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History of the WNBA


On April 24, 1996 women's basketball announced "We Got Next" as the NBA Board of Governors approved the concept of a Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) to begin play in June 1997.

WNBA Cynthia Cooper

Since that day in 1996 there have been many firsts for the WNBA: Val Ackerman -- the first president of the WNBA; Sheryl Swoopes -- the first player signed to the WNBA; Cynthia Cooper -- the league's first Most Valuable Player; and the Houston Comets - the first (and only) WNBA Champions.

However, the very first for the league was a "to-do list." With less than 15 months to tipoff, a league of its own began to unfold for the WNBA as each task was completed. The history of the WNBA follows:

On the Air . . .
Before a player was signed or a staff member was in place, the league announced its broadcast partnerships with NBC, ESPN, and Lifetime.

It was decided that the WNBA season would be played in the summer when the sports calendar was less crowded and the games could be televised live and in prime time on a consistent basis. During a successful inaugural season, more than 50 million viewers watched WNBA games on the three networks.

By 1999, WNBA games were broadcast in over 125 countries with 37 broadcasters in 17 languages. New countries for the 1999 season included Germany, Ghana, Haiti, Italy, Lithuania, Uruguay, the United Kingdom and Canada. Canada aired a weekly Friday night game on CTV Sportsnet. Nearly one million viewers per week watched the WNBA on national television during the second and third seasons.

The WNBA delivers an audience unique in sports. In-arena, gender breakdown is approximately 70-30 female-male. The TV audience is about 50-50 female-male, with a strong percentage of non-adult viewers.

The Players and the Teams ...

WNBA Leslie Ackerman

Dec. 26, 1996: Lisa Leslie stands with WNBA president Val Ackerman during a press conference to announcing Leslie's signing with the WNBA. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA Photos)

The first of the player signings was announced on Oct. 23, 1996 with Sheryl Swoopes and Rebecca Lobo joining the league. The duo were soon followed by Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper, Michele Timms (the first international player) and many more WNBA hopefuls.

Eight teams were announced for the league's inaugural season. The Eastern Conference consisted of the Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets and New York Liberty while the Western Conference was comprised of the Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs and Utah Starzz.

On Jan. 16, 1997, the first 16 players were assigned to teams, and on Feb. 27 an Elite Draft added two more players to each team, increasing team rosters to four. The Comets selected Tina Thompson, the Pac-10 Conference's leading scorer, with the first pick of the Inaugural WNBA Draft. Margo Dydek, a 7-2 center from Poland, was selected first in the 1998 Draft by the Starzz, and two-time Associated Press Women's Basketball Player of the Year Chamique Holdsclaw was the Washington Mystics' No. 1 selection in the 1999 Draft.

Since the inaugural season, the WNBA has expanded from eight teams to 16, with the Detroit Shock and Washington Mystics joining the league in 1998, the Minnesota Lynx and Orlando Miracle in 1999, and the Indiana Fever, Miami Sol, Portland Fire, and Seattle Storm in 2000. The 2000 season will see 176 women play professional basketball in 256 regular season WNBA games (schedule history: 32 games in 2000 and 1999, 30 in 1998, 28 in 1997).

With such tremendous growth, the WNBA and the Women's National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) announced on April 29, 1999 the league's first collective bargaining agreement -- a first of its kind in women's team sports.

The Logos and the Uniforms ...
With players and teams in place, the league began its next task of creating logos and uniforms. The red, white and blue official WNBA logo -- "Logo Woman" -- was selected from about 50 different designs. After developing an extensive list of choices, the team names were selected by the league and the teams based on numerous factors, including: a tie to the NBA team name in that market, a link to a key characteristic of each city or state and/or the creation of a name fitting the current sports landscape.

The uniforms also underwent several designs, and on May 21, 1997, the WNBA unveiled the team uniforms -- two shorts silhouettes and three jerseys.

It's a Ball Game ...
The WNBA game consists of a 30-second clock, a 19-foot, 9-inch three-point line, two 20-minute halves, eleven-player rosters and a collegiate-regulation size ball. The WNBA's signature orange and oatmeal basketball by Spalding is 28.5 inches in circumference and one inch smaller than the NBA's regulation ball.

Millions of Fans Join In ...

WNBA Inaugural

June 21, 1997: WNBA president Val Ackerman throws up the ceremonial first tip for New York's Kym Hampton and L.A.'s Lisa Leslie. (AP Photo)

The inaugural WNBA season tipped off on June 21, 1997 with the New York Liberty taking on the Los Angeles Sparks at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. A crowd of 14,284 watched as Sparks guard Penny Toler scored the first basket in WNBA history. The Liberty defeated the Sparks 67-57. Then on Aug. 22, the WNBA league attendance surpassed the one million mark at America West Arena in Phoenix. The league concluded a successful inaugural season with a league-wide average attendance of 9,669.

In year two, the average attendance increased to 10,869 and by the third year the WNBA had set a new attendance record for the league and women's professional team sports by drawing 1,959,733 fans during the regular season.

The 1999 league-wide attendance average of 10,207 fans per game marked the second consecutive season that the WNBA averaged crowds of more than 10,000. Over four million fans have attended WNBA games since the league's inaugural season in 1997.

In 1999, the WNBA drew 99 crowds in excess of 10,000 fans. The WNBA's inaugural season included 41 crowds of more than 10,000 fans, while the 1998 season had 73.

Fans Get Connected ...
In addition to television, the league website,, is an important tool in reaching fans. The site offers the latest WNBA news, multimedia coverage, fan interaction with players and more. The WNBA was the first major sports league to provide complete live cybercast of a draft exclusively over the Internet.

For its exclusive live cybercast of the 1999 WNBA Draft, registered a 194 percent increase in impressions over the 1998 WNBA Draft, breaking all previous records for most traffic on any given day in the site's three-year history.

In the Community ...
For the WNBA, the focus is two primary outreach initiatives: WNBA Be Active, a grassroots program that targets boys and girls ages 11-14 with the goal of encouraging them to be physically active; and WNBA Breast Health Initiative, a partnership with the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABCO) to draw national attention to the issue of breast cancer and the importance of early detection through the 3-Point Play for Good Breast Health: clinical breast exam, self-exam, and mammography.

League Showcases All-Stars ...
On July 14, 1999, the league held the Inaugural WNBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden. The sold-out game (18,649) showcased the incredible sportsmanship, teamwork, player enthusiasm, fan involvement, and in-arena excitement that has made the WNBA so special.

The Western Conference All-Stars -- led by the game's Most Valuable Player and Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie -- defeated the Eastern Conference team, 79-61.

The 2000 WNBA All-Star Game will be held at the America West Arena in Phoenix on July 17.

We Got Game ...
Women's basketball has come a long way since its beginnings in 1892 when Senda Berenson adapted James Naismith's basketball rules for women. And with the continued growth of the WNBA, it plans to go even further.



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