The WNBA is a league that has consistently struggled to recruit and retain viewers since its inaugural season in 1997. League and network officials have adopted many strategies to increase viewership, but one of their their biggest assets includes the characters and storylines that develop.
We may think we watch movies for drama, and sports just for good competition. However, a look at some of our favorite sports moments proves this does not always hold true. What makes Tiger so electrifying? He is a fresh breath of diversity, and is a hero in the throws of a dramatic story that mirrors a Greek tragedy. The NFL has resolute champs that defy natural laws to consistently win (Tom Brady), balanced with explosive, attention-demanding characters who always have something to say. (Odell Beckham Jr., Rob Gronkowski). The MLB is currently making a comeback with a batch of fresh exciting faces. The sandlot features Trout vs. Harper, the emergence of a dominant Goliath in Aaron Judge, and mystery, intrigue, and international presence from Shohei Ohtani. And of course, the NBA has King James, with a throne that is threatened by the young, west coast juggernaut of Golden State.
These character, heroes, and villains are the reason for a following. College athletics are popular for displaying incredible talent, but not as popular as professional sports. Their star players have drastically higher turnover rates, and therefore have less time to develop characters and storylines that captivate even casual sports fans. Tom Brady is a household name. Even for someone who’s never touched a football. Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, not so much.
Therefore, it is imperative that the WNBA recognize and cultivate these characters and storylines. This is not to say they should manipulate competition or drama, like Vince McMahon tried (and failed) with the XFL. Rather, the WNBA must aggressively market the faces and plots that will grab currently uninterested fans. This is where we turn our attention to Las Vegas and the latest South Carolina women’s hoops superstar.
Enter A’ja Wilson, a six foot five inch forward with remarkable athleticism. She plays with a comfortable finesse that is uncommon for her size. She exits the premier Gamecocks program with impressive career numbers. She averaged 17.3 PPG, and 8.7 rebounds per game. Her senior season was hot, in which she averaged a double-double (22.6 PPG and 11.9 RPG). Defensively she commanded respect, swatting 2.6 shots a game. Her career scoring (2,389 points) and blocks (363) are both school records. Long story short: she will be missed
The 2018 number one draft pick is also entering the league with a habit of winning. She helped South Carolina capture four straight SEC conference tournament championships. Each of those four wins was in double digits, and the last three were at the expense of the mighty Mississippi State. Wilson also enjoyed incredible success in the national tournament, with trips to the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four, and winning a national title (in her junior year).
One difference between the NBA and the WNBA is the balance of talent between guards and low post players. The last low post player to win the NBA MVP was Mavericks franchise player Dirk Nowitzki in 2008. In that span, the WNBA has had four low post MVPs, including two centers (Lauren Jackson, 2010/ Sylvia Fowles, 2017). The last true center to take home the NBA MVP? Someone named Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.
This means that a strong low post player is that much more important to win in the WNBA, and that A’ja Wilson is a huge building block for the newly arrived Aces. The Aces will have three meetings each with the Lynx and the Sparks. This means basketball fans get to see the most talented recent addition to the WNBA square off against former MVPs six times this summer. These are the big-time battles on which the WNBA needs to double down.
While the former Gamecocks ace enters her professional career as a beacon of hope for the league, she also lands at the beaches as a hero for her city. Las Vegas is in the midst of an exciting time for sports fans. They are set to welcome the historical and colorful Raiders franchise in the next few years. The expansion NHL team, the Golden Knights, beat the odds by making the playoffs in their inaugural season, the first NHL team to do so since 1980. They have since shocked the world (and Sideline Intel’s own expert Josh Zaklis) by sweeping the LA Kings last week.
Now Wilson joins the young guns like Kayla McBride and Kelsey Plum as the franchise moves out of San Antonio, looking to add to the incoming success of the Golden Knights. Wilson and the Aces represent youth and excitement that could challenge the status quo of powerhouses in the WNBA, and are another chapter in the exciting story of Las Vegas’ rapid development as a significant sports hub on the professional level.
This summer, in addition to the unfailing curiosity and excitement of the NBA summer league, Las Vegas will be the stage for one of the hottest storylines in the WNBA. Any fan of good basketball and competition should keep an eye on what A’ja Wilson and the Aces are able to accomplish.