The WNBA Needs to Keep Its Fans

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Former University of Iowa star basketball player Caitlin Clark is bringing renewed attention to the WNBA. Her notable college career seamlessly transitioned into a professional role with the Indiana Fever, and she boasts endorsements from major brands like Gatorade, Wilson Sporting Goods, and Nike.

Her exceptional skills and positive attitude have made her a role model on and off the court, though she faces unfair criticism simply for excelling.

The WNBA still trails the NBA significantly in viewership and revenue, which isn’t surprising. Sports fans often prefer to watch competition among elite athletes, typically favoring the physicality and skill of men in the NBA over the WNBA. Acknowledging this reality shouldn’t mean abandoning women’s sports altogether.

Given this situation, the WNBA aims to grow in popularity, and it’s counterproductive for players and commentators to dissuade potential fans. Yet, some are doing just that.

According to the 2021 report card from the Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sports, over 70% of WNBA players are Black. Additionally, Outsports notes that over one-third of the top WNBA players of all time are LGBTQ athletes.

Clark, who is white and straight, naturally stands out demographically among her peers. However, her presence in the WNBA is due to her remarkable skills, not because she fits a stereotypical, Middle America mold.

Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times observes that Clark “passes and shoots with laser-like precision the way NBA star Stephen Curry does, making it look so effortless that everyone thinks they can do it.”

Clark’s historic college career, where she became the all-time leading scorer, makes it frustrating when sports media figures like Jemele Hill frame her popularity as “problematic” due to issues of race, sexuality, and equity.

Hill argues, “There’s plenty of room to highlight and celebrate Caitlin Clark’s popularity while also discussing ways in which to not erase Black women from a league that they have built and continue to build,” implying that this erasure is occurring.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Highlighting Clark’s success and rookie year doesn’t detract from the league’s history or the accomplishments of other athletes.

Stadium Talk’s Greatest WNBA Players of All Time list features stellar athletes like Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, A’ja Wilson, Sue Bird, and Brittney Griner. Someday, Clark may also have to prove herself to join these ranks.

Currently, she is well on her way. Clark was named Rookie of the Month for May. Despite intense scrutiny and criticism, she continues to make an impact and maintain composure under pressure. If she stays this course, her name will be counted among the greats, without regard to her race or sexual orientation.

Those who criticize Clark’s rise due to her background are guilty of the same biases they criticize in others. Black women who dominate the league and hold their place in WNBA history are also there because of their skills.

Observers and fellow players should afford Clark the same respect and avoid claims of inequality. If it’s inappropriate to question why fellow WNBA star rookie Angel Reese has achieved success, then the same standard applies to Clark.

The WNBA cannot afford to alienate fans. If players like Clark, Reese, and others attract more viewers, it benefits the entire league. High-level competition will keep fans engaged, and Clark excels in that regard.

The WNBA already faces enough challenges with issues like sexism, pay disparity, and white privilege. What the league and its critics need to prioritize is the game of basketball.

Letting player skill and competitive excitement drive the league’s growth and improve its reputation is the way forward. Anything else is a distraction.

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