With the NBA booming in the 1990s and women’s sports in the headlines following the 1996 Olympics, Commissioner David Stern felt it was time to start a professional women’s basketball league.
For it to be successful, Stern connected it to the NBA — starting with the name.
“It was very deliberate decision to call it the WNBA to bring the core brand into the league name,” said former league President Val Ackerman, who was part of the group that helped found the WNBA. “It was a risk that, if things didn’t work out, it could have been a hit, but it was also a way to tell the world that the NBA was very much a part of it.”
It worked. While the fight for gender equity continues around the sports world as the NBA celebrates its 75 anniversary season, 26 years after it was launched the WNBA is one of the longest running professional women’s sports leagues.
Stern wasn’t the only one looking to capitalize on women’s sports.
Another women’s professional basketball league — the ABL — also was starting at that time. But with Stern’s determination to show the world the WNBA was a “major league effort like the NBA,” the ABL was no match off the court.
“It sounds big now and it was big then,” Ackerman said. “ Given all that was going on with the NBA at that time. Frankly, it was a very exciting time to be part of the league. Every arrow was pointing upward back in the late ‘80s early ’90s, mid ’90s. The international business was starting to take off because of the Dream Team.
“Interest in the league was surging with rivalries and star players and the WNBA was yet another significant development that not only marked a historical step for the NBA but a milestone in the sport of basketball.”
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert still gets “enormous support from the NBA,” and understands the value of the relationship.
“No doubt in my mind that the NBA support is why we are the longest-tenured women’s league in sports,” Engelbert said.
During the late 1990s, Ackerman remembers Stern had two sub-committees reviewing upstart leagues. One for the WNBA and another for what is now the NBA’s G League. He wanted both to launch at the same time, but chose the WNBA to go first.
Stern decided to ride “the tide of what was happening elsewhere in women’s basketball with women’s college basketball at a high point and of course the national team,” Ackerman said. “We hitched our wagon to the national team in 1995-97.”
With WNBA teams playing in NBA arenas, along with television deals and sponsors, within two years the ABL was out of business.
There had been a few women’s basketball leagues before the WNBA, but they had all failed. The plan was for WNBA games to be played during the summer when arenas were looking to fill dates. The timeframe also avoided the college basketball season and allowed players who were playing overseas in the winter to compete.
Ackerman said “cause marketing” was a priority for the league from its inception.
“It was about women and empowerment,” she said. “Supporting health initiatives, breast cancer research, fitness. Jumping all over that from the get-go. We had no social media.”
But cause marketing could only take the WNBA so far; the play was to be its staying power. The on-court product has gotten much better. As a result, players have a platform to address issues off the court, including social and political concerns issues.
“I think we all knew about Maya Moore and her criminal justice reform stance, but people didn’t know as much about the broader 144 players of the WNBA,” Engelbert said. “One of the few good things to come out of the pandemic was that it really put the players on the map around their impact of not only just social justice, but the things they wanted to advocate for like voting rights.”
Ackerman said Stern remained an avid supporter of the league until his death two years ago. She shared with The Associated Press an email he sent her a few months before he died in 2020, which she included in her eulogy at his funeral.
“Every women’s league has gone out of business at least once, but the WNBA is still here giving collegiate players a reason to keep improving,” Stern wrote. “Demonstrating that the lessons of sacrifice, discipline, physical conditioning and teamwork are not just for boys giving voice to the notion that competition can help aspiring female executives as well as their male counterparts.”
He summed up the impact of the WNBA when he closed with:
“Times have changed, and it’s now in a position to benefit greatly from the recognition of its attributes and importance. Especially by the corporate world and its fans.”
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