This six-time WNBA All-Star and president of the WNBA Players Association reflects candidly on how the stage was set for an extraordinary season.
This year, we needed sports more than ever. To rally the human spirit. To dispel darkness and division. To bring people together, even virtually, during a strange, socially-distant time.
Of course, with claustrophobic playing bubbles, abbreviated seasons, and games unfolding before empty arenas, 2020 will be remembered as one of the strangest, most unsettled years in the history of professional sports. For athletes, coaches, staff, and everyone else involved in bringing the 2020 seasons to life, it will also be remembered as one of the most challenging. But if anything, the adversity of the past year has only amplified the feeling of community, the sense of normalcy, the thrill of escapism that sports can uniquely provide. And this has been especially true of the WNBA, whose monumental, even formative 2020 season will be remembered as one of the most extraordinary in our 24 years as a league.
This was the year our movement met its moment — and made more than a little history along the way.
In April, the WNBA kicked off our season with a virtual draft — the first professional sporting event to take place under COVID-19 lockdowns. It was a resounding success and provided a template for other leagues to follow.
Then, from July through October, we played a 22-game regular season, followed by full-scale playoffs and WNBA Finals, inside a bubble that recorded zero positive COVID-19 tests. The bubble wasn’t an easy place to play; as much as we love our teammates, every athlete has a deep need to reserve time and space for herself. Still, there was something about that enforced togetherness that made us more — rather than less — aware of and in tune with the injustices raging outside.
Meanwhile, the pandemic instilled a sense of collective responsibility, shared accountability, and camaraderie that transcended “team.” We all knew, every single day, that we held one another’s safety in our hands. This unity made us stronger, sharpened our focus, and fueled our determination to dig deeper and push harder — as individuals, as teams, as a league — than we ever had before.
Most important, we did it all as our authentic selves. We said what we had to say on the court — and then we made sports history by dedicating our entire 2020 season to social justice: wearing Breonna Taylor’s name on our jerseys. Showing up, night after night, for the forgotten victims of police brutality and racial violence. Declaring in every single game that Black Lives Matter.
And fans responded like never before. While sports TV ratings have been mostly down in 2020, WNBA average viewership increased by a stunning 68 percent across all platforms. And cross-platform engagement on social media rose by nearly a third.
What makes this especially remarkable is that none of this organizing or activism is new; it has been woven into the WNBA’s DNA from the very beginning. Ours is a league of women, and predominantly women of color, who have always spoken out authentically and organically, using our platforms to call out injustice and lift up the marginalized. We understand inherently the need to both express our value, as human beings, and to fight for it — at work and at home, in virtually every aspect of our lives. And this activism shapes who we are as individuals, as athletes, as citizens.
In that sense, our movement didn’t really meet its moment this year, so much as the moment met us. Yet what made 2020 not just extraordinary, but formative — an inflection point in the history of our league — was the way those symbols and statements we raised up, inside the playing bubble, touched the broader conversation outside of it.
This year unified us. It motivated us to play and to push the league forward, igniting a drive to organize as we never had — and to amplify one another’s voices in ways we never would have expected.
We were primed for this moment by the losses we suffered this year, amid a pandemic and a national epidemic of police violence. But in a broader sense, the stage for this extraordinary season was set long before the first COVID-19 shutdowns.
First, back in January, the WNBA Players Association secured a sweeping collective bargaining agreement that increased player salaries and provided a host of long-overdue benefits, from better travel policies to paid maternity leave. Just as important, it renewed the relationship between WNBA players and the league and built deep trust, giving us the confidence to speak out and represent our sport authentically as the season unfolded.
Then came the sudden loss of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna — a traumatic blow that reverberated far beyond sports. Both Kobe and Gigi were treasured members of our WNBA family. From Kobe’s long and outspoken advocacy for our league, to the example he set by his involvement in his daughters’ lives, to Gigi’s own passion and talent and work ethic, even as a teenager — they represented the hope so many of us have not just for the WNBA, but for the future of women’s sports more broadly.
Their loss loomed over the WNBA bubble in Florida as we convened there. But it wasn’t a distraction — quite the opposite. It kept us laser-focused on the importance of what we do and of what it means to have a dad like Kobe or a daughter like Gigi. Of what it looks like to reach, work, and fight for something greater.
In a year of tragedy, these qualities — and Kobe’s legacy — inspired and energized the WNBA. They reminded us why, when times are tough, we need sports more than ever.
We saw this in the inspiring way so many leagues managed to show up for their fans this year, without compromising anyone’s safety; we heard it in the voices of so many athletes who raised up the stories of others, insisting that everyone in America #SayHerName. This year reminded us that sports can provide the silver lining we look for, the outlet and escape we need, and the model of good sportsmanship — and good citizenship — that helps to light the way forward.
But the truth is that those of us in professional sports need our fans right now, too.
As we ring in 2021, the WNBA is thriving. Yet women’s sports still receive only 1 percent of sponsorship dollars and 4 percent of sports media coverage.
The good news is that it won’t take much to change that. All you need to do is find your local team and buy a jersey or a ticket. Root for players from your alma mater. Turn on the game and invite a friend to watch with you.
It sounds simple. But fandom can be activism. And as we’ve seen in so many different ways throughout 2020, progress comes down to the individual choices we make each day.
Nneka Ogwumike is a six-time WNBA All-Star and president of the WNBA Players Association.
This reflection was originally published in the Wall Street Journal, and the full piece can also be found here.