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5 storylines for the 2024 WNBA season, including how the Caitlin Clark Effect will impact the league

May 14th, 2024

The women’s basketball landscape looks completely different than seven months ago when the two-time champion Las Vegas Aces collapsed into a celebratory pile on the center court logo at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Caitlin Clark secured all-time scoring records. South Carolina won another national championship. Nearly 20 million tuned in to watch the WNBA’s future play ball in college. And millions stayed to see them officially enter the professional ranks on draft night.

That included Clark, the No. 1 overall pick and headliner of this 28th WNBA season. The Indiana Fever set the foundation ahead of her arrival and are hoping to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Their road games are nine of the 10 most in-demand tickets of the season, according to StubHub. Their two preseason contests became must-see TV.

How Clark and the Fever fare will hinge on what happens elsewhere in the league.

Las Vegas? Still very, very good, even after legendary three-time WNBA champion Candace Parker announced her retirement. New York? The starting five is back hungry after how their season ended. Diana Taurasi? Yes, she’s still here.

The season features a streamlined Commissioner’s Cup that will make it easier for fans to follow the action and standings. Each team will play five Cup games between June 1 and 13. The teams with the best winning Cup percentages in the Eastern and Western conferences will play in the title game on June 25 for a $500,000 prize. That’s earlier than last season and might lead to a shakeup. The Liberty defeated the Aces in 2023 in what became a Finals preview.

The schedule will pause from July 26 through Aug. 11 while players are with their national teams for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Team USA is going for an eighth consecutive gold medal.

New York, Las Vegas and Indiana are all in action on opening night. The 2024 season tips off on Tuesday with four games, including a nationally televised doubleheader: Liberty vs. Mystics (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3), Fever vs. Sun (7:30 p.m., ESPN2), Mercury vs. Aces (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and Lynx vs. Storm (10 p.m. ET, ESPN3).

The league’s metrics in attendance, viewership and engagement have been on the incline for the last few years, but the “Caitlin Clark Effect” will push it all into overdrive. There are going to be growing pains for the league and its partners that we’re already seeing play out with the recent surge in popularity. A fan live-streamed Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso’s preseason debuts because the game was not available on League Pass.

“The growth is happening so fast. It’s so accelerated,” Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve said. “And I’ve been saying this in our own organization, that business as usual isn’t going to work anymore. You’re gonna get left behind and this is an example.”

More longstanding issues will come to the forefront. Irritation at the lack of streaming preseason games took on steam because the league initially labeled all games as available on League Pass. Merchandise offerings and availability are often a problem. And the overall experience of watching or attending games will be at the forefront for everyone.

The Mystics and Dream each play in venues with limited capacity. Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., seats about 4,200. The Mystics already moved their June game against the Fever to Capital One Arena (more than 20,300), where it could set a WNBA attendance record. Atlanta’s Gateway Arena at College Park holds 3,500.

The issues with flying commercial took on added urgency with the notoriety of players and the incoming rookies’ platforms. The league already took steps to address it by funding full-time charter flights for the first time this season, commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced on Tuesday.

Previously, teams were not allowed to use charters in the regular season with the exception of back-to-back games and the use of public charter service JSX under certain protocols. Players cite health and safety concerns for flying commercially. Cramming into seats and dealing with layovers is difficult in between games and the schedule is also more condensed because of the Olympic break. Brittney Griner and the Mercury were harassed in the Dallas airport last year as well.

There are no concrete details on when the charters will begin and if it will be in time for the start of the season. Many coaches said throughout the preseason their teams already planned to travel with increased security details to protect players since crowds and attention keep growing.

“That was one of the first things that I wanted,” third-year Aces head coach Becky Hammon said on a video call on Tuesday. “When these ladies go to dinner, I want somebody there with them. I want them being walked to the restaurant. I want them coming back. So we’ve actually hired security to travel with us full-time for every event that we have.”

Clark has a personal security detail in Indiana as she did in Iowa, and general manager Lin Dunn said the franchise committed to keeping everyone in their traveling party safe. Connecticut Sun head coach Stefanie White, who like Hammon is also a former player, said on Wednesday the crowds waiting for players at hotel lobbies and near the team bus have grown to the point where hotels are sectioning off areas of the lobby for safety.

“It’s not just one or two stopping to get an autograph or a picture,” White said. “It’s hordes of people.”

Hammon, who spent eight years as an assistant for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, said her No. 1 priority is the players’ safety.

“They’re tall, they’re outspoken and we want to make sure that as they’re going and moving in and out of these cities, they’re taken care of,” Hammon said.

They’re chasing a legacy in Las Vegas with a third consecutive championship in the Aces’ sights. Las Vegas returns the core four of its last two titles in Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and MVP runner-up A’ja Wilson, as well as reserves Kiah Stokes, Sydney Colson and reigning Sixth Player of the Year Alysha Clark. Gray and Young each signed extensions last week.

The Aces were nearly unstoppable in 2023 en route to the league’s best record (24-6), top offense (92.8 ppg) and second-best defense (80.3 ppg). Their 113 offensive efficiency rating set the WNBA record and they led in every shooting percentage category except 3-pointers (37.2% to New York’s 37.4%).

Hammon leaned heavily on her starters for 85% of the offense’s production, but she was forced to turn to the bench and a “made-up defense” to win Game 4 for the title. Health will be one of the bigger hurdles for the Aces after Stokes and Gray each sustained foot injuries in the Finals. Stokes said she is “good to go.” Gray did not participate in the first week of training camp and Hammon described it as precautionary. She is listed on the status report as out (lower leg) for the opener at home against Phoenix.

Las Vegas became the first team since the 2000-01 Los Angeles Sparks to repeat and the third in league history. The now-defunct Houston Comets are the sole team to win at least three consecutive titles. They opened the league with a four-peat from 1997-2000 behind the trio of Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and Tina Thompson.

The NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers (2000-02, 1952-54 as Minneapolis), Boston Celtics (1959-1966) and Chicago Bulls (1991-93, 96-98) all won three in a row. Over the past 50 years, few franchises in any professional American sport won three-peats.

The battle of the super-teams in Las Vegas and New York lived up to the preseason hype and gained extra heat in the 2023 WNBA Finals. They’re joined this year by Seattle and Phoenix, lottery teams which took advantage of Los Angeles and Chicago’s complete rebuilds to construct rosters ready to compete immediately.

Seattle struggled in its first season without reigning MVP Breanna Stewart and future Hall of Famer Sue Bird, but despite going 11-29 it signed WNBA leading scorer Jewell Loyd to a contract extension. That commitment from each side created an enticing destination for free agents Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith, who are both needed scorers for a team that finished bottom two in most offensive categories.

Ogwumike, a 2016 WNBA champion and MVP, is coming off one of the best seasons (19.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg) of her 12-year career. Diggins-Smith, a six-time all-WNBA point guard, played one of the best seasons (19.7 ppg, 5.5 apg) of her career with Phoenix in 2022. She sat out last season while on maternity leave.

The Mercury (9-31) finished last in the league without many bright spots in 2023 outside of center Brittney Griner’s return to the court. The franchise is entering a new era while trying to win a fourth championship with 20-year veteran Diana Taurasi. Seattle, Houston and Minnesota are tied with a record four WNBA titles.

The Mercury hired former Golden State Warriors executive Nick U’Ren as general manager, Orlando Magic assistant Nate Tibbetts as head coach and went all-in during the offseason. The front office traded for 2021 Finals MVP Kahleah Copper (18.7 ppg, 44.8 FG% with Chicago) and signed free agent point guard Natasha Cloud, a 2019 champion with Washington. Copper will improve their perimeter scoring and Cloud’s presence offensively will improve their dead-last rating.

This isn’t a new method in Phoenix. After the 2021 Finals loss to Copper and Chicago, the front office built a strong contender in free agency by adding then-MVP candidate Tina Charles, who signed with the Dream after a year out of the league, and Diamond DeShields. But Griner was detained in Russia for 10 months, Charles agreed to a contract divorce and tensions boiled between players and coaches.

Will we see a rematch of the 2023 WNBA Finals between the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty again this season? (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The WNBA season expanded to 40 games in 2023, yet it’s still a short season and injuries could derail teams enough they miss out on the playoffs. Or, they could fall down the standings and face the Aces on the road in a best of three. The postseason seeds the best eight teams in the league regardless of conference.

The Aces will be without Gray and Phoenix is without Griner, who fractured a toe on her left foot. The Mercury said on Monday she will be evaluated “in the coming weeks,” indicating a long absence. The team does not have depth at the position.

Dallas secured the final top-four seed last year with its first 20-plus win season since 2008, when the franchise was in Detroit. The Wings have to keep it afloat without forward Satou Sabally, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery and isn’t expected back in Dallas until after the Olympic break. Sabally plays for the German national team.

Sabally reached career marks and was named Most Improved Player in her first fully healthy season since the Wings drafted her No. 2 in 2020. She averaged 18.6 ppg (ranking ninth), 8.1 rpg (11th) and 4.4 apg (4.4) in 38 games after playing in only 34 games over her first three years. It will be tough for the Wings to overcome her contributions since many teams below them in the standings improved with offseason additions.

One is Indiana, a near-playoff team last year that immediately improved with the addition of Clark. The offense won’t run as smoothly early while veteran guard Kelsey Mitchell, one of the WNBA’s best scorers, and wing Katie Lou Samuelson are hobbled with ankle injuries. The early Fever schedule is already tough. Samuelson, who sat out last year on maternity leave with the Sparks, was a late scratch in the Fever’s first preseason game but did play in their Thursday night win over the Atlanta Dream.

Things were always going to be difficult for the Sky while first-year head coach Teresa Weatherspoon fixes part of the franchise’s plummet. The bright spot came on draft night when they added the front-court duo of Reese and Cardoso, two collegiate superstars with national championship rings who bring in fans and future promise.

That tandem seen briefly in their first preseason game will have to wait to get back on the court together. Cardoso is out at least 4-6 weeks with a shoulder injury, the team announced last week.

Bubbling under the surface of the season is the option for the WNBA and WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement by Nov. 1. The media rights deal is also up following the 2025 season. It is one of the most monumental moments in the league’s history.

Players are likely to opt out of the CBA and push for higher salaries, better travel accommodations, more maternity protections and changes to the prioritization clause. The hard salary cap and pensions are also at the top of players’ minds. The 2020 CBA took large steps in most of those areas, but players believe it’s already outdated.

The WNBA has TV deals with ESPN networks, CBS/CBS Sports Network, ION, NBA TV and Amazon Prime Video. Its major deal is with ESPN, which pays about $30 million, per The IX. Engelbert said the league is hoping to sign a deal worth $100 million annually. The NWSL signed a record-breaking deal in November worth $60 million per season.

How a media partner intends to support the league will be as important as where the league lands and at what price. ION is the only network with appointment viewing for fans. The network airs games every Friday night through the regular season. For fans tuning into the league for the first time, finding games could become a pain point that puts issues into a larger spotlight.

Everything that happens this season will have a massive impact on both CBA negotiations and rights deals.

This content was originally sourced and posted at Yahoo! Sports – News, Scores, Standings, Rumors, Fantasy Games »
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