Finally, bigger audiences are beginning to notice the WNBA and the Sparks

Nneka Ogwumike <span class="copyright">(Associated Press)</span>
Nneka Ogwumike (Associated Press)

Nneka Ogwumike wasn’t scheduled to talk to reporters after practice Monday, but when the Sparks forward unexpectedly stepped in front of a webcam in Bradenton, Fla., she had plenty of reasons to do it.

After a global pandemic that threatened to cancel the season, the WNBA delivered its most-watched opening weekend in years. The Sparks’ win against the Phoenix Mercury averaged 540,000 viewers on ABC. The WNBA’s bright orange hoodie, worn by athletes from LeBron James to tennis star Naomi Osaka to All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas, took over social media.

Seeing the success, Ogwumike had a simple thought: “It’s about time.”

“We’ve been saying that ‘The W’ is here,” Ogwumike said, “and hopefully now people are certainly realizing it.”

After the Sparks’ 99-76 win over the Mercury was the most-watched WNBA opener since 2012, with a 20% jump from last year’s opener, ESPN added 13 more games to its lineup Monday. The network will air 37 regular-season games across ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, including a Sparks game against Indiana on Aug. 15 that was originally scheduled for Spectrum SportsNet. The Sparks will play Chicago on Tuesday at 6 p.m. PDT on national (NBATV) and local (Spectrum SportsNet) TV.

Buoyed by posts from NBA stars, the WNBA took over social media with its bright orange hoodie with the league’s white logo at the center and it became the most popular item on online retailer Fanatics over the weekend. The men’s version was the most popular item among gear in the WNBA store by Monday morning and women’s sizes almost were sold out.

“That’s what happens when you put women on national TV,” Ogwumike said. “People keep talking about [how] you need exposure to get dollars. Well, we need exposure. And people are in position to do that.”

The WNBA has become the longest-standing women’s professional sports league in the United States. The league entered its 24th season after losing two of its biggest advocates this year: Former NBA commissioner David Stern, who launched the WNBA in 1997, died in January, and weeks later, Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and two of her youth basketball teammates.

For Sparks coach Derek Fisher, the basketball world hasn’t been the same since. And then the COVID-19 pandemic only further “changed the way we view things,” he said.

“We should have been supporting and putting energy behind the WNBA and women’s basketball, women’s sports, women in business, women in the community for much longer than we have, but we’re doing it now,” Fisher said. “It’s great to see the NBA players, the support they’re providing, to see music artists and entertainers and other influencers just showing love to these ladies. It’s needed, it’s appreciated and that’s what we all should be doing.”

With the orange hoodie quickly becoming a symbol of WNBA support, Sparks guard Brittney Sykes said friends and family were asking where they can find one. Some even asked for hers. She turned them down.

The 5-foot-9 guard provided one of the biggest highlights of the opening weekend with an emphatic block on 6-foot-9 Mercury center Brittney Griner. Griner turned to shoot after collecting a pass from Diana Taurasi and Sykes flew in from the help side and swatted the ball out of Griner’s hand.

Sykes’ teammates were so shocked that they didn’t immediately lunge to secure a defensive rebound. The Mercury ended up with a three-pointer on the possession.

But the Sparks got the last laugh. They won by 23 points and Sykes’ block was No. 10 on the “SportsCenter” top-10 plays that night.

With so many eyes on the WNBA during opening weekend, the reaction to her highlight-reel play was almost overwhelming, Sykes said. Every second a new notification came in. The “freakishly athletic” guard, as teammate Candace Parker called her, is happy to provide more buzz-worthy moments for the league’s growing audience.

“I know that won’t be the last type of block that we have on the season,” Sykes said, “whether it’s from me or my other teammates.”