Basketball Twitter typically isn’t very active during months like August and September. NBA draft talk has long dissipated, free agency moves and trades have all been completed and the NBA Summer League is a thing of the past. That changed on Sept. 4 this year, however, as talk erupted from fans and players all over the country after watching Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird put on a legendary fourth-quarter performance. Forced to wear a mask due to her broken nose, the 37-year-old Bird scored 14 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter, overcoming a cold stretch in which she missed eight shots, to propel her Seattle Storm to a winner-take-all Game 5 victory over Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury.
There was a reaction to the performance that has rarely been seen surrounding the WNBA, and it reflects a trend of increasing popularity in the league.
After UConn was eliminated in the semifinals of the women’s Final Four this year, one might have expected ESPN’s ratings to drop in the final. The one team that had, for years, truly and indisputably carried a nationwide brand was gone. Yet the ratings didn’t fall, as 3.5 million people tuned in to watch Mississippi State and Notre Dame battle in a game that saw the Fighting Irish overcome a 15-point deficit and win the national championship on a buzzer beater. This came close to the all-time highest rated final from 2004, when legendary coaches Pat Summitt of Tennessee and Geno Auriemma of UConn faced off in what would be UConn’s fifth title.
It might have seemed like the 2018 Final Four was unique, with both semifinal games heading to overtime and a game-winning buzzer beater in the final, but the uptick in ratings for women’s basketball wasn’t isolated to that tournament. As of July 9, ratings for the WNBA rose 36 percent this season among viewers aged 18–49, with a 29 percent increase among men and a 50 percent increase among women.
When asked about her thoughts on the the higher ratings, Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker talked about the rivalries that have emerged. Alluding to the Celtics-Lakers and the Pistons-Bulls longstanding feuds, Parker said that new rivalries in the WNBA, like that between the Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx, who met in both the 2016 and 2017 Finals, have given fans something to be invested in.
The WNBA is also in a unique position to take advantage of these rivalries because of its playoff seeding system. Since the league seeds the top eight teams, regardless of conference or division, in the playoffs, the best teams are always able to face each other in the Finals — unlike in the NBA, where in many seasons it has seemed like the conference finals actually held the most enticing matchup. In addition to its seeding system, the WNBA also includes playoff byes and single-elimination games in its playoff structure. It seems like the NBA could stand to learn some things.
It will only benefit basketball as the WNBA’s fanbase continues to grow and opportunities for collaboration between the world’s top two basketball leagues increase.