On April 24, 1996 the landscape of professional women’s basketball was changed forever. It was on this date that the NBA Board of Governor’s voted in favor to establish the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), and set tipoff for June 1997. In preparation for the inaugural season, the 1996 Women’s Olympic Basketball team helped set the stage and rally support of women’s basketball across the country by embarking on a pre-Olympic tour playing top tier collegiate and international teams. The team posted a perfect 52-0 record while on tour, and continued their excellence throughout the Olympics and eventually took home the Gold Medal. More popular than any previous women's basketball team, the USA team drew an average of 25,320 fans per game . Not only did the 1996 Olympic team set the gold-standard in women’s basketball, but their success helped usher in a new era of professional women’s basketball. The WNBA continues today as the longest-running professional women's sports league in the world.
Building off the success and momentum garnered by the ’96 Olympic team, the WNBA officially tipped off on June 21, 1997 and featured the New York Liberty versus the Los Angeles Sparks. Kym Hampton, who squared off against Lisa Leslie for the game’s tipoff spoke about her experience saying, “Playing in the WNBA was incredibly special. I knew a professional league would eventually happen in the US for women, I just didn’t think my career would last long enough to experience it.” Sparks guard, Penny Toler scored the first basket in the league’s history but the Liberty would go on to defeat the Sparks 67-57. The league would secure partnerships with NBC, ESPN and Lifetime Television to broadcast live games to more than 50 million viewers across the networks during the inaugural year .
The WNBA impacted the lives of those in the women’s basketball community and also inspired future generations by their work on and off the court. Three-time WNBA All-Star, Nikki McCray describes the impact that league has had by saying, “The creation of the WNBA was life-changing for the little girls who grew into women who loved to play basketball as much as our male counterparts. It gave us a stage to showcase our God given talents and for that we are grateful.” Many players recognize and utilize their influence to inspire young girls to chase their dreams by sharing their own experiences and platform that league has provided. Former WNBA All-Star, Chasity Melvin echoed this sentiment in saying:
I grew up watching the NBA with my brother and Dad and always hoped that a women’s professional team would be around when I grew up. Fortunately for me, the WNBA made my dream realty and gave me a platform to continue to showcase my talent…The WNBA was instrumental in giving me a platform to continue to inspire and give other young women someone to look up to.
In 2013, the NBRPA Board of Directors passed a historic vote to open membership to former WNBA players. With world class basketball legacies, successful careers after playing and dedication to give back and serve the community, WNBA inclusion into the NBRPA was a natural fit. The inaugural class of WNBA members featured legends Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Nikki McCray, Carla McGhee, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, Penny Toler and Teresa Weatherspoon. Throughout the years, membership has steadily grown and WNBA engagement within NBRPA programming and events continue to increase. Former WNBA players, Chasity Melvin and Barbara Farris have provided their leadership and expertise to help recruit and develop membership through the NBRPA Michael Justin Glenn Internship.
Throughout the 2016 WNBA season, the league celebrated its 20th anniversary and honored the trailblazers of the game in special ceremonies and presentations. The league announced the WNBA Top 20@20 which listed the 20 best and most influential players of the WNBA, based on factors such as on-court performance and ability, leadership and sportsmanship, as well as contributions to team success . This list featured seven active players including: Seimone Augustus, Sue Bird, Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Cappie Pondexter, Diana Taurasi and Lindsay Whalen as well as thirteen former players among the honorees: Swin Cash, Tamika Catchings, Cynthia Cooper, Yolanda Griffith, Becky Hammon, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, Deanna Nolan, Ticha Penicheiro, Katie Smith, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Teresa Weatherspoon. Inclusion on this historic list was a surreal experience for former WNBA great, Ticha Penicheiro in which she shares:
Playing in the WNBA was something I never really dreamt of since it wasn’t around when I was growing up. But, growing up in Portugal, I had the “American Dream”…I knew I wanted to play in the land of where basketball was born and succeed amongst the best. Now, looking back and see that I had a successful 15 year WNBA career, is still a bit surreal, especially coming from such a tiny country where women’s basketball is not that popular. I’m happy that the WNBA has stuck around for 20 years and gives a platform for little girls to dream of playing in the best and most competitive league in the world.
In conclusion, the pioneers of the game left an unwavering legacy that helped launch and sustain the WNBA. The league is poised to continue their success following the 2016 season under the leadership of President Lisa Borders, who in her first year achieved an 18% increase in viewership, 50% increase in views on WNBA.com and 3 million more social media followers. Be sure to tune in as the WNBA will tip off its 21st season on Saturday, May 13, 2017, with three games, highlighted by the defending WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks hosting the Seattle Storm at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN.