Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

We got next. That was the WNBA’s promotional slogan during its first official season of play, two decades ago in 1997. In essence, players were asking the NBA to step aside and let them have a turn on the hardwood to showcase their basketball acumen. No one knew how long the league would last.

Teresa Weatherspoon, one of the original league stars, was interviewed last year about the 1997 inaugural season. She recalled the very first game of the season, between her team—the New York Liberty—and the Los Angeles Sparks.

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“First of all, we wanted to perform well,” Weatherspoon said in the AOL.com interview. “There was a game plan; we had to go out and win a basketball game. We had to make sure our performance was good because this was bigger than us, and we wanted to make sure to show the world that this was real because when this league first started, everyone said this won’t last five years.”

Fast forward 20 years and the league is still here. The slogan has evolved to the more self-assured “Watch me work,” and the players are more skilled and talented than ever. Last season, an anniversary year, was a record-breaking season for attendance and viewership. The league said it had its highest attendance (1.5 million people) at games since 2011, an 11 percent increase in TV viewership, and bumps across its social media presence.

But as the league embarks on its 21st year, questions about longevity remain. Despite extensive marketing and promotional efforts, the WNBA is still fighting for respect from naysayers and viable coverage from mainstream sports media, and the best players still can earn more playing overseas.

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They are also fighting to attract more fans, which is hard to fathom considering how popular women’s college basketball has become and how the same talented and popular college players matriculate to the WNBA. The fans, though, don’t always follow.

A lack of tradition

Consider this: The 2017 women’s college basketball NCAA championship game between Mississippi State and South Carolina drew 3.8 million viewers between live and streaming. But the fifth game of the 2016 WNBA Finals (which was won by the Los Angeles Sparks on a dramatic buzzer-beater tossed up by Nneka Ogwumike) drew about 528,000 viewers—a drastic gap.

This doesn’t seem to happen in the men’s game. Fans of popular men’s programs like Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina follow players into the NBA. Even those fans who don’t regularly watch the NBA know which teams former college players play for in the pros, and the percentage gap between those who watch the men’s college basketball championship and those who watch the NBA Finals is much smaller. Women’s high school and college basketball have huge fanbases. So why doesn’t that college-to-pro enthusiasm translate the same way in the WNBA?

“The advantage for college is that it has built-in fans,” basketball analyst LaChina Robinson said. “People are going to watch college basketball because they attended the school their mother or father or grandparents went to and are lifelong fans. It’s generational. You already have people invested in their alma mater and women’s college basketball benefits from that.”

Colleges, Robinson adds, have built in structures and networks that help promote female basketball players, including the surrounding community. Campus newspapers and local news all play a part in that coverage, and many times women’s college basketball is packaged in with other sports.

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But when the same women graduate to the WNBA, a lot of that built-in fandom just disappears.

“You can walk up to anyone in the [Connecticut] area and mention the Sun and they will know exactly what you are talking about,” said Amber Cox, vice president of the Connecticut Sun. “Because of UConn, there is no barrier against women’s basketball that you face in other markets. In most cases, when you are selling women’s basketball you have to first explain why women’s basketball is good basketball. In this state, that conversation never has to happen.”

Cox later added: “One of the things we have working in our favor is we do have the luxury of getting great coverage. It’s not a super saturated market. The reason it’s so important to tell the players’ stories is because we need people to come out and support beyond just one game. There are so many great stories on this team that aren’t being told by traditional media.”

At the highest level, forgotten

It’s not just the fans themselves who are missing; when players leave the college game the throngs of reporters who once covered them disappear too. Some major sports sites, like Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report, don’t have a WNBA tab on their websites. And unless there’s a team in a particular city to cover, WNBA beat writers are far and few between. Players like Maya Moore are often shell-shocked when they go from a major women’s college basketball market—where they play in front of packed arenas—to the WNBA, where some stadiums are barely half full. Moore wrote about her frustration with invisibility for The Players’ Tribune in 2015, saying:

There’s this unnatural break in exposure for the highest level of women’s basketball in the world. Wait, what happened here? That’s a question we as WNBA players ask ourselves. We go from amazing AAU experiences to high school All-American games to the excitement and significant platform of the collegiate level to … this. All of that visibility to … this. Less coverage. Empty seats. Fewer eyeballs. In college, your coaches tell you to stay focused on your team and the game—not the media attention. But you know you’re on national television. You know people are following you. You can feel the excitement. And then as a professional, all of that momentum, all of that passion, all of that support — the ball of momentum is deflating before my eyes.

Gone.

Last season, Breanna Stewart went straight from UConn—where she won four straight NCAA championships in row—to the WNBA’s Seattle Storm as the no. 1 overall draft pick. Once her rookie year started, Stewart noticed a distinct difference.

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“When you come from a high-profile basketball program like UConn and go into the WNBA, the media coverage isn’t the same. You can even say the fan support isn’t the same. We were under the spotlight 24/7. People knew who we were. They knew our stories,” she said in a phone interview. “And I’m not sure why we can’t we seem to get positive stories about us as players in the WNBA. They are out there. Every player has a story that I’m sure people would love to hear and get more detail into our lives and experiences.”

Being in Seattle, Stewart adds, has been a positive experience. They sell out games and the “Storm Crazies” fully support the team. But venture outside of Washington or even the outskirts of Seattle, and the WNBA fan flame burns out quickly. And finding fans outside of WNBA cities is a must if the league wants to continue to grow.

“When I was at UConn, we started having games in other arenas all around Connecticut where people could come and see us play,” Stewart said. “I don’t know if that would work in the WNBA, but there are a lot of different things teams can do. We have to find people a way to get people invested in us just as much as they are invested in college players, so they’ll follow us in the WNBA.”

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Gabriella Levine, a freelance sportswriter who focuses women’s basketball, covered the WNBA extensively for ExcelleSports.com throughout the 2016 season. She was stumped as to why there is such a disconnect between women’s college basketball fans and the WNBA.

“How do we forget who these players are when they leave college in the first place?” she asked. “How do we lose track of them? Maya Moore spoke out about how when she was at the University of Connecticut, she had all this visibility and then when she went to the WNBA, she felt invisible. How does that happen?”

Levine attended New York Liberty games and interviewed high-profile players like Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, and Ogwumike. She found it crazy, she said, that often she’d be the only media member waiting to interview the players during pregame warmups—a far cry from the crowd of reporters you would see for the women’s NCAA championship game.

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“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a game and was shocked that there was minimal—when I say minimal I mean minimal—media coverage,” she said. “Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury came to Madison Square Garden to play the Liberty. I walked in during the pregame warmups and there was no one there to talk to her except me. There should have been a line of people in front or behind me. It’s Diana Taurasi—WNBA legend. Where is the media presence?”

“It just takes patience”

Of course, that media presence was certainly felt back in February, when former WNBA player and Stanford alum Candice Wiggins told the San Diego Tribune that she was harassed because she was heterosexual and nationally popular. Many media outlets that don’t traditionally cover the WNBA, including Deadspin, picked up the story. As a full-time WNBA and women’s college basketball analyst, Robinson was offended.

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“I thought it was lazy,” she said. “You have these sites that don’t cover the WNBA during the regular season, the playoffs or even the Finals. Yet, they run a negative story about the league because they want to get clicks and views.”

Identifying the factor that will change all this can feel like a bizarre game of chicken and egg. Will the fans come if it’s covered more? Or do the fans come and then then the media responds? Robinson said you need both.

“Some people say you need to get more people to watch the WNBA and then you’ll get the coverage. I think you need more coverage of the WNBA and people will want to watch. Make more of a commitment on the media side of things do more, and get people excited about going to a game.

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“Take the NBA. It’s constantly there, in your face, reminding you that it exists. A lot of people just haven’t sat down to watch a game. I hear all the time—oh wow—the game is so fun to watch and the women are really good. Basketball is a shared space. The NBA and WNBA can exist together.”

NBA history also suggests that the WNBA is just fine. About 20 years in, a lot of NBA players were working second jobs to make extra money, and they weren’t playing in front of sellout crowds. Teams were constantly moving around and there was a lot of change. In 1967, the American Basketball Association formed and many players switched leagues. The NBA’s future was at one point uncertain, and playoff games at times were shown on tape delay until the mid-1980s, when Magic vs. Bird became a marquee rivalry.

“Overall, it just takes patience,” the Sun’s Cox said with a slight sigh. “And unfortunately, we don’t live in a world that rewards patience.”

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