ESPN announced Thursday that ratings for Game 5 of the 2017 WNBA Finals were the highest for the league since 2003. The series as a whole beat every Finals since 2003, too. More than a half-million people tuned in Wednesday for the finale, when a Maya Moore dagger lifted the Lynx to a revenge win over the L.A. Sparks and gave Minnesota its fourth title in seven years.
Is this a turning point?
You can never be sure with the WNBA. Its popularity among more casual fans ebbs and flows based on the pull of storylines and matchups. There’s a strong base of support that follows the season closely, attends games, reads Swish Appeal, and watches the national broadcasts. But it has always taken special moments to draw a substantial crowd.
In 2003, Lisa Leslie and the Sparks were going for a three-peat similar to that of their neighbors, the Lakers. The Detroit Shock ended that dream. There was a spike in interest circa 2007 when the Phoenix Mercury looked to be putting together a dynasty with Diana Taurasi. And now we have a spike around the Lynx-Sparks rivalry.
The Lynx and Sparks have a number of star players, including two-time WNBA Finals MVP Sylvia Fowles, swashbuckling Lindsay Whalen, electric Chelsea Gray, 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike, and several more. These teams are loaded. But at the center of each is a singular star: L.A.’s magnificent, complex, and ultra-talented Candace Parker, and Minnesota’s smooth-as-icy-marble Maya Moore.
This isn’t all that different than Lakers vs. Celtics at the start of the 1980s. Each team was absolutely loaded, but had a central star for casual fans to know and love (or loathe). Kareem, Worthy, McHale, Parish were there, but people tuned in for Bird vs. Magic.
Fans can tune into a WNBA Finals game between the Lynx and the Sparks and know they aren’t going to see a single mediocre player on the court: Everyone has credentials, everyone belongs on television sets across the world. Plus, we’re starting to see some bitterness build between the teams. Questions about officiating and the Lynx’s rough play with Parker will only spur more fire behind the rivalry going into next season. But the reason they come and stay is because of the magic of Maya Moore vs. Candace Parker.
The WNBA has a lot of stars outside these two teams, from Breanna Stewart in Seattle to Tina Charles in New York to Taurasi and Brittney Griner in Phoenix to Elena Delle Donne in D.C. to Skylar Diggins-Smith in Dallas. Ten of the 24 All-Stars this season had won the honor for the first time, speaking to the league’s young rising core. But so too did the early ‘80s NBA have plenty of stars outside the Lakers and Celtics, like Dr. J and Nique and Moses and eventually Malone, Jordan, Ewing, and Barkley. Lakers vs. Celtics was a focusing story that brought people in and let them experience the full majesty of pro basketball.
Perhaps Lynx vs. Sparks, Maya vs. Candace can do the same for pro women’s basketball. It will take some luck and continued smart marketing. Parker is 31, so time is of the essence. But this is a big opportunity to really test if a women’s league can truly break through in America. The WNBA has already made enormous strides. Let’s see if it can get to the next level.