WNBA’s 25th Anniversary— Where We’ve Been and What’s to Come

Celebrating the players who have been making an impact on and off the court for the last 25 seasons.

By Ashton Kowalski

With the WNBA season opener in sight, now is the time to celebrate 25 years of the league. The players who have accomplished so much through the adversity they have faced are being recognized in many different ways this anniversary. This league has meant more than just basketball to many people; it has become a symbol of unity, perseverance, and the strength of those who tirelessly fight for justice. This anniversary is the perfect time to not only celebrate the past, but to reflect on how far the league has come and where we might go from here. 

In June of 1997 the WNBA began play after being approved by the NBA Board of Governors. The Houston Comets were the first ever WNBA champions that season, taking down the New York Liberty with a score of 65–51. Cynthia Cooper led the league with 28 points per game in postseason scoring, and continued to impress in the following years as she became the highest-paid WNBA player by 2000, when she made $75,798. The highest paid player in the NBA that same year, Shaquille O’Neal, was paid $17.4 million according to a Los Angeles Times article in May of 2000. 

The Houston Comets celebrating after winning the first ever WNBA Championship in 1997 (SOURCE: WNBA).

We all know the salary difference is ridiculous. However, the $43 million that will be paid to Steph Curry this season will not hinder the excitement of the highest-paid players in the WNBA, who are now being paid almost three times as much as they once were—$215,000 a year. 

Over the years we have seen a lot of change and growth among the league’s players. Athletes are now leaving college more focused and ready to come straight into the pros, and their increasing versatility, athleticism, and talent has evolved the game to become more competitive than ever. This intensity from players is helping to increase their fanbase and support. In 2020 ESPN agreed to boost airing time to 37 games across their network, which is about three times as much as previous years. Along with the WNBA’s CBS partnership and social media platforms, nearly every game was televised throughout the season. 

Viewership is increasing and so are fans, especially those interested in the political and social movements that the league’s players use their platforms to promote. This has become a trademark characteristic of WNBA players—they use their voices. 

Washington Mystics Guard, Natasha Cloud, raises awareness of social justice issues at a press conference, showing support for the Balck Lives Matter movement (SOURCE: CNBC, Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images) 

The 2020 WNBA season was dedicated to social justice, with athletes speaking up about the LGBTQ+ community, gun control, voting rights, support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and many other social issues. The WNBA has always been a league that chooses to relentlessly advocate for change. Players like Maya Moore, who stepped away from the league at the peak of her career to demonstrate support for a prisoner she believed was innocent, are the reason the league has become the gold standard in athlete activism. 

To celebrate the league’s advocacy throughout the years, this 25th season will mark the establishment of the WNBA Justice Movement to combat injustice not just in the league, but across society. The WNBA Social Justice Council will lead community conversations, virtual roundtables, player-produced podcasts, and other charges to fight inequality. The Council will be full of well-known players like Layshia Clarendon, Sydney Colson, Breanna Stewart, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, A’ja Wilson, and Satou Sabally among many others who have worked endlessly to challenge historical suppression and engage in movements towards change. 

Captains of the Minnesota Lynx, Maya Moore, Seimone Augutus, Rebekkah Brunson, and Lindsay Whalen wearing powerful warm up shirts, advocating for change (SOURCE: TUC Magazine). 

Another council forming to celebrate this season is the WNBA 25th Season Advisory Council. This will be a council dedicated to honoring WNBA legends and pioneers, and it will be made up of WNBA Champions, All-Stars, and MVPs of the past. Cynthia Cooper, Fran Harris, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes, Lindsay Whalen, and Teresa Weatherspoon will all be a part of the committee. Other honorary members include the WNBA’s founding President, Val Ackerman, ESPN Vice President of Programming and Acquisitions, Carol Stiff, and Rick Welts, who was named 1998 Marketer of the Year for his assistance in launching the WNBA.

Another way to commemorate WNBA players who have made the league great since 1997 is the W25 celebration. The W25 will highlight WNBA players’ contributions to the league and to their communities by honoring specific players that fans will have a chance to vote on. 

Special edition “Count It” Campaign logo, symbolizing that they will keep counting the accomplishments of the league (SOURCE: WNBA)

All of these celebrations are part of the WNBA Count It Campaign, which is a way of honoring the achievements of the league and acknowledging that there is much more to come. The Count It Campaign will include a special edition logo, that consists of more than just standard roman numerals to symbolize the season, but a tally mark after the “XX” representing the number five. At first glance this logo was quite confusing for many people, but it’s actually the league’s way of saying that though the WNBA has had 25 years of great success, they are far from done growing. Those tally marks are a reminder to keep counting the forward strides this league is making as it heads into its 25th year and beyond.

The 25th season logo will be branded on courts, jerseys, and game balls. On top of that, Nike has partnered with the WNBA Changemakers—individuals and groups who are dedicated to the support and advancement of the league— and is providing innovative uniforms that will have deeper meaning.  Wilson has also created a unique gameball for this season to mark their commitment to growing the league. 

“Count It” Campaign official Wilson celebratory game ball
(SOURCE: ESPN courtesy of WNBA).

The Commissioner’s Cup will be a 25th anniversary celebratory game, as well as a platform for conversations and events centered on equality and social justice. The cup will consist of individual prize pools, along with ten regular season games per team, and will finish with a championship between the top two teams in each conference. 

There are many more celebrations to come: a greatest moments feature, highlight videos, other ways to honor the founders, and so on. All of these are just small ways to acknowledge the major impacts of the longest-standing U.S. sports league for women. From the start this league has meant more to the players than just basketball. Though they love the sport, it has always been a fight for more—for equality, for justice, for compensation, for recognition. The list could go on, and the WNBA players have made it clear that it will. 

Commissioner, Cathy Englebert, has proposed a contract with the players’ union that would allow the highest paid players to earn over $500,000. Though it needs to be approved by the league’s board of governors and the union’s membership, the battle for higher pay for players is showing progress.  

As we celebrate 25 seasons, we look to the future and are certain that the players will not stop here, but will continue to create new ways to advocate for change through the league. The players’ advancements in social justice and awareness in just 25 years are unbelievable and inspiring. These athletes have become pioneers of women’s basketball and activism through the first 25 years of the WNBA; now all that remains is to wait and see what they’ll do with the next 25.  

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