No other sports league has been more vocal against inequality and systemic oppression than the WNBA.
For years, the league has refused to be silent on the issues that matter in our society and at one of the most pivotal times for change in our country’s history, the league is seemingly on the rise.
ESPN announced that the WNBA had the most-watched season opener since 2012 and that viewership was up 63% from last season’s average.
Last weekend, every WNBA game at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., was aired on ESPN and ABC. The games averaged a viewing audience of 401,000, while as many as 646,000 tuned in at one point to see the thrilling finish between the Chicago Sky and Las Vegas Aces.
ESPN said that star rookie Sabrina Ionescu’s debut against the Seattle Storm was the most-watched season opener on cable in four years and the matchup between the Sparks and Mercury was the most-watched season opener on ABC since 2012.
Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery, who decided to opt-out of the 2020 season to focus on social justice, says the country’s new awakening on these issues is causing many to take a new interest in the WNBA.
“The league is benefiting from a lot of things,” said Montgomery. “They are benefiting from the climate because people are now realizing… if we are going to look at racism this way, well we also have to look at sexism this way. “
“I think that was eye-opening for some people to see the intersectionality of it, so I think that that’s helping a lot just for people opening their eyes to women in sports.”
Since announcing her decision to forgo the season, Montgomery has teamed up with LeBron James’ More Than A Vote organization, publicly challenged one of her team’s owners when Kelly Loeffler said she “adamantly opposed the Black Lives Matter political movement,” now she is working on another voting initiative called Remember the 3rd of November, and helping restore Morris Brown College, a prominent historically black college and university in Atlanta.
Montgomery is far from the only WNBA player to try to improve her community. Most notably, Minnesota Lynx guard and future Hall of Famer Maya Moore chose to sit out both the 2019 and 2020 WNBA seasons to free a man wrongly convicted of burglary and assault charges.
In 2016, the Lynx team led by Moore wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts to bring attention to racial profiling and police brutality after police officers killed both Philando Castile and Alton Sterling that summer.
The statement from the team resulted in four off-duty Minneapolis police officers who were scheduled to work one of their home games walking off the job in protest.
In 2019, the Washington Mystics held a media blackout, where players used their media availability to talk strictly about gun violence in the Washington D.C. area. Throughout that season the team would use their platform to speak on out other topics such as anti-abortion laws, equality, racism, and police brutality. The Mystics would later win their first WNBA championship that season.
“I think this time allowed people to see all the things that WNBA players do and have done,” said Montgomery. “As people started to have more interest in the social justice space and looking to see what players are speaking up they started to notice, ‘Wow a lot of WNBA players are vocal about this.’”
However, as we saw in Minnesota four years ago, the league’s stances on these issues aren’t always well received.
Last Saturday, during the game between the New York Liberty and the Seattle Storm, the world saw WNBA players walk off the court before the playing of the national anthem as part of a protest to bring further attention to police brutality and more specifically the unjust killing of Breonna Taylor at the hands of Louisville police officers.
The WNBA has dedicated their 2020 season to Taylor.
Many called the walk-off protest an embarrassment, and said that the league was disrespecting the country. Some even suggested that players in the league hated America.
“In a situation like this you aren’t going to please everyone, I think it was beautiful to show the solidarity that all the teams and players showed,” said Montgomery. “We know what it feels to be the minority. We have the double, we are the majority of the minorities. We understand that feeling of discrimination, I think that’s why typically the women of the [WNBA] see something they say something.”
Other critics of the league have said that the league must make adjustments to the WNBA game for the league to be successful, but according to Montgomery the trajectory of the league depends on how many people have access to it.
“We are not going to change our game,” Montgomery stated. “We play good basketball. The more people get an opportunity to see it the more people will enjoy it.”
Despite the naysayers, the WNBA and its players seem to be flourishing in a climate that it has grown accustomed to far before many Americans joined them.
The ratings increases have prompted ESPN to schedule 13 more games to its slate. This addition includes five games that will air on ABC in the month of August.
As the league continues to develop its niche to appear to viewers, it’s clear that this crucial moment in American history has given them the opportunity to be recognized like never before.
“This time, this climate just shed a light on what WNBA players have always been doing,” said Montgomery. “The WNBA is good and the more that people give it a chance, the more the ratings will go up.”