WNBA’s 25th anniversary a reminder of how far a once-doubted league has come

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Rebecca Lobo envisioned that after completing her undergraduate degree at UConn she’d go to law school and “get on with real life.”

Nykesha Sales grew up thinking she’d become a cop or a firefighter.

Fresh off a national championship, Jennifer Rizzotti applied for postgraduate scholarships during her final year at UConn.

With no American professional women’s basketball league around when they entered college the three realistically assumed their basketball playing days would end after leaving Storrs, unless they pursued opportunities overseas.

The success and longevity of the WNBA, celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, changed everything for those three and millions more.

Lobo, Rizzotti, Sales and other first-generation WNBA players, as well as the next wave featuring the likes of Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash and Lindsay Whalen, recognize the league has a ways to go. Salaries should be higher, chartering flights should be standard, expansion is a must.

But more prominently, they feel a sense of pride in watching a league that many expected to fail, hit the quarter-century mark stronger than ever.

“Now people are really like, ‘Okay, this is about to really take off,” said Whalen, the winningest player in league history who played with the Connecticut Sun from 2004-09. “I feel that in women’s basketball, women’s sports in general. It’s just at the point where it’s going to really, really take off here, and I feel like this season it has, and it’s just going to continue to grow and gain popularity.”

ABL vs. WNBA

Before the WNBA even was announced in April 1996, it faced an existential threat.

A wave of support for women’s basketball swept the nation following the success of the 1995 undefeated UConn Huskies and the 1996 gold-medal-winning Olympic team, so much so that two rival leagues emerged. First came the American Basketball League (ABL), announced in September 1995 with play commencing in October 1996. Then, playing catch up, came the WNBA, which began play in June 1997.

Though in smaller markets like Hartford, the ABL had the early momentum because it secured more big-name players and offered higher salaries (a 1997 Baltimore Sun article says the ABL paid an average of $50,000 to $150,000 versus the $10,000 to $50,000 salaries in the WNBA). Every member of the U.S. Olympic team aside from Lobo committed to play for the ABL, which countered the W’s “We Got Next” campaign with “We Got Players.”

Rizzotti, who graduated from UConn in 1996, initially chose the ABL. She could play in the Hartford/Springfield area for the New England Blizzard, keeping her close to family, and wouldn’t have to wait a whole year to get back on the court. As a fourth-round pick, she earned a six-figure salary right out of college.

But Lobo, and later Sales, were drawn to the NBA’s backing of the W. Lobo was assigned to the New York Liberty in 1997, while Sales went to the Orlando Miracle in the 1998 expansion draft.

Other factors tipped the scales in the W’s favor — the WNBA’s summer seasons, unlike the ABL’s, didn’t overlap with NBA play. The W had flashy deals with NBC and ESPN and other sponsors, and its more meager salaries didn’t bankrupt teams — but Lobo’s instinct about NBA support making the difference proved prescient. The ABL folded midseason in December 1998.

Early successes, early fear

After getting drafted into the WNBA, Rizzotti, who won two titles with the Houston Comets, remembers playing in front of sellout crowds both at home and on the road. The New York Liberty, where Lobo spent her first four seasons in the league, had Madison Square Garden “rocking” and sold out up to the rafters when Houston came to town. WNBA games averaged nearly 11,000 fans in its second season, according to a 1999 Washington Post article.

As public momentum intensified, the players pushed to better the athlete experience. They unionized in 1998 and in their first collective bargaining agreement negotiations, sought basic benefits like year-around health care insurance and 401ks with an employer match. Salaries went up, but not by much. Rizzotti, now the president of the Connecticut Sun, remembers her first WNBA contract was only $25,000, a far cry from her ABL salary.

In 2002, the WNBA comprised an all-time high of 16 franchises, but confidence in the league’s vitality would soon be shaken.

Both the teams Rizzotti played for, Houston (which won four straight titles from 1997-2000) and the Cleveland Rockers, folded in 2008 and 2003 respectively. Sales’ Miracle relocated to Uncasville in 2003, and the Detroit Shock, whom Cash won two of her three titles with in 2003 and 2006, has since relocated twice. By permitting non-NBA entities to own WNBA teams beginning in 2002, some committed ownership groups like the Mohegan Tribe were allowed to swoop in. But Lobo says an unintended consequence was that other owners without “real, real, real money” weren’t able to withstand initial losses and fully invest in franchises.

“There was always rumors of teams folding and ‘will the league make it?’ and the financials and all that stuff from the outside,” Whalen said. “What you had to, as a player, focus on was just what you could control on the court. Looking back now, though, it was like, yeah, that was some pretty crucial times within the league. Obviously to see where it is at now, and to see the popularity of it, now you can’t imagine a time without the WNBA.”

Current momentum

Because she grew up without a thriving women’s sports league, every time a new WNBA CBA negotiation comes around, Lobo instinctively gets nervous that something could go wrong.

“Another part of me is like, ‘Of course they are [going to get it done],” Lobo said. “[The W] really is on the verge of something different, something exciting.”

The recent CBA, agreed upon in January 2020, was one of the most confidence-instilling developments the league has had in years. It featured increased salaries, with the highest-paid individuals making $215,000 in base salary, and total cash compensation rising by 53 percent to about $130,000 on average. Players received additional travel perks, like getting their own hotel rooms on the road and premium economy seating when flying.

“They’re here now, but we helped them get here,” said, Lobo, who was a member of the WNBPA executive committee during the first CBA negotiations, “and there’s a definite level of pride in that.”

What stood out to Cash, who was the vice president of the WBNPA for the prior CBA negotiations, was that for the first time, players are now guaranteed their entire base salary if they miss time due to pregnancy.

“Being a league that’s 25 years young, we have always led and been progressive in how we go about our league, our voice, and I think that’s the area that needed to for so long not be a bargaining chip but be a consensus that both sides wanted to get done,” Cash said, “so I was really happy to see that for so many of the women.”

You don’t have to look very far to see other signs of a growing league. Viewership numbers are up, even while those of other sports trend downward. The league has announced new partnerships with “Changemakers,” such as Google, that bring in sponsorship dollars. New name, image and likeness opportunities at the collegiate level should only help future WNBA players build their popularity and brands well before they go pro.

And societally, Lobo adds, “There’s a different vibe around the WNBA in terms of its coolness and its potential to be a real mainstream entity that I don’t think we’ve seen prior to this.”

The work isn’t done, the former WNBA standouts say. There needs to be greater financial security for the league and its teams as well as more national media exposure. The league needs to figure out how to push players to no longer spend their WNBA offseason playing overseas, by paying them more and/or lengthening the season. As the W courts suitors for expansion, it must select owners with ample financial resources, a passion for women’s basketball and a willingness to make a true investment in a franchise.

And still, professional women’s basketball is now an indelible part of the sports landscape, which isn’t something the league’s foundational players could have imagined 25 years ago.

“For the young kids to see that there is a pro league that they can dream big, they really work on their craft young,” said Sales, who after completing her career with the Sun is now an assistant coach at the University of Central Florida. She sees the trickle-down effect of the W’s success on up-and-coming basketball players, a handful of which she says are pro-ready earlier and earlier these days.

“When we were younger, it was like, ‘All right, we’ll play basketball, and I don’t know what’s next.’ But when you know, ‘Oh my God, I could play the WNBA,’ that’s something to dream for.”

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com

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