On October 15 I arrived at the Barclays Center fifteen minutes before the start of game three of the 2023 WNBA finals. I assumed that would be enough time to find the media entrance, grab my press badge, and make my way to a prime viewing location to see what would have been an elimination game for the New York Liberty, who were down 2–0 in their series against the Las Vegas Aces.
I had, like so many others, not given the WNBA its due. When I arrived at the main entrance on Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, a swarm of fans encircled me. They were legion and ecstatic; a huddled mass in New York Liberty teal, they looked—and felt—like a wave threatening to pull me under. I somehow managed to extract myself, resurfacing on a quiet corner off Atlantic to check my e-mail for directions to the side door I needed. The game had already started by now, but even inside I didn’t know where to go. I hadn’t been able to find The New York Review on the press seating chart. I told a Barclays staff member, and she directed me to the “overflow media” section on the uppermost level of the arena. From a concrete slab fashioned as a table amid the cheap seats, I squinted trying to spot the reporters from ESPN and The Athletic who were stationed courtside. “NYRB, the WNBA of the press corps,” I thought.
We all had chips on our shoulders that day, it seemed. Game two had been a blowout, with the Aces outscoring the Liberty by nearly thirty points. But in truth both sides, and the league writ large, were all out to prove something that night. Since its inception in 1997, the WNBA has been tasked with not only winning games but winning over doubters. Part of that is an expectations problem; the WNBA has been plagued by unhelpful—if natural—comparisons to the men’s league. Its failure to match the NBA in profitability—despite low and inconsistent investment from team owners and the NBA itself—has been used to portray women’s professional sports as dead on arrival, or to justify the discrepancy between players’ salaries. The average WNBA player made $102,751 in 2022, compared to $10 million in the NBA. The pay gap is often attributed to one in enthusiasm, which tends to shift the blame to fans rather than to the WNBA’s controversial collective bargaining agreement.
Last year, the WNBA’s money troubles became the center of an international political crisis. A week prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Brittney Griner, a player for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, where she was planning—as many WNBA athletes do—to earn extra money by playing for the Russian Premier League during the offseason. Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison by the Russian authorities for possessing a small amount of cannabis oil, was eventually released as part of a prisoner swap for the arms dealer Victor Bout. Her case made supporting the WNBA bigger than sports. By not tuning into the games, many of us felt we had left an American athlete vulnerable to the vicissitudes of an autocratic regime.
Like many longtime NBA fans who had neglected its sister league, I was determined to atone. For Griner’s first game back, this past May, over ten thousand people—including Vice President Kamala Harris—packed Phoenix’s Crypto.com arena. The jumbotron at Barclays repeatedly flashed this season’s attendance and TV viewership stats. The former was the highest it had been in thirteen years. The 2023 WNBA Draft telecast was the most watched since 2004. To end such a banner year with a sweep in the finals would have been a downer, but fortunately, by halftime, the Liberty—like the WNBA’s prospects—were up. On cue, the halftime performer, Lil’ Kim (who looked even lil’-er from my overflow seats), traipsed onto the court in sparkly moon boots to belt out the chorus to “Money, Power & Respect,” her 1998 hit with The Lox. “First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the respect,” she roared, before some intermittent lip-syncing.
No song could have better articulated the hope that hung in the air that night: that all these butts in seats would lead to a seat at the table. It’s also the message of a new documentary about the WNBA, coproduced by the Liberty’s owners. But can such lofty feelings be the raison d’etre of a sports league, even one that has earned them? Can we want everyone to win and someone to lose at the same time?
During the first quarter, a reporter sitting next to me looked at my press badge in confusion. “I’m writing about a movie about the WNBA,” I told him, “I’m just here as a bonus.” “Was it Unfinished Business,” he asked. Yes, it was. Last year, Clara Wu Tsai, who, along with her husband Jo Tsai, is a partial owner of the New York Liberty (and majority owner of the Brooklyn Nets), executive produced the documentary Unfinished Business. Directed by Alison Klayman, the film is part history of the WNBA, part behind-the-scenes look at the 2021 New York Liberty team. A work of obvious marketing, it belongs to an ever-growing genre of insider-produced documentaries. Streaming services looking to provide sports content without paying to broadcast live games have given us Formula 1: Drive to Survive, co-produced by the channel FS1, Break Point, made with the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association, and the NFL’s Quarterback series, to name just a few entries in this “behind-the-scenes” gold rush.
The difference is that Unfinished Business takes the competitive edge out of its subject, treating the WNBA as a sisterhood. By trying to tell the story of a league through a single team, it makes for a frictionless documentary. We get no rivalries or trash talk between players, just scenes of comradeship. “I’ve never been part a team where the whole team genuinely likes each other,” says Jazmine Jones, at the time a Liberty shooting guard: “The whole team all gel together. We click like we sisters. We argue like we sisters.” There is nothing like what we got in the recent miniseries The Last Dance, in which Michael Jordan reveals that, in order to get his juices going, he manufactured beef out of invented slights from other players. These, by contrast, are women who support other women. It makes for an anemic film for those of us who like a little bloodlust from our athletes—for whom a treasured memory from women’s sports is when Serena Williams’s husband wore a D.A.R.E. shirt to her 2019 US Open match with Maria Sharapova, who had failed a drug test at the 2016 Australian Open.
The most engrossing parts of Unfinished Business focus on the early years of the WNBA, when its teams looked poised to compete for attention not only with one another but with the NBA. The film presents the 1996 US women’s basketball team’s Olympic run as the league’s origin story. The all-star team of Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, and others received substantial media attention. When they won the gold, advertisers saw the same. The WNBA was officially launched the following year with a splashy marketing campaign under the slogan “We Got Next.” The documentary treats us to clips from opening night in 1997, when the Liberty faced off against the Los Angeles Sparks. Seated courtside for the sold-out game were Tyra Banks, Magic Johnson, and Penny Marshall. The WNBA looked primed for primetime. So what happened?
The film offers multiple suspects: shortsighted owners who stopped investing once ticket sales dipped, an apathetic press corps, and a league that was reticent to embrace its significant lesbian fanbase. In 2009 the Washington Mystics admitted they did not have a Kiss Cam because they were afraid it would catch two women locking lips. “We got a lot of kids here,” managing partner Sheila Johnson told reporters. “We just don’t find it appropriate.” The documentary depicts the league’s dip in popularity as precipitous. “My first two or three, we were averaging 18,000 per night and lots of sell outs, then it went to fifteen,” says former Liberty player Crystal Robinson. “It was like the new shiny toy,” a commentator explains, “but pop culture didn’t want to hold on, and it wasn’t new and shiny any more.”
Those words feel ominous now that the WNBA has gotten some of its luster back. The game I attended was star-studded, recalling the scene at the 1997 debut. Aubrey Plaza, Jason Sudeikis, Tony Parker, and Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of Love and Basketball (2000), all popped up on the courtside cam. The energy at Barclays was electric. When the Liberty won (by fourteen points), the cheers were deafening.
And yet—and it is very difficult to admit this as an avid NBA fan—I kept zoning out. After the game I met up with a friend who had bought her own ticket. “That was amazing,” she said. “Yeah….” I responded. I felt like I was faking an orgasm. There was nothing the players could have done differently that night. I blame my apathy on my warmup viewing of Unfinished Business, which prepared me to absorb Liberty Basketball not merely as a game but as a worthwhile cause.
The truth is, I watch basketball to get in touch with all the parts of me that are not worthwhile. I typically defend sports on the grounds that they provide an acceptable forum through which humans can channel our most base instincts: competitiveness, group identification, curiosity about who the Kardashians are dating. As long as the WNBA is stuck playing defense for its own existence, none of that ferociousness can get minutes. As Kim Tingley argued in 2019 for The New York Times Magazine, when the public discourse about the WNBA centers on the league’s viability, we lose out on the thing that might actually make it viable:
Precious column inches and TV minutes that could be spent on other story lines—Feuding teammates! Rumored trades! Championship predictions!—end up being devoted to considerations of whether the W.N.B.A. will ever match the success of the men’s game. And frustratingly, even to explore this dynamic requires you to repeat those comparisons all over again.
The player who gives me the most hope that women’s professional basketball might be able to retain its new stature was not in the documentary. In fact, she is not in the WNBA at all—yet. Her name is Angel Reese, and she plays for the Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers. I confess the first move I saw Reese make on the court was not a crossover or a lay-up, but a hand gesture. On April 2, 2023, she waved her hand in her own face, a motion popularized by the wrestler John Cena that signifies “you can’t see me.” She then pointed at her ring finger, as in—I’m taking home the championship ring. This was all directed at Caitlin Clark, guard for the Iowa Hawkeyes. At first Reese was heavily criticized for poor sportsmanship, but pushback to the pushback noted that Clark, who is white, had done the same gesture in a previous game and nobody said anything.
The controversy became a national flashpoint for racialized double standards and the tone policing of Black women like Reese. Online, people who knew nothing about NCAA basketball rallied behind her, on principle but also because we fed off her energy. It was exhilarating to see this raw braggadocio from a female athlete, and Reese knew what a rare thing it was. “I’m from Baltimore where you hoop outside & talk trash,” she tweeted. “If it was a boy y’all wouldn’t be saying nun at all. Let’s normalize women showing passion for the game instead of it being ‘embarrassing.’” She seemed afraid of nothing and no one, not even the First Lady. Each year the NCAA national champions get to visit the White House. This past April, when Jill Biden suggested breaking from tradition and inviting both teams, Iowa and LSU, Reese called the idea “a joke.” This I could cheer. Sports are not a slumber party. Someone has to go home.