Swanson: WNBA’s deep roster cuts are a turn-off for would-be fans

It’s as though women’s basketball is perpetually growing but also not going anywhere.

The game is better by the year, but it’s also stuck.

Women’s college basketball has never been more popular. That’s not hyperbole, those are ESPN’s metrics: A record 12.6 million viewers were tuned in during the NCAA championship game between LSU and Iowa. The previous high-water mark: 5.68 million for Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird and their Connecticut team’s NCAA championship victory over Oklahoma in 2002.

Now, if only such a monumental surge in interest segued into the start of WNBA season this week, especially because it’s coming just a few weeks after the college season ended.

If only the veteran-laden league could take the baton from the kids and run with it without fumbling it or fading back toward obscurity.

But the WNBA is too good for that.

Seriously, the WNBA is too good – too good for its own good.

There are, in the league’s 27th season, only 12 teams, and only 12 roster spots per team – though, as Phoenix Mercury (and former L.A. Windward High School) coach Vanessa Nygaard put it during a video conference Wednesday, “if you want to pay your players, you have 11.”

That means the league is populated by the top percentile of the top percentile of women’s basketball players in the world. It’s not easy to make any pro league, but in the WNBA, only the most elite, most dedicated, absolute hungriest and most game-ready make the cut.

Last year, only 17 of the 36 draft picks from that spring made opening night rosters. And as of Wednesday morning, just 18 of 36 picks from April’s draft appeared on a roster – and teams had until Thursday still to make final cuts.

But what if you, Fellow Basketball Fan, just came around to women’s basketball during the 2023 NCAA tournament, drawn perhaps by Iowa sensation Caitlin Clark before also finding yourself entertained by her teammate Monika Czinano and Louisiana State’s Alexis Morris and South Carolina’s Brea Beal?

Were you – like I was, once upon a time, when it was Nygaard’s Stanford teammate Jamila Wideman’s presence as a rookie on the Sparks that enticed me to give the WNBA a shot – looking forward to watching more of those women who you now recognize?

Were you excited to see them play this summer?

Well, too bad. The WNBA is too good. Czinano, who was drafted by the Sparks, as well as Morris and Beal, were all among the popular prospects left standing when the music stopped.

A whole league is training at home…

— Nneka Ogwumike (@nnekaogwumike) May 17, 2023

“If we had extended roster spots … we wouldn’t have had anyone waived this morning,” said former Sparks assistant coach Latricia Trammell, now the head coach of Dallas Wings, who Wednesday cut Charli Collier – the 2021 No. 1 overall pick! – after also waiving Abby Meyers, the No. 11 overall pick in last month’s draft.

“I think it’s coming,” Trammell said of expanded rosters. “It has to.”

It had better. Among the issues the WNBA and its players are wrestling with – travel, pay – the matter of expansion, whether it’s teams or rosters, has to be at the top of the to-figure-out list.

It’s a problem. Or at least a chicken-or-egg conundrum: The WNBA would attract more fans with more recognizable personalities. But the league – which hasn’t added a team since 2008, when the Atlanta Dream debuted – isn’t likely to grow without more fans supporting it.

But more fans would be invested if WNBA teams could roster more college stars – whose Q scores, by the way, are only being bolstered by NIL marketing deals. Of course, teams can’t exactly prioritize Instagram followers over basketball preparedness, not if they want to be competitive.

“How do we connect the college game with the WNBA game?” asked Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, a four-time WNBA champion. “I think that’s something we’ve all talked about for many many years. I’m in year 23, and I can remember talking about it in most of my years in the W.”

But there has never been a college season that was received like this last one. And the WNBA is going to strike out while the iron is hot.

I don’t really know how to feel about it,” said Sparks rookie Zia Cooke, the only one of three South Carolina guards drafted in the past two seasons to stick with a team. “The WNBA, I feel like we need more teams … every teammate of mine deserved to be on a WNBA team.”

The Sparks will benefit from having kept Cooke, a physical 5-foot-9 guard with obvious two-way upside. Also from her 275,000 Instagram followers – more even than Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike, who appears regularly as an analyst on ESPN.

Cooke, meanwhile, is certain her former NCAA championship backcourt mates Beal and Destanni Henderson will find their way onto a WNBA team at some point.

Nygaard wouldn’t bet against it.

“The good thing is if you love it and you really want to play, there’s plenty of opportunities in countries all over the world to get that experience,” said Nygaard, who played in the league from 1999-2003, when, for a period, there were 16 teams and even a couple of developmental spots per squad, she remembered.

Now? “I don’t know how many players that were drafted will be cut before our first games,” she said, “but if you want to make it in the WNBA you basically gotta say, ‘OK, I’m gonna give these three to four years to playing overseas and developing my game.’

“And what ends up happening, we’re getting the most absolutely committed athletes in the world.”

What you’ve got then is too good of a product, one that’s bad at selling itself.

Staff writer John W. Davis contributed to this column.

Related Articles

LA Sparks |

Three big picture questions before Sparks tip off 2023 WNBA season

LA Sparks |

Sparks’ Dearica Hamby reacts to WNBA penalizing Aces after workplace misconduct allegations

LA Sparks |

Winning won’t be Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike’s only measure of success with Sparks

LA Sparks |

Brittney Griner gets emotional discussing Russian detainment

A shame bruh women like Destanni Henderson, Brea Beal, Alexis Morris, etc are the reason why some people are tuning in to the WNBA. They just ruined that by getting rid of these talented women … https://t.co/gc0xlCuwne

— Conceited.Layyyy_ (@GoatLayla) May 16, 2023

So Alexis Morris, Destani Henderson, Brea Beal, Monika Czinano have all been waived

WNBA has a problem

— Leonard Fairley (@CoachLenNSU) May 17, 2023

*Draft new players with fans who are ready to support them and the league
*Player gets waived because not enough spots *Fans no longer want to support the league as a whole
Ugh this is stressful

— Rhyne Howard (@howard_rhyne) May 17, 2023

These cuts are ridiculous.. The league needs expansion. How are we expecting to grow the love for women’s basketball if we keep waiving all these players that bring fans to the game? Crazy.#wnba #destannihenderson #alexismorris #WNBATwitter #womensbasketball https://t.co/AYdrjcAPiM

— Ariella Harrison (@AriellaHarrison) May 16, 2023

Why half the 2023 WNBA draft class getting waived ? Is this normal? #WNBA #Draft #Basketball https://t.co/QPYOHq5LN4

— JJ Spook Cook (Cookin Up Sports) (@JJSpookCook) May 16, 2023

Wow the Connecticut suns waived Alexis morris and the Indiana fever waived ladazhia Williams????? UNFOLLOWING

— COURTIE (@Courtiiee_) May 10, 2023

Losing very talented players on the court is the obvious dilemma w/ the WNBA’s limited rosters.

Losing very talented players who ALSO help boost the new WNBA culture, brand and following (like DiDi) is the NOT-so-obvious one. https://t.co/nETxRVlf63

— Zena Keita (@itszenakeita) May 17, 2023

Share the Post:

Related Posts