2024 is going to be the most important year in women’s basketball history — Tiffany Mitchell discusses Athletes Unlimited and more
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Dec. 20, 2023
Sure, 2023 may have seemed consequential in the world of women’s basketball. But allow me to suggest it will pale in comparison, both in raw drama and the cascading effects of the events to come, to 2024.
(Editor’s note: this is the last Basketball Wednesday of 2023. The IX is off next week, and we return with Tennis Tuesday on Jan. 2, 2024.)
2023 featured a super team created in New York, but 2024 means a chance to see that team with a full season under its belt taking on the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces. Should Las Vegas continue its run of championships, it can begin to approach Houston Comets territory — arguably in a vastly more difficult WNBA.
2023 featured 10 million viewers for LSU-Iowa in the NCAA women’s basketball national title game, but 2024 is when the bill comes due for that audience — and we’ll learn not only how much the marketplace values women’s basketball, but whether the players in that battle for the rights who don’t secure them turn to the WNBA as a viable fallback position, or if that market sees the WNBA as a different value proposition altogether, as the league heads into a new media rights negotiation in 2025.
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Speaking of watershed moments for the WNBA, the worst-kept secret in women’s basketball history got some extra press this week with Breanna Stewart was quoted in an advance showing of a WNBA documentary saying she wants the WNBPA to opt out of the CBA with the league when the players can do so following the 2024 season. The WNBA has been operating as if there is no deal through 2027 for quite some time, and the months ahead will be fascinating ones.
It will also be worth monitoring whether the PA, specifically executive director Terri Jackson, views the release of a single documentary airing on Tubi (check, uh, not your local listings) as sufficient messaging heading into a labor negotiation, a heavy lift that always includes a public opinion component if done successfully. Specifically, multiple players and agents have expressed befuddlement to me how much of a blind spot Jackson seems to have about outreach to stakeholders and the press alike, while her efforts to prioritize limiting media access above even some pocketbook issues is drawing increased scrutiny of players and agents alike, many of whom not only don’t approve of the current system, but weren’t even consulted before the new rules were instituted.
Of course, Jackson’s declaration in the Washington Post that she would welcome a dialogue over media access issues came as something between a surprise and a laugh line to those across the industry who have been trying to engage with her on this subject for several years. Jackson did not return a message seeking comment on this offer of a dialogue this week.
If the mere watershed change of an entire economic system weren’t enough, there’s also the looming question of Team 14 in the WNBA. Internally, the league has shared with teams that the informal deadline for adding another team to replace Runaway Bride Portland is Dec. 31, but few believe that if a deal can get done early in 2024 that the league will walk away from both the additional expansion fees and the significantly better competitive balance that would come with adding two, rather than one new franchise.
As for the teams who will compete in 2024, the belief around the league is that Caitlin Clark is coming out this year, Paige Bueckers will stay until 2025, and Cameron Brink is a true tossup. Her preference is to stay in the Bay Area, but short of the league giving WNBA Golden State the top pick in the 2025 draft, that’s not likely to be possible under non-Eli Manning scenarios. Whether the chance to stay West and head to Los Angeles as the second overall pick is enticing enough will be another drama that plays out over the first four months of 2024.
Somehow this is just the top of the potentially arc-shifting stories ahead. We haven’t even discussed UCLA and USC playing their first Big Ten games, the end of the Pac-12 and the scattering of the rest of the iconic conference (Stanford’s ACC debut should come in the calendar year 2024, too!), Elena Delle Donne‘s free agency, the potential WNBA return of Skylar Diggins-Smith and Tina Charles, a potential first championship for Cori Close of UCLA or Texas’ Vic Schaefer… and that’s just the stuff we can anticipate.
Something I often reflect upon is a conversation I had with a man in legacy media some time ago, in which he said, with a straight face and no trace of irony, that his company wasn’t going to commit to a year-round women’s basketball reporter because “there’s not enough news to justify it year-round”. Obviously, we know that isn’t remotely true — the irony of the statement is that no sport is more geared toward year-round coverage than women’s basketball, given the calendars of WNBA, college and overseas — but I am so grateful to all of you here who know otherwise and support us proving it every single day.
Know this: you’ll be present at every bit of the history ahead. Because we will make sure of it.
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