The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was founded on April 24, 1996, and launched their inaugural season with the slogan, ‘We Got Next,’ signifying that women basketball players were ready to take the court just after the NBA Finals.
While the slogan linked the women’s game to the men’s to some degree, this new league has served a much larger purpose since the Los Angeles Sparks hosted the New York Liberty in the WNBA’s first game on June 21, 1997, at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood.
Since that historic game, the likes of Lisa Leslie, Diana Taurasi, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Sheryl Swoopes, and Candace Parker, among others, have left their mark on the sports landscape. Their efforts have made the WNBA the most successful professional women’s basketball league ever in the United States.
Other women’s professional basketball leagues have come before the WNBA. The Women’s Professional Basketball League was founded in 1978, but it folded in 1981 after generating $14 million in losses. The Women’s American Basketball Association was founded in 1984, but that league has not been able to attract the top players, and the league has shutdown a few times. The American Basketball League started to form at the same time as the WNBA, but that league also folded after only two years.
Out of all of the women’s basketball leagues, the WNBA has stood the test of time because it has been able to
attract and develop the greatest players in the world. It has also benefited from being the only league that has been
fully backed by the NBA.
The league is celebrating their 20th season, and the WNBA has greatly impacted women’s basketball from the youth level to the Olympics, as well as allowing many American women to come home to the United States for their professional careers.
The league’s first dynasty was the Houston Comets, who won the first four WNBA titles. Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, who is considered by many as the greatest women’s basketball player ever, was the leader of those teams.
While she was a dominant player in the league, she did not have the luxury of growing up in the WNBA era, and she sees how the league has changed the game for female athletes.
“The opportunity to have a life-long dream, and to actually be able to realize that dream to play professional basketball in America is an honor and a privilege,” Cooper-Dyke said. “The fact that there is a WNBA, (means) little girls get a chance to not just dream, but to have mentors that look like them and play like them. I think that breeds the confidence to achieve any goal. That’s really what sports is about. Now they can see women play professional basketball in America. I believe that it sets a standard that they can really achieve anything that they can set their mind to. The WNBA has given little girls the chance to dream.”
Cooper-Dyke grew up in Watts, attended Gompers Middle School and Locke High School before playing at USC. She did not have the opportunity to dream about playing in an American women’s basketball league, and she did not have the mentorship that girls today have. In fact, unlike girls today who begin in the sport at ages 8 and 9 much like the boys, she did not start playing basketball until high school.
Since the creation of the WNBA, interest in girls basketball on the youth level has greatly increased. Sixty-nine percent of girls participate in organized and team sports, according to the 2008 report conducted by the Women’s Sports Foundation. Between 1972 and 2011, the number of girls competing in high school sports jumped from under 295,000 to nearly 3.2 million, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, basketball is the most popular sport for girls who play competitive sports. From ages 10-16, roughly 25 percent of girls play basketball.
“The WNBA has not only increased the participation in girls basketball, but it’s also the level of play that has increased,” Cooper-Dyke said. “Now kids are starting a little younger, and now they have something to aspire to. So, they’re not just playing basketball for the fun of it, they’re playing basketball and setting goals for themselves, and they’re striving to be the best at a very early age.
“Now when you see players come into college, they are much more talented, and much more polished. All because, they can now turn on the television and see Diana Taurasi (2009 WNBA MVP with the Phoenix Mercury), Maya Moore (2014 WNBA MVP with the Minnesota Lynx), or Lisa Leslie (retired three-time WNBA MVP with the Los Angeles Sparks) play professional basketball in America. It’s something that they can strive for at an early age, which means that the talent level at youth games are off the charts.”
That was not the case before the WNBA, when there was no legitimate women’s basketball league in the United States.
This forced Cooper-Dyke, and other great basketball players, to take their careers overseas. While Cooper-Dyke became an international star while playing 11 seasons in Spain and Italy, she was “out of sight, out of mind” when it came to the American sports landscape. That all changed for her, and many other American basketball players, when the WNBA was formed.
“It gave me an opportunity to come back to America and showcase the talent that I had, and show people what I had been doing for years overseas,” Cooper-Dyke said. “To play in front of my mother, and my family and friends, and to make my mom proud, the WNBA gave me that opportunity. My mom, before she passed away from breast cancer, was able to see me win two world championships. I’ll always be grateful to the WNBA for providing that opportunity.”
Cooper-Dyke went on to win two WNBA MVPs (1997, 1998), three WNBA scoring titles (1997-1999), and she helped the Houston Comets win the first four WNBA Finals championships (1997-2000). She was named the WNBA Finals MVP three times.
Cooper-Dyke has a lot of experience playing in different leagues, and she has high praise for the competition level of the WNBA.
“The WNBA is the best league in the world, period,” she said. “Other (international) leagues aren’t as strong player-for-player as the WNBA.”
The WNBA has become so competitive that it attracts the top players from around the world.
“There are a lot of foreign players coming over to the WNBA to showcase their talents,” Cooper-Dyke said. “There are a few countries (who produce talented players), Italy being one, Russia being another, Serbia, Croatia, and Brazil being others. That’s just a testament to the strength of the WNBA.”
The tougher competition for American women has also helped in Olympic play. Since the WNBA was created, the American women have won the gold medal at each Olympic games.
“The great thing about having the WNBA is that it gets the American players to play at a very high level through the entire season,” Cooper-Dyke said. “I think that helps prepare Olympians. The Olympics is really a spinoff of the competition that these young women face every single day in the WNBA.”
The WNBA has also created post-basketball careers for women. With more competition, there are more coaching opportunities. Cooper-Dyke is currently USC’s head women’s basketball coach, and many other women are having successful careers teaching the game. Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman are both assistant coaches in the NBA.
Many other women have moved into sports media, with some becoming television personalities for ESPN and other sports networks. ormer Sparks great Lisa Leslie is currently a commentator for Sports Zone on ABC7 in Los Angeles.
“The exposure that you get playing in the WNBA sets the stage and really creates a platform for you to go into television, or go into college or professional coaching,” Cooper-Dyke said.
The WNBA has changed the landscape of women’s basketball while greatly influencing many female athletes. Many people in sports media initially questioned if the league could be successful, and the players have proved that it is.