CHICAGO — Benita Harrison-Diggs traveled from Virginia Beach to make a weekend out of the W.N.B.A. All-Star Game with friends. She remembered the excitement around the league’s “exceptional” inaugural season in 1997 and was hopeful that 2022 would match it.
Harrison-Diggs, 63, was one of hundreds of fans outside Wintrust Arena eager to cheer on the best women’s basketball players in the country. “The atmosphere is electric,” she said, smiling.
But as excited as Harrison-Diggs was to be in Chicago for All-Star weekend, she also felt let down.
“I’m a little disappointed that these women, as hard as they play, don’t get the same recognition that the N.B.A. gets,” she said. “They don’t get the same exposure, the coverage and especially not the same money.”
Harrison-Diggs came to the arena with friends for the W.N.B.A.’s skills competition and 3-point shooting contest, only to find that they were closed to the public and being held in a convention center next door. Instead, she and her friends were in a nearby courtyard watching the events much like people at home: on a TV screen. The competitions were scheduled to air on ESPN but were shifted to ESPNU at the last minute while ESPN showed the end of the men’s doubles tournament at Wimbledon. Many fans do not have access to the lesser-known ESPNU channel, and some complained on social media. ESPN later announced that it would rebroadcast the skills competition.
“They wouldn’t have bumped the men,” Harrison-Diggs said.
There is a swell of engagement and enthusiasm for the W.N.B.A. as it plays its 26th season, but the league’s ballooning fan base has come with a critical eye. Much of the league’s good will has been built around a core group of stars like Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker. But as they begin to retire, the W.N.B.A. is transitioning into a new era of younger, social-media-savvy talent and a fan base demanding more of the league.
“I would have liked to see this actually feel like they put some thought into it, some foresight, about what they actually want a weekend to look like,” said Anraya Palmer, who traveled from Atlanta for the All-Star Game.
Palmer, who is Black, was 6 when the W.N.B.A. made its debut. She was instantly hooked. “It was the first time I saw women basketball players, especially women athletes, that looked like me: ‘Oh, I can actually grow up and do this,’” Palmer said.
Palmer grew up to be a teacher, but she’s also an Atlanta Dream fan. She said the league had changed for the better in many ways, but All-Star weekend was a prime example of an area for improvement. “It kind of feels like some things were maybe thrown together last second,” she said. “But the die-hard fans are still going to come out and have a good time.”
The W.N.B.A. said it did not have access to Wintrust Arena until Saturday night because it was being used by a cookware convention. The league hosted fan events and invitation-only concerts outdoors, but Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said security concerns because of mass shootings contributed to the league’s decision to close the concerts to the public. Spokesmen for the city and the Chicago Police Department declined to comment on the record.
On Sunday, 9,572 fans filed into Wintrust Arena, which seats about 10,400, for the All-Star Game. A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces and Fowles of Minnesota were the captains of Team Wilson, while Breanna Stewart and her Seattle teammate Bird led Team Stewart. Team Wilson defeated Team Stewart, 134-112.
Brittney Griner, the seven-time All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury, was named an honorary starter. She has been detained in Russia on drug charges since February. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, sat courtside. All 22 All-Stars wore jerseys with Griner’s name and No. 42 for the second half.
Aaron Brown of Chicago, a longtime Fowles fan, said he wouldn’t have missed the All-Star Game “for the world.” Brown said most men think women’s basketball is “boring,” but for him, the women’s game is “more pure and more entertaining.”
“The beauty of women’s basketball is the fundamentals — they play with I.Q. and skill level that even the men don’t,” he said. “You actually have to use not just your body but also your mind. Mostly men can get by off athleticism, but they don’t have the fundamentals.”
His favorite player is Aces guard Kelsey Plum. She tied Maya Moore’s record for points in an All-Star Game with 30, and was named the most valuable player. Brown said Plum, like many other players, does not get the same kind of attention as the league’s bigger names.
“They kind of only push the same five or six,” he said. “There are so many other good players who are here now and not going to leave in two years. They deserve to shine.”
Patrick Schmidt of the Detroit area agreed, saying he’d like to see the league “showcasing more of their Black superstars in addition to the legends that they do.”
Some fans also spoke about the disparity in pay between W.N.B.A. and N.B.A. players.
In 2022, the salary cap for each W.N.B.A. team is about $1.4 million, and the maximum player salary is just under $230,000. In the N.B.A., the team salary cap will be more than $123 million for the 2022-23 season, and the top players make nearly $50 million per year.
“It makes no sense that a star women’s basketball player makes less than a bench player in the N.B.A.,” Sterling Hightower, a fan from Chicago, said. “I’m a big N.B.A. fan. There are people in the N.B.A. I don’t even know who are making more than Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.”
Cynthia Smith, a Liberty season-ticket holder for 24 years, put it bluntly: “Out of sight is out of mind,” adding, “I don’t know if we’re going to get equity in pay, but we need equity in exposure.”
Over the weekend, many players, like Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, echoed the fans’ sentiments: “Put us on TV more,” she said.
Fans have long complained about how difficult it can be to view games, such as having to toggle through multiple platforms, like ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and a buggy W.N.B.A. app.
“You tell me I’ve got to go through three apps, I’m not watching that. Let’s be honest here,” Wilson said. “I think that’s just key as to how the league can grow.”
Plum agreed, saying she’d like to see the league make it easier to watch games. “We understand that the product is great, and when we get people to watch the game, they love it,” she said. “But the hardest part is getting people there.”
Bird, who is retiring this year after 21 seasons in the league, said the key would be renegotiating television rights over the next couple of years.
“That’s the moment,” Bird said. “That could really break things open and change the entire trajectory of our league.”
Nneka Ogwumike, a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and the president of the W.N.B.A. players’ union, said the league was “on the precipice of something that can really turn into something big.”
Ogwumike said “the magic word is expansion.”
There are 12 teams, with 12 roster spots each. Engelbert said the league was analyzing demographics, women’s basketball “fandom” and viewership data for 100 cities, and new teams could be on the horizon by 2025. She also said finding the right media package was her “top business priority” for this year.
One of the greatest areas of growth for the league has been activism around social justice. The next wave of activism could be around abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Stewart called the decision “disgusting” and “heartbreaking” and said she expected there to be discussions soon about how to handle events in states where abortion is banned.
“As we are continuing to fight these social issues and injustices based on race, sex, sexual orientation, all of the things, the league needs to have our back in every way,” she said.
Bird said the shift to addressing social and political issues marked a huge transformation among players.
“I think back on my career, and I definitely was part of a shut-up-and-dribble generation where that’s what we did — we didn’t complain too much or talk about things too much, because we were scared to,” she said. “We have found our strength in our voice, and I’m just proud that I got to be a small part of it at the end of my career.”