some special players [too].”
“I think that’s what it was going to make us work really hard and get up in the morning,” Liberty co-owner Clara Wu Tsai added. “Is to be able to beat that team in the West.”
But superteams don’t only help bring in casual fans to a league that has struggled with attendance and needs extra revenue if it is going to expand beyond 12 teams by its stated goal of 2025 – they also help elevate the standard of play. And there is no better proof of this than the fact that both Parker and Stewart are the MVP-caliber players they are today because they were inspired by past superteams.
“I would say watching the Houston Comets play [inspired me] for sure,” Gray recently told the Guardian. “It was a first of its kind, and you’re always looking to see the first one to do something … we were watching it, kind of aspiring to be in that position.”
“Yeah, I raised the roof for sure,” Parker added, referring to Comet’s guard Cynthia Cooper’s famous celebration. “And I definitely tried to go out and shoot like Tina Thompson. You know, shoot a runner and Euro [step] like Cynthia Cooper.”
Stewart was busy winning four straight national championships at the University of Connecticut during the height of the Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks rivalry, saying: “It was intense. That’s what I think of. And especially the players on both teams, the way that they had so much talent and they were able to play well together, I think that that’s what I remember about those two … When you’re a basketball player, you want to play with other great players.”
But players like Parker and Stewart never really had the opportunity to be “surrounded by greatness,” as Stewart put it, until now. By limiting the amount of times a franchise can “core” a player and lock them up from as many as four one-year periods down to just two with the new CBA, the WNBA has empowered players to make their own decisions.
“I think what you’re seeing is the player empowerment era, if you want to call it that, where players are getting to choose the location of their legacy, and I think that’s really important,” Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb said.
Stewart is the vice president of the WNBA Players Association and has used her platform to push the league forward. “I think that as far as player movement, it’s something that the league needs,” Stewart said during Liberty media day.
“And you’re gonna see it happening a lot more and that means just player movement, fan engagement is going to go from one team to another team. It’s just gonna make it more exciting, make things more spicy,” Stewart added, admitting that she used emojis on Twitter to create a buzz around her own free agency, helping the WNBA become a 12-month a year league like the NBA. “But it’s what the league needs to continue to kind of grow the way that we want it to and the way that it should.”
Despite being at different stages of their careers, 37-year-old Parker and 28-year-old Stewart made their free agency moves for ostensibly the same reasons: In addition to having familial ties to the regions and wanting to play with other great players – both taking pay cuts to do so – Parker and Stewart were tired of sacrificing their own desires and well-being for the betterment of the league.
It was time to prioritize themselves, and specifically their health and their bodies. In fact, Parker and Stewart both spoke about their desire to maximize the rest of their careers and to be treated well by franchises with ownership groups that have shown a willingness to go above and beyond for their players. So they each left smaller markets for the richest ownership groups and biggest markets in the league.
Given the WNBA’s historically lackluster treatment of athletes, it makes sense.