The Health of the Women’s Game in 2022

This week, the two biggest women’s basketball organizations in the country announced something plenty of online trolls and ‘90s sports columnists have built reputations off of saying is impossible: expansion. 

NCAA women’s basketball and the WNBA are both adding games to their postseason. The NCAA is expanding the women’s basketball bracket to 68 teams, the same way the men’s side has been since 2011, and the WNBA is making all of its first round match-ups best-of-three series instead of single elimination games for the first time since 2016. Details aside, more games bring these women’s leagues closer to matching their male counterparts in investment and visibility as well as just actual playing time. 

It is, hopefully, a sign that in the ostensibly market-driven arena in which they are compelled to compete, their influence and appeal is beginning to trump the sexism that has made so many executives convinced that both leagues are charity cases. More games cost more money, require more ad buys, more marketing. If the CEOs with dollar signs in their eyes have decided that such expansion is worthwhile, that must be because more people are watching and caring about women’s sports than people like NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NCAA commissioner Mark Emmert have, for so long, insisted. 

It is not fair that ability to drive profit is, currently, the only sort-of effective antidote to inequality. That fact is at the core of just about every problem in our society. But: clearly women athletes are able to, as anyone who has been paying attention could tell you. This shift is evidence.

There are plenty of aspects of these changes that are not self-evidently positive. With the NCAA women’s tournament, the addition of four more teams means the women will have their selection show on Sunday, March 13 just like the men, in order to make time for those first round games. Given the enormous fervor over the men’s selection show — 24-hour coverage, topline stories on every channel with even a tangential connection to sports — it’s not hard to imagine that the women might get lost in the shuffle, especially since their home network, ESPN, has not done a particularly great job of balancing the announcements in the past despite having all the rights to the women’s games. 

With the WNBA playoffs, it’s even more complicated. The addition of postseason games comes as the season itself is expanding from 34 to 36 games, the most WNBA players have ever played — and, as ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel and Kevin Pelton discuss in this thoughtful response, in the same year as the FIBA World Cup, which begins September 22, 2022. The 2022 WNBA schedule hasn’t been released yet, but it’s hard to imagine players will get much time off at all before that tournament and then starting their overseas seasons. It’s a lot of high stakes games in a very short period of time, when some players already struggle to keep up with the year-round obligations of being a professional woman basketball player. 

These kinds of growing pains are inevitable without a much more dramatic influx of cash and executive interest in promoting women’s sports.

The growth, though, is impossible to ignore. 

 

Women’s basketball, partly because of the off-court activism of the players and their constant promotion of their product, has never been more popular. Players are giving up college eligibility, such as Collier, to enter the WNBA Draft, a move that was extremely rare just a decade ago.

With more star power every season and more international players who become sensations, Engelbert appears to have a potential sleeping giant on her hands. She said the pandemic halted expansion talks.

“I think we’d probably have a much more developed answer if it hasn’t been for the pandemic and not having fans last year and limited fans this year, with an Olympic postponement into this year,” she said. “So lots of moving parts obviously to make sure we have a successful season this year. But as I’ve mentioned, expansion is certainly on the list of things I’ve been thinking about down the road.”

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The WNBA Draft is only three rounds (36 picks) with the third-rounders having a difficult time making rosters because of the limited space. An expansion to 16 teams would open up 48 additional spots and accommodate the wealth of talent entering the league. AAU programs are expanding and colleges are placing greater emphasis on winning in women’s basketball than in previous generations, so the league has to figure out a way to create opportunities for all the new talent.

“It is interesting to note how competitive and how deep the talent in this league is, and so it’s certainly something that, as we come out of this pandemic, hopefully next year, that we’re prepared to start talking about,” Engelbert said. “But right now we’re still focused on the transformation I talked about last year. I think if we have a very successful season this year, this time next year we can certainly start talking about what expansion would look like, how many, and the time frame over which that would occur.”RELATED: WNBA outlines plans for 2021 season, including a month-long break for Olympics

Engelbert comes from a business background, having served as the CEO of Deloitte. Her major responsibility has been to develop a better and more profitable business plan and bring in wealthier and more engaged ownership. Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis just purchased the Las Vegas Aces, while an ownership group spearheaded by real estate model Larry Gottesdiener and former player Renee Montgomery purchased the Atlanta Dream.