Conversations about basketball always start with: ‘So, when did you fall in love with the game?’
I was 11 years old. I had just arrived in the UK and I didn’t really understand English or speak it. My teacher asked me to join in with the sports lesson, where they were playing basketball.
I didn’t really understand. In Ghana, we played football and did athletics. But I found it simple; all I had to do was run, catch the ball and shoot. And so, over the months that followed my arrival, I became a fan. I fell in love with basketball; it taught me how to speak English and make new friends. As I grew to love it more, I learnt about the NBA. With the rise of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the late 80s and the early 90s, the NBA became the most popular basketball league in the world. I wanted to know more. And that’s how basketball became not just a hobby but also a way of life.
Could women play basketball professionally? Where did they play? And did we have women who could be as good as Michael Jordan? All these questions… But there were no answers. The only basketball league we had in the UK was the British Basketball League – which was as popular in the UK as eating marmite on toast was in our house. Not at all!
And then the NBA announced ‘Let them Get Next.’ On April 24, 1996, they approved the proposal to begin the WNBA and in June 1997 it all kicked off. In 1997, I was in high school, with a massive Afro walking around with a Spalding ball in one hand, my 80s ‘Just Do It’ Nike backpack in the other and my Walkman listening to 2Pac.
The WNBA was a place where women could ball like the men, dunk like the men and get endorsements like the men.
Life was good and it seemed like it would get better when the WNBA started with eight teams in 1997. A place where women could ball like the men, dunk like the men and get endorsements like the men. Today, the WNBA has 12 teams: Eastern Conference consists of the New York Liberty, Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, Indiana Fever, Washington Mystics. The Western Conference consisted of the Phoenix Mercury, Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx, San Antonio Stars, Seattle Storm, and the Tulsa Shock.
The first WNBA season was very successful; after just two years, WNBA games were made available in 125 different countries. And now a new generation of female basketball players has emerged globally with 33 international players from Brazil, Canada, Serbia, Sweden, Senegal – just to name a few.
We now had something to shout about. Women were as cool as the men and I could proudly walk with my head high and know that I could aspire to be like Lisa Leslie or Sheryl Swoopes and still be feminine.
The idea of a woman having her own Nike endorsement and trainers was unheard off. But then Sheryl Swoopes – after being signed as the first women to join the WNBA – bust onto the scene with her own Nike advert.
She was the female Michael Jordan. Life was real good.
Everyone then assumed that things would get even better. Maybe, as good as the NBA because we all had hopes and dreams to make it to the top, right?
But the success had also masked many problems. Issues that affected the game then and still do now. How should we grow the sport globally? How to combat the lack of respect for female basketball players? What about the inequality over pay? And the list went on. And it still goes on.
If female basketball was being endorsed by Jay Z, it meant surely that the WNBA was heading into a new era of money-making.
The main problem is that after 20 years, the WBNA has little profit to show for those two decades. Stars like Skylar Diggins, Elena Delle Donne, Diana Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry and Brittney Griner have certainly helped increase the league’s profile. Skylar Diggins has been voted and promoted as one of the sexiest women in sport. There have been big endorsements from Nike and signings to Rock Nation.
If female basketball was being endorsed by Jay Z, it meant surely that the WNBA was heading into a new era of money-making. But WNBA still doesn’t make money – not only compared to the NBA but also compared to leagues in Europe, where women’s basketball is appreciated far more and the money is much better than in the US.
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose all make millions. Tamika Catchings, Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi do not, at least not in the WNBA, but Diana Taurasi can make millions in Russia, Spain or China.
Why is this possible? How can the NBA allow this to happen? A sport that is so global, so respected and makes so many billions of dollars each year based on the lifestyle, the game, merchandise and more. Why can’t the women get the same respect as the NBA? Why have they been neglected?
Female athletes in the league ask themselves these questions daily and basketball enthusiasts like me want answers to them. But it all boils down to the fact that the NBA has always seen the WNBA as a side business. It almost feels like they set up the league to shut women.
Apparently, the WNBA can’t make money because the sport is not as popular as other sports in the USA. NBA television rights deals are worth over US$2 billion per year. The WNBA deals are worth US$12 million. But how is this even possible, in an age where sex sells? The WNBA has more sexy women in it than the NBA!
Some coaches in the WNBA make over US$200,000; that’s almost double the highest salary of a WNBA player.
The lack of financial reward means many WNBA stars have been forced to play abroad during the off-season. Some stars of the WNBA, like Diana Taurasi, have even been prepared to take the season off because teams in Europe are prepared to pay them more to sit out of the WNBA season.
On most teams in the WNBA, the coach makes more than the players. Some coaches in the WNBA make over US$200,000; that’s almost double the highest salary of a WNBA player. Could the NBA survive if Kobe Bryant earned US$24 million while Lakers head coach Byron Scott collected a cool US$45 million?
This is a very touchy topic for people within and around the WNBA. It is supposed to be the best league in the world for women but if Europe or Asia are playing more and the athletes are getting the love they deserve elsewhere, the status of the WNBA is thrown into question. Is it really respected? Should future basketball players be aspiring to play in the WNBA?
And why hasn’t the NBA reviewed how they can support the WNBA and make it as big globally as the NBA?
For someone like me and the millions of women (and many men) who love and respect the game of women’s basketball, it is important to see that they get the same amount of investment. This is what will allow young future ballers to aspire to be like Skylar Diggins, Tamika Catchings and so on. It is important for girls and women to feel valued and appreciated when it comes to basketball. Yes, we understand that, men probably have the edge when it comes to the game, but women would soon catch up if the same amount of focus and passion was invested in them.
These women have it all: they have real stories and – let’s be honest – they have massive sex appeal.
My belief and hope lie in the hands of the NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the executive director of the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) Michelle Roberts to change and lift the face of WNBA globally.
Silver has been supportive of the women’s game but said that he ‘thought the WNBA would have grown a lot more by now.’ He – along with Roberts – understands that creating a successful and sustainable NBA involves appealing to all interested parties (men and women), not just half of the population. And it’s not just about equality for women; it could be good for the sport as a whole.
It is true that the NBA has started involving a lot more WNBA players in events particularly with their NBA Global Games trips around the world. If the league pays attention to maximising the marketing power of the WNBA, they might be able to convince people that the NBA actually does care about women’s basketball.
It wouldn’t be hard to do so. These women have it all: they have real stories and – let’s be honest – they have massive sex appeal. They are the real superheroes. Women like them have allowed people like me to remain in love with the sport that gave me the life I have now.
I watch, write and travel to inspire girls and women through basketball. It’s men like Michael Jordan but also women like Sheryl Swoopes who allowed me to dream first.