The WNBA turns 25: Looking back at how the league has grown, what’s to come

The date was June 21, 1997, at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.

After a little more than a year of preparation, the Women’s National Basketball Association was ready to begin its inaugural season.

Lisa Leslie, who played high school basketball a few blocks from the venue, won the opening tip for the Los Angeles Sparks, who were facing off against the New York Liberty and Leslie’s Team USA teammate Rebecca Lobo.

The duo won a gold medal together at the 1996 Summer Olympics, but Lobo got the best of Leslie on this day, scoring 16 points to lead New York to a 67-57 victory.

Nearly 24 years later, L.A. and New York faced off once again — albeit this time at the Los Angeles Convention Center — as the WNBA celebrated its 25th anniversary season with a rematch of its first game.

The result was more of the same, as the Liberty once again got the best of the Sparks.

Many of the players on both teams were quite young (or not even born!) when the league kicked off.

Looking back

In 1996, one year before games were to be played, then-NBA commissioner David Stern announced a plan for a women’s basketball league that would partner with the NBA. At last, some of the best athletes in the world could find a professional home on a basketball court in North America.

The original iteration of the league launched with eight founding franchises, only three of which still exist (Sparks, Liberty, Phoenix Mercury). Two more  — the Detroit Shock (now Dallas Wings) and the Washington Mystics — were added in 1998.

In each of the W’s first four seasons, the now-defunct Houston Comets won the WNBA title, creating a dynasty from the league’s inception.

The W has since expanded to a 12-team league including consistent powerhouses in the Seattle Storm and the Minnesota Lynx, each of which have won four WNBA championships. Furthermore, the WNBA became the first professional sports league to have a team in Las Vegas when the San Antonio Stars relocated to become the Aces in 2018.

In the 24 years since the league first tipped off, numerous superstars have showcased their skills at the highest level. Among them include the WNBA’s all-time leaders in points (Diana Taurasi), rebounds (Sylvia Fowles) and assists (Sue Bird). 

Taurasi and Bird are four-time Olympic gold medalists, and they will seek a fifth this summer in Tokyo as part of Team USA. 

Looking forward

The WNBA has seen historic growth since the mid-’90s, particularly in terms of social media engagement and television audience. The sport and league have a greater presence and fan following on social media, and the 2021 season will feature more nationally televised games than ever before.

As with any league that is still growing, however, there are still plenty of steps forward that need to be taken.

One of which is a conundrum that has popped up the past few years: Only 144 of the best women’s basketball players in the world can occupy 12 roster spots on 12 teams. As a result, talented players from the college ranks as well as some veterans have struggled to find and maintain places on WNBA rosters.

Given the league’s popularity, some think there should be more teams in more markets. Current commissioner Cathy Engelbert seems to be open to the idea, and longtime veteran Kristi Toliver hopes to someday see 30 WNBA teams — one per NBA team.

There is no denying that the future of the league is bright. As for what the next 25 years will look like?

We’ll just have to tune in and wait and see.

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