Questions I’m pondering in women’s basketball — Imani McGee-Stafford talks WNBA return

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Feb. 14, 2024

Happy Basketball Wednesday and Valentine’s Day to all who celebrate. It feels like we’re at a moment with as many questions as answers here in women’s basketball, both at the pro and college levels, and so I’d like to share some of those which are top of mind for me right now. In some instances, I have reporting, but not enough to answer the questions. In others, the only way we’ll get answers is from the passage of time. Let’s address these in roughly chronological order.

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How big will the TV audience be for Caitlin Clark to break the NCAA scoring record?

This one isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. Clark scored 1.8 million watchers on Sunday (oh my god, women’s basketball went up against the Super Bowl and lived to tell about it, maybe people are capable of watching both/there are two, disparate audiences involved! GASP) but Thursday night will be televised on Peacock. If you remember, just a few short weeks ago, NFL fans had a collective tantrum over an NFL playoff game being televised on Peacock alone, while women’s basketball fans laughed at the idea that linear TV would be the expectation.

Still, in this case? It feels like Clark can drive some new eyeballs to Peacock, which has done an excellent job on Big Ten broadcasts all season, in my view. Just another way Clark will be making money for others…

Will Clark, Paige Bueckers and Cameron Brink enter the 2024 WNBA Draft?

…but will she do it for the WNBA as well? This matters in ways that extend beyond the on-court hopes of the Indiana Fever. That is significant, too — had multiple WNBA talent evaluators agree with my premise, that the Fever, with their offseason additions and Clark, would be not just a playoff team, but a title contender.

But translating those Clark numbers to TV audience ahead of the WNBA’s new television rights deal following the 2025 season would be significant for everyone. Bueckers and Brink, too, bring their own dedicated following. The WNBA is getting better by the day at recognizing and capturing these audiences. This will only help. If they leave. And their collective decision, one way or another, will speak volumes about the health of the WNBA relative to women’s college basketball.

Is anybody going to beat South Carolina?

I had a coach ask me this week whether South Carolina or the field was a better bet come NCAA Tournament time, and it’s hard to take the field, frankly. It should probably be a bigger deal that the Gamecocks lost three WNBA players off of last season’s Final Four team, including a generational talent and top overall pick in Aliyah Boston, and are better by any measure so far this season. Dawn Staley‘s group got a raw deal in how their offense was evaluated in some quarters — first in the nation in points per possession last season — but that number, 114, is now 117.4 in 2023-24, the offensive production more varied now. The defense is better, too, 74.3 per 100 last year, 72.7 this year. They are absolutely destroying SEC teams — the SEC is a really good league!

Upsets happen, as South Carolina found out last year. But someone beating the Gamecocks this March or April is going to be even harder.

Was this really the end of Elena Delle Donne‘s 2024 basketball plans?

When Elena Delle Donne decided she wanted out of Chicago back in 2016, she said it publicly in December. She communicated it directly to the Chicago Sky. And she named her destination.

The results were a deal that sent Delle Donne where she preferred to go, the Washington Mystics, while giving both teams a chance to negotiate and set a price without the need to make alternate plans.

Delle Donne has since changed agents. And her desire to leave failed all three of these tests this winter. The result, when the Mercury lucked into Kahleah Copper demanding out of Chicago, was an offseason without an available deal for Delle Donne, ultimately leaving both the Mystics in a position where they fail to get return on value for Delle Donne and Delle Donne herself without a basketball home.

The WNBA will be fine. It is always fine. There are many more stars to step up in the absence of even Hall of Famers like Elena Delle Donne. But it would be indisputably better with Delle Donne on the floor. And Delle Donne, like all of us, ages forward, not backward. There are a shrinking number of times people can get to see her play.

Is it reconcilable in DC? Is there a path to finding her a spot on a contender later in the season? Do her endorsement deals make such a return likelier? Will we really not see Elena Delle Donne play basketball because her wishes weren’t communicated in a direct way? What a shame if that turns out to be the case. Seeing a healthy Elena Delle Donne play basketball is one of the great joys in life.

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Five at The IX: Imani McGee-Stafford

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.