Controversies, clothes, and coaches: A look into the world of WNBA

Over the past few months, some impeccably dressed women have been popping up on my for you page. Clad in dramatic suits and pink leather trousers, it took me a minute to realise that these stilettoed powerhouses were, in fact, American basketball coaches. Truthfully, I have never watched a game of basketball, but these TikToks fascinated me – I love women’s football and, following the Lionesses’ Euros win last Summer, more girls are being encouraged to get involved in the sports they love. So why do most of us know so little about women’s basketball, its transatlantic cousin?

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was not the first major women’s professional basketball league in the US, but in 1996 it became the first to receive the full backing of the NBA. By the start of the season in 1997, the WNBA already had TV deals with everyone from ESPN to the Walt Disney Company. This was a surprise to me, considering the Women’s Super League (WSL) signed its inaugural commercial broadcast deal in 2021, over a decade after it was established. This shows the power of funding for women’s sports – last year, the WNBA’s regular season games were watched by an average TV audience of 379,000 people (compared to the WSL’s 125k in 2022).

The WNBA is composed of 12 teams, divided geographically (and equally) into an eastern conference and a western conference. Unlike in the WSL, most WNBA teams play at the same venue as their NBA counterparts (if they have one). Each WNBA team has a maximum of 12 players, which makes it difficult for many college-level basketball stars to break through into the league. In 2022, each team played 36 games (half at home, half away), and the top 8 teams qualified for the postseason playoffs. These involved 3 rounds of play – best of 3 (round 1), best of 5 (semi-final) and best of 5 again (final). The 12 best players in the whole WNBA that season – as selected by fans and coaches – also play in an annual eastern conference vs western conference All-Star Game. Still with me?

I’ll spare you the pain of going into further detail, but will mention that many teams haven’t survived due to a lack of funding and willing owners. Teams including the notorious Houston Comets have been relocated, renamed and their players shuffled around (in so-called ‘dispersal drafts’). This didn’t stop huge names from emerging in the game though – by the end of the 2000 season, the Houston Comets had won their 4th championship, led by the “Big 3” of Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Cynthia Cooper. By the 2013 draft, they’d been succeeded by the “Three to See” – Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins and Brittney Griner.

Chances are that you will have heard of Griner, although not for her prowess on the courts. In February 2022, Griner was detained on smuggling charges by Russian customs officials due to possession of a small quantity of (medically prescribed) hash oil. She was returning to the country to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg – Griner has been with the team since 2014 to supplement her income from the Phoenix Mercury. The WNBA’s salary cap – and pay inequity with the men’s league – means that many players are forced to earn additional dollars abroad. After her release in December 2022, the New York Times declared that this marked a “new wave” of WNBA activism.

Previously nicknamed “the most socially progressive pro league” by the same paper, the WNBA has become famous for its activism. Sheryl Swoopes set a precedent after returning to the court just 6 weeks after giving birth in 1997 – decades before Nike released an advert featuring pregnant and breastfeeding athletes. In 2005, Swoopes made history again by becoming one of the highest-profile athletes to come out as a lesbian. It wasn’t until 2014, though, that Nike endorsed its first openly gay athlete. The face of the campaign? None other than WNBA icon Brittney Griner.

Whilst I was digging for this article, I looked up Griner’s former coach Kim Mulkey. Frequently seen agonising on the sidelines, dressed in sequins, feathers and large earrings, Mulkey is the only person in basketball to have won a national championship as a player, assistant coach, and head coach. This makes her amongst the most powerful individuals in women’s basketball. Before she transferred to Louisiana State University in 2021, Mulkey led 21 seasons as the head coach at Baylor – a private Christian university in Texas. Whilst there, she is said to have enacted a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in relation to players’ sexualities, with Brittney Griner encouraged to downplay her relationships and identity. Baylor not only explicitly forbade homosexual acts, but also endured a sexual assault scandal – which Mulkey did little to address.

Aside from this (and her controversial opinions about COVID-19 and Donald Trump), Mulkey remains a well-known and well-loved figure in the US. And her style has brought women’s basketball to Gen Z through TikTok. Less controversial is coach Sydney Carter, currently the Director of Player Development for women’s basketball at the University of Texas. Carter posts her gameday outfits on social media and, unlike Mulkey, receives online abuse for doing so. Her glorious bubblegum-pink, Fashion Nova trousers brought attention from some who labelled her “unprofessional”. As a young Black woman who has lived much of her adult life in the spotlight, Carter is well-versed in dealing with haters, and has received support from the likes of Nicki Minaj. But the differential treatment of Mulkey and Carter is noted – the former is rapidly forgiven for her sins, whilst the latter is picked up for the tiniest deviation from the norm.

So, the WNBA is certainly not short of drama. Whilst it played a major role in protesting the treatment of African Americans at the hands of police – the 2020 season was dedicated to Breonna Taylor – it faces its own issues with equality. The WNBA needs more female coaches, even as high-profile women like Sandy Brondello join. The players may be unapologetically themselves, and undoubtedly great role models for girls across the pond, but they won’t soar without the support of like-minded, forward-thinking coaches. 

Image credit: Traci Lawson via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Image description: A WNBA game being played at Mohegan Sun Arena