Women's National Basketball Association
The Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) is an organization governing a professional basketball league for women in the United States. It currently is composed of thirteen teams from around the United States. The league was founded in 1996 as the women's counterpart to the NBA. League play started in 1997; the regular season is played from June to September with the playoffs starting in mid-September and running into October.
Many WNBA teams have NBA counterparts and play in the same arena. The Connecticut Sun was the only team to play without sharing the city with an NBA team. However, on July 2, 2008, they were joined by the Seattle Storm, when the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City. Currently, the Chicago Sky is the only other team that does not share an arena with an NBA counterpart. The Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Seattle Storm and the Washington Mystics are independently owned. This independent ownership is important to the WNBA's growth; at one time, all teams in the league were owned by the NBA.
1997: We Got Next
Officially approved by the NBA Board of Governors on April 24, 1996, the creation of the WNBA was announced at a press conference with Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes in attendance. While not the first major women's professional basketball league in the United States (a distinction held by the defunct WBL), the WNBA is the only league to receive full backing of the NBA. The WNBA logo, "Logo Woman", paralleled the NBA logo and was selected out of 50 different designs.
Late 1990s: The Comets Dynasty
On the heels of a much-publicized gold medal run by the 1996 USA Basketball Women's National Team at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, the WNBA began its first season on June 21, 1997 to little fanfare. The league began with eight teams; the first WNBA game featured the New York Liberty facing the Los Angeles Sparks in Los Angeles. The game was televised nationally in the United States on the NBC television network. At the start of the 1997 season, the WNBA had television deals in place with NBC (NBA rights holder), and the Walt Disney Company and Hearst Corporation joint venture channels, ESPN and Lifetime Television Network, respectively. Penny Toler scored the league's first point.
The WNBA centered its marketing campaign, dubbed "We Got Next", around stars Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes. In the league's first season, Leslie's Los Angeles Sparks underperformed and Swoopes sat out much of the season due to her pregnancy. The WNBA's true star in 1997 was WNBA MVP Cynthia Cooper, Swoopes' teammate on the Houston Comets. The Comets defeated Lobo's New York Liberty in the first WNBA Championship game.
The initial "We Got Next" advertisement would run before each WNBA season until it was replaced with the "We Got Game" campaign.
In 1999, the league's chief competition, the American Basketball League, folded. Many of the ABL's star players, including several Olympic gold medalists (such as Nikki McCray and Dawn Staley) and a number of standout college performers (including Kate Starbird and Jennifer Rizzotti), then joined the rosters of WNBA teams and, in so doing, enhanced the overall quality of play in the league. When a lockout resulted in an abbreviated NBA season, the WNBA saw faltering TV viewership.
Four teams were added after the 1997 season, bringing the number of teams in the league up to twelve. The 1999 season began with a collective bargaining agreement between players and the league, marking the first collective bargaining agreement to be signed in the history of women's professional sports.
Early 2000s: Moving Forward
The WNBA made a huge step on May 23, 2000, when the Houston Comets became the first WNBA team to be invited to the White House Rose Garden. This step was important to the WNBA's growth because before this invitation, only men's sports teams had traveled to the White House.
By the 2000 season, the WNBA had doubled in size. Two teams were added in 1998: the Detroit Shock and the Washington Mystics; another two in 1999 (the Minnesota Lynx and the Orlando Miracle); and four more for the 2000 season (the Indiana Fever, the Seattle Storm, the Miami Sol, and the Portland Fire). Teams and the league were collectively owned by the NBA until 2002, when the NBA sold WNBA teams either to their NBA counterparts in the same city or to a third party. This led to two teams moving; Utah to San Antonio and Orlando to Connecticut. With the move, the Sun became the first WNBA team to be owned by a third party instead of an NBA franchise. This sale of teams also led to two teams folding, the Miami Sol and Portland Fire, because new owners could not be found.
On October 21, 2004, in the wake of the league's success, Val Ackerman, the first WNBA president, announced her resignation, effective February 1, 2005, citing the desire to spend more time with her family. Ackerman later became president of USA Basketball.
On February 15, 2005, NBA Commissioner David Stern announced that Donna Orender, who had been serving as the Senior Vice President of the PGA Tour and who had played for several teams in the now-defunct Women's Pro Basketball League, would be Ackerman's successor as of April 2005.
Late 2000s: Parity in the West, Shock Dynasty in the East
After the 2003 season, the Cleveland Rockers, one of the league's original eight teams, folded because the owners were unwilling to continue operating the franchise.
The WNBA awarded its first real expansion team to Chicago (later named the Sky) in February 2006. In the off-season, a set of rule changes was approved that made the WNBA more like the NBA.
In 2006, the league became the first team-oriented women's professional sports league to exist for ten consecutive seasons. On the occasion of the tenth anniversary, the WNBA released its All-Decade Team, comprising the ten WNBA players deemed to have contributed, through on-court play and off-court activities, the most to women's basketball during the period of the league's existence.
In December 2006, the Charlotte Bobcats organization announced it would no longer operate the Charlotte Sting. Soon after, the WNBA announced that the Sting would not operate for 2007. A dispersal draft was held January 8, 2007. Teams selected in inverse order of their 2006 records; Chicago received the first pick and selected Monique Currie.
In October 2007 the WNBA awarded another expansion franchise to Atlanta. Atlanta businessman Ron Terwilliger is the owner of the new team. Citizens of Atlanta were able to vote for their choices for the new team's nickname and colors. The Dream, as they were named, played their first regular season game on May 17, which was a 100-67 loss to the Connecticut Sun.
During this period of expansion and contraction in the East, the Western Conference saw increased levels of parity. In 2008, every Western Conference team was in the running for playoff position until the last week of the season. With the two recent expansion teams (Atlanta and Chicago) and a struggling Washington franchise, the same teams rose in the Eastern Conference year after year.
It was the Detroit Shock however, who were consistently the team-to-beat in the East. After having the worst record in the league in 2002, head coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer (former Piston Bad Boy) made the Shock championship caliber. The team appeared in the WNBA Finals in 2003 and then again every year from 2006 to 2008. The Shock won the championship in 2003, 2006, and 2008, making the team only the second dynasty in the history of the WNBA.
Late in 2008, the WNBA took over ownership of one of the league's original franchises, the Houston Comets. The Comets ceased operations on December 1, 2008 after no owners for the franchise could be found. A dispersal draft took place on December 8, 2008 and with the first pick, Sancho Lyttle was taken by the Atlanta Dream.
The WNBA Players Association threatened to strike in 2003 if a new deal was not worked out between players and the league. The result was a delay in the start of the 2003 preseason. The 2003 WNBA Draft was also delayed and negative publicity was gained from this strike.
In 2007, the WNBA and ESPN came to an 8-year television agreement. The agreement would be the first to pay television rights fees to the league's teams. Never before has an agreement promised rights fees to a women's professional league. The agreement runs from 2009-2016 and is worth "millions and millions of dollars over many years."
During the 2008 regular season, the first ever outdoor professional basketball game was played at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York between the New York Liberty and the Indiana Fever in front of over 19,000 fans. The Fever won the game 71-55.
The 2009 season was set to begin on June 6, 2009 and end on September 13, 2009. A decision was made to start the season later than normal to allow players overseas to have enough time to practice with their WNBA teams. This also allowed all graduating college seniors to participate in graduation ceremonies with their classes.
Prior to the 2009 season, the maximum team roster size was changed from 13 players (11 active and 2 inactive) to 11 players (all active). Any team that falls below nine players able to play due to injury, pregnancy or any other factor outside of the control of the team will, upon request, be granted a roster hardship exception allowing the team to sign an additional player or players so that the team will have nine players able to play in an upcoming game or games. As soon as the injured (or otherwise sidelined) player(s) is able to play, the roster hardship player(s)—not any other player on the roster—must be waived.
On June 1, 2009, the Phoenix Mercury secured a partnership with Lifelock to brand their jerseys. It was the first branded jersey in the WNBA. A few days later, the Los Angeles Sparks followed suit, branding their jerseys with Farmers Insurance.