CORRECTION Fever Wings Basketball

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark looks to shoot against the Dallas Wings during an exhibition game in Arlington, Texas, on May 3. Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

Cynthia Cooper thought girls were going to dream new dreams the first time she glanced into the stands during the inaugural WNBA season and saw a little girl wearing her No. 14 Houston Comets jersey in 1997. Even then, Cooper knew this new league would allow her to prop up the game before she – or any of her peers – could truly profit from it.

As she observes the WNBA now – with record viewership last season, the most-watched draft ever, teams set for charter flight services and some owners investing in practice facilities solely for their teams – Cooper doesn’t feel envy, only pride.

“My number one goal,” said the winner of the WNBA’s first two regular season MVPs and first four Finals MVPs, “was to lay the foundation for this moment that’s happening right now.”

Women’s basketball, on both the collegiate and professional levels, has been riding a wave of popularity – one that Cheryl Reeve, coach of the U.S. women’s Olympic team and the Minnesota Lynx, dubbed “a tsunami” following the success of the NCAA Tournament and its biggest star, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. A ratings magnet and a dynamic scorer with near-limitless shooting range, Clark, whose WNBA career kicked off Tuesday night as a guard for the Indiana Fever, is the leading force behind the current surge – and the headliner of an impressive group of young players with the potential to take the league to new heights.

While there will be considerable curiosity about whether Clark’s electrifying game will translate to the world’s best women’s league, eyes will also be on the WNBA to see how well it can capitalize on what many – including Commissioner Cathy Engelbert – view as a transformational moment.

“There’s always moments in life, especially for this league, where you feel like there’s this momentum,” Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said. “We’ve had them in the past, and I think we’ve let it slip through the cracks, but it just seems a little bit different this year.”


The WNBA’s media rights deal expires in 2025, the same year the league is set to expand to a 13th team, located in the Bay Area. Engelbert hopes to eventually become a 16-team league. This moment serves as a chance to elevate the WNBA’s profile, with the aim of paying players salaries that are commensurate with their talent and worth. There is a certain amount of pressure to make the most of the opportunity.

“That’s sort of what women’s history is about – you make advances in a time when the culture makes it possible. And then there’s often a slamming of the door,” said historian Pamela C. Grundy, who co-wrote with Susan Shackelford the book “Shattering the Glass,” about the history of women’s basketball. “This moment, we cannot take that for granted. You can’t say: ‘Oh, it’s just going to be all roses from now on. Big TV ratings and such.’ You hope the league – and people in society in general – will be able to maneuver so it moves forward and this really is permanent change.”

Clark’s popularity is one reason for optimism. Her feisty competitiveness and immense skill have attracted capacity crowds and lucrative endorsement deals from Nike and State Farm, earning a level of mainstream recognition other women’s basketball stars – particularly those who are Black – haven’t in the past. But for her part, she refuses to let herself get overwhelmed by the outsize expectations.

“I still feel like that young kid,” Clark said. “I don’t feel like I’m this big figure that’s larger than life. I just love playing basketball. I continue to remind myself every single day how grateful I am to be here and be in this place.”

New leagues generally need at least a full generation to generate genuine cultural cachet. The timeline for the WNBA’s quest to gain attention and respect for the past 27 years nearly matches up with that of the NBA, which needed more than three decades before stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson helped deliver it from the dark ages of playoff games being shown on tape delay. Then the table was set for a new level of superstar, Michael Jordan, to propel the league into a different stratosphere.

Jackie Stiles, one of the top scorers in NCAA history when her Missouri State career ended in 2001, believes Clark could captivate audiences the way Jordan did or even the way Stephen Curry does for the NBA’s current era. But this is also a league that has never tried to force-feed a savior to its fans.


Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings, Candace Parker, the tandem of Sue Bird and Taurasi, Maya Moore, Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart, among others, also entered the WNBA with incredible fanfare. But those greats have always graced the court with other elite players, with no shortage of prideful, ornery competitors ready to make any anointed newcomers earn it.

“We have never been a league about one player,” WNBA chief growth officer Colie Edison said in a telephone interview. “We will never be a league about one player.”

Clark is entering a league whose players have increased cultural relevance. The WNBA created player marketing agreements through the most recent collective bargaining deal to assist select players in endorsements and broadcast opportunities. Two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, who is leading the Las Vegas Aces’ pursuit of a third straight championship, recently announced she will have a signature shoe with Nike and has a book on the New York Times bestseller list. Griner is sharing her story from her harrowing experience as a political prisoner in Russia, which required the assistance of the White House for her release, in a new book.

Rookie Angel Reese, whom Clark famously competed against in the 2023 national title game, recently attended the star-studded Met Gala. And it has become the norm to see the recently retired Parker or Chiney Ogwumike providing NBA analysis on television or Jewell Loyd or Jonquel Jones in a State Farm commercial.

These breakthroughs have come on the heels of players being outspoken on social justice issues starting in 2020, including pushing to get a U.S. senator with ties to the league voted out of office for failing to align with their values.

The WNBA, however, has never dealt with a newcomer as popular as Clark, whose shoe deal is reportedly worth $28 million. Stiles recalls the response she encountered as the No. 4 pick in 2001 draft. She had just inked a shoe deal with Nike worth about $25,000 – nearly half her annual WNBA salary – which allowed her to break from the rest of the league’s players who had to wear Reebok. At one point, Stiles said her coach had to pull her aside to warn her about driving to the basket so much, for risk of not making it to the end of the year. Her Hall of Fame career was stymied by injuries.


“I hope there’s no jealousy between the veterans. And they just embrace (Clark) and just know that she’s making the whole league better,” Stiles said.

But progress can sometimes yield a side eye. Engelbert announced before the start of the season that the league would finally begin providing charter flights for all 12 teams, responding to a push from players that has been in the works for years. The optics of the announcement’s timing might not have been the best, because it comes a year after Griner endured harassment while catching a commercial flight with her team – and coincides with the arrival of a marketable White star. It has the potential to be perceived as a slight to the generations of Black women whose talents and sacrifices helped elevate the league to relevance.

Wilson isn’t willing to accept that reasoning. “If we credit this to one person, that’s disrespectful to the sport and the players that have helped us continue to push this,” she said. “I’m just happy that it’s finally here.”

From Rebecca Lobo to Sabrina Ionescu, there have been a number of white players elevated in the WNBA, but none has sought attention at the expense of her counterparts. Cooper is a fan of Clark, she says, and not just because Clark gave her a shout-out during a recent appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” Clark’s success in college gave fans the chance to honor past greats, such as Lynette Woodard, whose efforts were largely ignored at the time.

Whether Clark triumphs or flops, the spotlight won’t have to shine in one place. After leading South Carolina to its third title by beating Iowa, Coach Dawn Staley, one of the WNBA’s pioneers along with Cooper, credited Clark for bringing new fans who could appreciate the sport – her team included. There’s no room for resentment if the pie is widened for everyone else. “All boats rise,” Lynx forward Napheesa Collier said.

The WNBA now has an entire generation of players who were either toddlers at the league’s inception or hadn’t been born. All they have known is that if they put in the work there is a professional league there to platform their talents.

That little girl Cooper spotted in the stands had dreams, and those dreams are becoming reality.

“I’ve never been frustrated. I’ve always understood that that was my position at the time and my plight,” Cooper said. “The moment is happening now because it’s time.”

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