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What happened at WNBA draft — and what the future of the sport could hold

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last night, 36 new players were drafted into the WNBA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CATHY ENGELBERT: With the first pick in the 2024 WNBA draft, the Indiana Fever select Caitlin Clark, University of Iowa.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: No surprise there. Clark is one of the reasons that this year viewership of women's college basketball eclipsed men's for the first time ever. So what's next for the sport? Jemele Hill, contributing writer for The Atlantic, has thought a lot about that question, and she's here to tell us more. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JEMELE HILL: Thank you for having me again.

SHAPIRO: Just start with last night's draft. Caitlin Clark's extraordinary ability is well-documented, but many people have remarked that her starting salary is around $76,000. Do you think that number accurately reflects her value?

HILL: No, it doesn't reflect her value. But I think in the context of conversation, there's a couple things we need to keep in mind. One, the WNBA plays a four-month season. It's 40 games. There's this idea that WNBA players who have been outspoken before this moment about their salaries - that they want to make the same as LeBron James. They've never said that. What they want to make is a fair percentage of the revenue being brought in by the WNBA.

SHAPIRO: So this leads to the question, what is fairness in this context? I mean, you make a lot of valid points about the differences between the two. How do you measure fairness in that case?

HILL: Well, I think it's also important to obviously look at league revenue. The WNBA, for example - they just raised, somewhat recently, $75 million in additional capital. When the WNBA first started, every WNBA team was subsidized by a NBA team. That is no longer the case. The private interest in owning a team in the WNBA is at an all-time high, and that speaks to the growth. They signed a new collective bargaining agreement a couple years ago where they got an increase in salary. And I do think within the next 10 years, if not sooner, the league is going to be at a point where these women do not have to go overseas to supplement or boost the salary they're making.

SHAPIRO: You describe some of the ways that women's basketball appears to be catching up to men's. Do you think that shift is a reflection of the games and the athletes getting better, or is it just that fans are discovering something that's been there all along?

HILL: I mean, to be honest, I think it's a reflection of the fact that there is more investment and support and resources finally being put into women's sports. This is just the second year that the women's college basketball final has been on network television. Before that, it hadn't been on network TV in 30 years. So you think that might have something to do with the fact that the ratings haven't been as high as the men - is 'cause they didn't even have the same access in terms of television exposure. So you put the game on ABC, and suddenly you have 14 million people watching the game.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the audience gap for pro basketball will close in the same way that we've seen the audience gap between men's and women's college basketball close?

HILL: I think it will get closer. It's tough to say. And it's funny you should bring this up because, you know, we just saw again the women's national championship. It outrated the average viewership of the NBA finals last year. So there's always hope that something will happen. And I think even though the WNBA ratings have gone up, really, post-COVID - I mean, that was a real inflection point for the league because with everybody on lockdown, people finally got exposed and an opportunity to see a lot of these WNBA games, and they discovered something there. And it's been kind of up ever since.

SHAPIRO: We began by talking about Caitlin Clark. I want to end by asking you about the other players who you're really excited about entering the WNBA who were drafted last night.

HILL: You know, the WNBA is very competitive. You have only 12 teams. It's 144 slots. First round picks get cut all the time. I'm not saying that will happen - obviously it won't happen to Caitlin Clark. But what I am saying - the level of play and intensity and competitiveness is very high. This has the chance to be the best incoming rookie class that the league has ever had between Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink, Rickea Jackson, Aaliyah Edwards. I mean, there's so many names. And, again, these are names that basketball fans have been able to follow for a few years. So there's just so much excitement and so much to look forward to that this is going to be an incredible opportunity for women's basketball fans to really see this league blossom in a way we haven't seen before in its history.

SHAPIRO: That's Jemele Hill of The Atlantic. Thanks a lot.

HILL: Thank you - appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gus Contreras
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.