Scenes from a very grown-up 2024 WNBA Draft — Live reaction from New York

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, April 17, 2024

Happy Basketball Wednesday, presented by The BIG EAST Conference! I wandered around the back rooms of the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Monday evening, ahead of the 2024 WNBA Draft, a handful of us in the media trying to make sure we knew where everything was and how we’d get there once the proceedings started. We followed staircases down from the fourth floor media room to the orchestra seating for fans and media alike, facing the stage.

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On our way back up to the fourth floor, we saw a banquet hall that was largely closed off — it was for a private event. It was not for us. It was for scene-setters to hobnob, and not for some other event that happened to be at BAM, too. It was a fancy party, for the fancy people who wanted to be where the action is. And that’s the WNBA right now.

Everything about Monday night’s proceedings felt grown-up, professional, appropriately-sized. Big league. The crowds surrounding BAM, excitement building, an orange carpet set up just inside the doors. The media demand outstripped the size of the place to a degree, but even that would have been hard to fully account for a month ago. It’s, instead, something for the WNBA to take note of an adapt to, as it has in so many ways in such a short time.

Caitlin Clark had her moment, and the crowd was ready for her, and the room in which it happened had both historic and theatrical elements to make the moment special. The same was true for Cameron Brink, and Aaliyah Edwards, and even Charisma Osborne in the third round. Our press conference looked like a press conference. Gone are the days when we’d be forced to run across a narrow passageway to crowd together like sardines on a subway, poor Ron Howard of WNBA PR trying to keep things moving within the mass of reporters, only to have the group lurch back toward a small holding cell or small high-top tables to await the next invitee.


Stathead Stat of the Week

Caitlin Clark has scored 242 points and had 93 assists so far this season. She is the only player in WNBA history with more than 240 points and 90 assists through their first 15 games.

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Players, current and former and future, wanted to be there. BAM felt elegant. In the period since the last public WNBA Draft, they’ve taken place in different venues that all blend together in my head, the banquet room at Congregation Beth Elohim, the second floor of an electronics store and the third row of a 1971 Volkswagen Bus, and the saddest part of this sentence is only two of these three venues are pretend. I’m not going to tell you which ones, either. IYKYK.

Many reports were quick to note that this was the first WNBA Draft with fans in quite some time, and I covered the last one which had fans, too — 2016, Mohegan Sun Arena. It could have been anyone’s high school graduation, and as the night wore on, players were simply wandering the halls, at loose ends. I remember multiple draftees kicking off their dress shoes and running down the plush red carpet. There wasn’t even a WNBA-themed carpet color yet!

Cathy Engelbert, too, was on point. She arrived in WNBA-themed shoes. She used questions as prompts to highlight successful initiatives from the league, from the ad campaign around a fictional cereal, “Rookie-Os”, to the ad spend from the league during the women’s NCAA Tournament. I say this as someone who covered multiple presidents who preceded the commissioner — the difference between hearing WNBA leaders hope that there’s a translation from a successful college player’s popularity to her WNBA following and hearing Engelbert point out the specific, tangible way the WNBA spent money on making it so is hard to overstate.

Maybe Engelbert’s best answer of the night came from her response to the question my colleague at The Next, Em Adler, posed to her about the way the league views the dangers of gambling, even as the WNBA and all other sports leagues rush to embrace revenue opportunities from legalized gambling.

“The integrity of the game is No. 1,” Engelbert said. “It will remain No. 1 no matter how the handles grow and things like that. But people are going to bet on our sport, and we do a ton of training from the league, the team perspective. The Players Association, I know, has a rules of the road around this. I think it is really important.

“I was actually talking to the players last night, and I said I learned one thing when I was the CEO of Deloitte about juggling four things in life: your work, your health, your family and your integrity. I said, when you juggle those balls, three of those balls are glass and if you drop them, they break, and those are family, health and integrity. The work ball is rubber. You can mess up and recover. But those three balls, so the integrity, I think it’s really important that the players understand, they’re big brands with big followership, more than any players have had coming into the league because of the popularity of the women’s game at the NCAA level, and how important integrity is.

“It’s accomplished by training. Do I worry about things like that? Sure, and everybody should in sports. But I do think it’s happening around us, and if we’re not cognizant of what’s going on and how that can benefit the viewership of the league and things like that, so we don’t want to leave that on the table, but we want to do it in the right way with the right guardrails around integrity. We have not, to my knowledge, had issues on that, but we’ll continue to monitor it for sure.”

If one could summarize the frustrations, writ-large, with the WNBA over its first 25 years, you could do worse than this: the league struggled to keep two disparate ideas in its actions at the same time. As we enter a moment that’s going to require so much more of everyone, from Engelbert on down — a pathway to expanding to 16 teams by 2028, a new media rights deal currently being negotiated, a new CBA likely once the players, as expected, opt out following the 2024 season — it would be easy to take one’s eyes off the ball, or worse yet, to ignore other opportunities. But gambling revenue is, as Engelbert states, significant. Perhaps worse would be a headlong rush into it without taking steps to protect the league and its players.

A new CBA itself will be a means of doing so, especially in conjunction with a lucrative media rights deal, because the surest way to hasten the WNBA’s first gambling scandal will be to see money flowing into the women’s game but not into the pockets of those playing it. I have long believed the first gambling scandal in women’s sports is a matter of when, not if, but not because I think women’s sports need be particularly susceptible to it. We see it happening in the NBA, MLB, NFL, college baseball, the list goes on.

But the WNBA is part of this, too. The WNBA is growing up before our eyes, fewer and fewer moments where one would expect to see a long-tenured league and instead get met with an “Under Construction” sign. With that comes a new set of challenges. Monday night felt like it was a WNBA as ready to meet them as any I’ve covered.

(Note: Basketball Wednesday is off next week while I recharge. We return Wednesday, May 1. The rest of The IX schedule will proceed as usual.)

This week in women’s basketball

Our team-by-team WNBA Draft stories at The Next are here.

Here’s Kareem Copeland on Washington’s night.

Love this spread from the Sun-Times, keyed by Annie Costabile’s coverage.

Here’s Kent Youngblood on the Lynx.

Cassandra Negley on how the WNBA plans to maximize this moment.

Stop with the Caitlin Clark is taking a paycut nonsense, thanks in advance.


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Five at The IX: Live from the WNBA Draft with Jackie Powell

(Yes, we nearly got locked inside BAM after the WNBA Draft!)


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Written by Howard Megdal

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