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Men’s pro leagues could learn something from the WNBA’s historic 20th season

On and off the court, WNBA players led the way.

Los Angeles Sparks players celebrate after winning the WNBA championship title with a 77–76 win over the Minnesota Lynx in Game 5 Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, in Minneapolis. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone
Los Angeles Sparks players celebrate after winning the WNBA championship title with a 77–76 win over the Minnesota Lynx in Game 5 Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, in Minneapolis. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone

On Thursday night, the Los Angeles Sparks capped off the WNBA’s 20th season by defeating the defending champion Minnesota Lynx 77–76 in a classic (if not somewhat controversial) Game 5, clinched by regular-season MVP Nneka Ogwumike’s game-winner with three seconds left.

Candace Parker, the veteran superstar who was stunningly left off the Olympic squad this summer, was named Finals MVP.

“This is for Pat,” Parker said through tears after the game, dedicating her first WNBA championship to her mentor and former coach at the University of Tennessee, Pat Summitt, who passed away in June.

This thrilling, emotional end to an incredibly entertaining series was a testament to the talent and competitiveness of the league, and it was a great way to celebrate a historic, trailblazing season.

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For 20 years, the WNBA has been living in the shadow of men’s leagues, particularly the NBA. But this year, it set itself apart by obliterating the traditional playoff structures and fearlessly committing to activism.

Los Angeles Sparks owner Magic Johnson, left, hugs Candace Parker after the Sparks won the WNBA basketball championship. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone
Los Angeles Sparks owner Magic Johnson, left, hugs Candace Parker after the Sparks won the WNBA basketball championship. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone

Along the way, the WNBA and its players proved they’re not afraid of innovation, controversy, and social progress — concepts that other sports leagues often treat as dirty words — and trailblazed a path that all leagues and genders can follow.

First, let’s talk playoffs.

In January, the league announced that it was completely changing its playoff structure. Instead of living and dying by conference structures in the postseason, the WNBA decided to forego Eastern and Western confines and re-seed the top eight teams before the postseason. This allowed the Lynx and the Sparks — both by far the best teams this season, and Western Conference rivals — to meet in the finals.

The new format also expanded the semifinals to best-of-five series, made the first two rounds a one-game sudden death battle, and provided the top two seeds with a two-round bye. It’s not a perfect plan, but it does create a sense of urgency that suits the league well.

“Knowing this format going into it, it heightened the importance of every game,” Sparks coach Brian Agler told Howard Megdal of VICE Sports. “I know teams that, in years past — for example, us in 2010, we got off to a great start, we got to the end of the season, and we just started resting people. By going head-to-head and playing everybody in a balanced schedule, it forces you to be fighting all the way to the end of the season.”

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The MLB, NBA, and NFL, among others, have all had countless seasons where the best teams are in the same conference, and therefore many times the semifinals feel like a de-facto final. The WNBA, which last year showed how to revolutionize the draft lottery system to disincentivize tanking, proved it doesn’t have to be that way.

While the playoff changes were revolutionary, without a doubt the biggest impact the WNBA had this season was off the court.

This summer, as the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police went viral and reignited the Black Lives Matter movement, WNBA players from all around the league refused to be silenced.

The Minnesota Lynx wore T-shirts during warm-ups with the message “Change Starts With Us — Justice and Accountability” on the front, and the names of Castile and Sterling, the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” and the Dallas Police Department shield on the back.

The move angered four off-duty police officers working security at their game so much that the officers walked off their jobs.

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That didn’t stop the players. Members of the Phoenix Mercury, Indiana Fever, and New York Liberty all wore similar shirts, as well, which led the WNBA to fine the players for not following the league’s uniform guidelines.

And still, the players didn’t back down.

After the fines were handed down, the Liberty, Fever, Storm, and Washington Mystics all held media blackouts — meaning they refused to talk about anything other than racial injustice, police brutality, and the WNBA’s fines with the media. No quotes about the game itself.

New WNBA President Lisa Borders quickly backed down and rescinded the fines. But players on the Mystics said they will continue to work with the league on better, more direct ways to address these issues going forward. Seventy percent of the players in the WNBA are black, and many — including Mystics guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, whose cousin was killed by a cop the day she was drafted into the WNBA — have personally experienced the effects of police brutality.

When NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick started a protest of his own by kneeling during the national anthem, many WNBA players joined him. And not by simply linking arms during the anthem to display unity the way many in the NBA have, but by taking a knee as well. In total, 14 WNBA players took a knee during the anthem in the playoffs — and it’s worth mentioning that white WNBA players joined in the protests as well, something that hasn’t been seen in men’s pro leagues.

Even Borders is impressed at their perseverance.

“As a child of the civil rights movement, I am so blessed to have the opportunity to work with these young women, watch them find their individual and collective voices,” she told ESPN’s Holly Rowe during halftime of Game 5. “They play basketball for a living, but they have dimensions to their lives beyond the court, and that’s in their communities. The fact that they’re able to speak truth to power individually and collectively is amazing to me. Very proud of them.”

And why shouldn’t she be? The protests haven’t slowed down the league. In fact, in many ways, they’ve empowered it.

This season was a success in every metric. Attendance was up 4.6 percent. TV ratings were up 11 percent. WNBA League Pass subscriptions were up 24 percent, WNBA.com visitors were up 22 percent, and WNBA online videos saw a 50 percent increase in views. Merchandise sales are up 30 percent as well.

It turns out, progress and change are good for business — and for championships.