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Basketball-From Trial Balloon to TV Rating Success, the WNBA Celebrates 25 Years

Rebecca Lobo had won a national college basketball championship, numerous player-of-the-year awards, and Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games by the age of 22.

But the 6-foot-4 (193 cm) center’s future on the court was uncertain: she joined the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) in its inaugural season in 1997, at a time when some questioned whether a professional women’s league could last.

The United States Olympic team was “a little bit of a test balloon (for the) market for women’s professional basketball,” according to Lobo, now a 47-year-old Basketball Hall of Famer and ESPN basketball analyst.

“Can these women be sold?” Is it possible for us to sell these tickets? ,” were just a few of the questions swirling around the women’s sport.

The answer came quickly, and it was a resounding yes from the fans.

Basketball-From trial balloon to TV ratings hit, WNBA marks 25 years |  Sports-Games

Lobo, who was playing for the New York Liberty in their first home game, said the near-capacity crowd of 17,780 filled Madison Square Garden with deafening cheers.

“We couldn’t hear the PA announcers say our names because it was so loud in Madison Square Garden,” Lobo recalled.

Lobo and the other WNBA pioneers never looked back.


Kym Hampton, 35, was nearing the end of her career as play began, having spent more than a decade overseas playing for teams in Europe and Japan.

Then an almost unfathomable opportunity presented itself: a chance to play professional basketball in the United States. Hampton was one of two players selected by Liberty in the WNBA Elite Draft.

“Little boys in my era always grew up with a professional baseball league, professional football, professional basketball, professional leagues,” said the Louisville native and Women’s Sports Foundation ambassador. “As women, we didn’t have that.”

“I had no idea how far it might go,” the 58-year-old reflected.

On June 21, 1997, Hampton scored the first basket for Liberty in the WNBA’s inaugural game between New York and the Los Angeles Sparks at the Great Western Forum, then the home of the Los Angeles Lakers.

When she saw their locker room stools, she was struck by the bond she felt to the NBA stars who played there.

“Think about all the butts of the retired pro men’s NBA athletes who have sat in this,” she recalled telling herself.

“So I went and sat in every stool,” Hampton said. “I’m taking every good play from every player who’s ever set their ass in this stool right here.”


Although the WNBA teammates were in the same arenas as their male counterparts, they were far from equal. They paid a base salary of $15,000 in 1997, while even low-level NBA players made six figures.

“We were able to say and do whatever we needed to in order for this league to succeed,” said Vickie Johnson, a Liberty second-round selection in the inaugural elite draught.

“It wasn’t about the money; it was about playing in the best league in the world, being respected as a professional league, and getting a seat at the table,” recalled the 49-year-old, who went on to coach the San Antonio Stars and Dallas Wings after 13 seasons in the WNBA.

Today’s best WNBA players will receive up to $500,000 a year, thanks to last year’s historic collective bargaining deal, which included new maternity benefits and improved travel conditions.

Basketball-From trial balloon to TV ratings hit, WNBA marks 25 years

“It’s a blessing to still be a member of a league that I sweated for, that I sacrificed my body for, and that I love,” Johnson said.

During the pandemic last year, the sacrifices included all of the teams quarantined within a “wubble.” Several mothers were accompanied by their children, and they had to combine childcare with a rigorous training regimen and game schedule.

“But that only goes back to women,” Johnson said. “We’ve all had to bear more than our fair share of the burden.”

As the season begins on May 14, the WNBA, like other organisations in the United States, is under pressure to address problems of race and equality. Despite the fact that the players are overwhelmingly Black, Johnson is the league’s only Black female head coach.

“The NBA’s leadership will have to formulate a strategy that allows these women to have opportunities,” Hampton said.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert recently told reporters that the league is making strides, but that “we have to do more.”

The players believe the league is primed for a big surge. The number of games shown on television is increasing, and more games were broadcast last summer than ever before.

According to Lobo, the WNBA is “just on the brink of just mainstream massive success.”

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