On this day 23 years ago, the NBA Board of Governors agreed to the creation of a Women’s National Basketball Association to start action the following summer. That league would become the WNBA.
Eight teams competed in the inaugural 1997 season: the Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets and New York Liberty in the Eastern Conference, and Los Angeles Sparks, Sacramento Monarchs, Phoenix Mercury and Utah Starzz in the Western Conference.
To fill the teams, 16 players were distributed evenly across the league to start. Then, an Elite Draft gave teams the chance to add their third and fourth players. The four rounds of the 1997 WNBA Draft was the final opportunity to select players before the open market began.
Tina Thompson became the first-ever pick in a WNBA Draft when the Houston Comets selected her with the No. 1 pick in the 1997 WNBA Draft. The USC product was the Pac-10’s leading scorer the season before and lived up to the hype at the next level, immediately establishing herself as one of the W’s better players with an All-WNBA First Team distinction in her rookie campaign with 13.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
There was another women’s professional league already in action by the time the WNBA launched: the American Basketball League (ABL). The ABL ceased permanently early in its 1998 season, the third in the league’s existence, and the sea parted for the WNBA to dominate the role.
But at the time of the WNBA’s launch, it wasn’t clear what would happen. One league could put the other one under, they could merge, they could both fail, or anything in between.
On May 4, 1997, the Washington Post reported on the two leagues battling for supremacy. The ABL had just hosted a press conference to announce it signed UConn center Kara Wolters over the WNBA. It came minutes after the WNBA finished its opening draft.
“The timing of the news conferences last Monday was strikingly illustrative,” said the collaborative report by Amy Shipley and Karl Hente. “While the two women’s leagues fight to get off the ground, they are also fighting each other – for players, attention and marketing dollars. At the corporate level, the ABL and WNBA are entwined not in a spirit of sisterhood, but in a fierce competition.”
Peter Schmuck’s report from Feb. 2, 1997, in the Baltimore Sun detailed the differences in how the two league’s aimed to operate:
“‘I think the easiest, simplest way to talk about the ABL and the WNBA is: The WNBA is a business and the ABL is a movement,’ said Jim Weyerman, general manager of the ABL’s Seattle Reign.
The ABL is seeking to draw the core women’s basketball following and then expand on that fan base. The WNBA hopes to lure the sport’s traditional fans, but clearly intends to use the NBA’s international clout and media connections to sell a slicker, more entertainment-oriented product.”
The WNBA is set to begin its 23rd season in 2019. Tip-off is slated for Friday, May 24.
The Houston Comets dominated in the league’s early years, winning the first four WNBA titles from 1997-2000, Cynthia Cooper winning Finals MVP each time out. After the Comets got championships out of their system, it was the Los Angeles Sparks’s turn to take the reigns. The Sparks won the championship in 2001 and 2002, going 12-1 in playoff games over the two seasons.
Six different teams won championships since: the Detroit Shock (2003, 2006, 2008), Seattle Storm (2004, 2010, 2018), Sacramento Monarchs (2005), Phoenix Mercury (2007, 2009, 2014), Minnesota Lynx (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017) and Indiana Fever (2012). The Sparks picked up their third title in 2016.
The Lynx have participated in the most WNBA Finals with six appearances, the Sparks follow with five, and the Comets, Shock/Wings, Mercury and Liberty are tied for third with four a piece.
New York is the only of the three original franchises still in the same city to have not won a title and have the most WNBA Finals appearances for any teams without a crown. The Dream are second with three Finals showings but zero wins. The Comets (4-0) and Storm (3-0) are the only franchises to have played in and never lost a WNBA Finals.
WNBA Teams History
There have been 18 different franchises alive at some point in the WNBA’s 23-year history. Of the original eight, four folded, one has moved twice before settling in Las Vegas in 2018, and three have remained untouched (New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury).
The league expanded to 10 by adding the Washington Mystics and Detroit Shock in 1998, and two more teams were added in 1999 – the Minnesota Lynx and Orlando Miracle – to bring the total to 12.
The year 2000 brought the most aggressive expansion yet. Four franchise joined the league – the Miami Sol, Portland Fire, Indiana Fever and Seattle Storm – to catapult to 16 teams, the largest the WNBA has ever been.
The W operated at that size from 2000-02. Then, the Sol and Fire closed shop, and two teams, Utah and Orlando, moved to San Antonio and Connecticut, respectively. The Cleveland Rockets stopped play in 2003, and the WNBA played with 13 teams in 2004 and 2005.
In 2006, the league grew to create the Chicago Sky, but the Sting were disbanded in the same year. The Houston Comets met the same fate two years later, and they were replaced by the Atlanta Dream. The Monarchs folded in 2009, the last original franchise to close its doors, and the Shock moved from Detroit to Tulsa the same year.
From 2010 to the present day, the WNBA has operated with 12 teams. The Shock moved for a third time, becoming the Dallas Wings in 2016, and San Antonio packed up and transformed into the Las Vegas Aces in 2017.