Welcome to the Era of W.N.B.A. Superteams. New Stars Need Not Apply.
The Liberty began their much hyped season as the newest superteam on the block, winning their home opener against the Indiana Fever, 90- 73.
Fans at Barclays Center welcomed Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones, as Indiana fans had their second regular-season glimpse of Aliyah Boston, the No. 1 overall draft pick.
It was Stewart who stole the show, scoring 45 points, a career high and single-game franchise record, in her Brooklyn debut with the Liberty.
But this weekend fans across the country did not see any of the standout players from this year’s N.C.A.A. Division I championship game who had been drafted last month. They did not see Charli Collier, who was the first overall pick just two years ago. Neither a championship ring nor first-round status could guarantee a spot on a W.N.B.A. roster.
In the days before the season began Friday, those players were all part of a long list of N.C.A.A. stars who found themselves unceremoniously cut from professional rosters.
A fan taking a selfie in front of Barclays Center.
Instead, fans saw the emergence of two superteams thanks to a free agency arms race. The Las Vegas Aces, the defending champions, added the seven-time All-Star Candace Parker to a roster that already included A’ja Wilson, last season’s most valuable player, and the high-scoring guard Kelsey Plum. The Liberty, an original W.N.B.A. franchise hungry for their first championship, added Stewart, Jones and Vandersloot to a group led by Sabrina Ionescu, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick.
How can future superteams like these be created if newcomers aren’t given a shot to thrive?
“Let me just say this,” Alexis Morris, who started at point guard for Louisiana State in the title game, said on TikTok after the Connecticut Sun cut her. “It’s OK if you got waived for the W.N.B.A. 2023.”
“Everybody did,” she added. “Nobody was safe.”
For longtime fans of the league, this is not especially surprising. These kinds of dramatic cuts happen annually. With 12 teams and 144 roster spots in the league, only about half of the 36 players selected in the W.N.B.A. draft usually make it to opening day. Just 15 of the players selected this year are now on a roster.
Players in the United States have to wait until the year they turn 22 to be eligible for the W.N.B.A., three years longer than men who want to go to the N.B.A.
“I’m in no rush to go to the league,” said the star L.S.U. forward Angel Reese, a popular figure in name, image and likeness deals since her team won the title in April. “The money I’m making is more than some of the people that are in the league that might be top players.”
In New York on Sunday, who was playing was as notable as who was not. The Liberty had cut DiDi Richards, a fan favorite since the team drafted her in 2021. Indiana’s roster no longer included LaDazhia Williams, a rookie who was part of L.S.U.’s title run.
“A whole league training at home,” Nneka Ogwumike, the star Los Angeles Sparks forward and the president of the players’ union, wrote on Twitter.
There’s also a whole host of fans looking for players they watched in early April. An average of 9.9 million viewers tuned into the championship game between Iowa and L.S.U., setting a record. The American Airlines Center in Dallas hosted a capacity crowd of more than 19,000 fans. None of the three players from the final who were drafted made an opening-day roster.
It’s a predicament painfully clear to both current W.N.B.A. stars and those who were cut. This spring, Plum, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, started a “Dawg Class” with the goal of helping collegiate athletes make the transition to the professional level.
After Morris’s first day of training camp with the Sun, she said on TikTok, “In order to grow the league, you have to prep the players for what’s to come.” She added: “I do think the style of play that you play in college can either help or hurt you when you’re transitioning to the next level.”
Even still, skill does not necessarily translate to a roster spot. Current and waived players point to expansion — both teams and roster sizes — as a solution. More investment in the league, players and fans argue, surely means there can be more teams and more spots for more players. Last year, the league raised $75 million from more than two dozen investors. Last season was the most watched regular season in 14 years, with viewership up 16 percent over the 2021 season.
But further change will take time.
“We’re not in a rush,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, adding that the league wants to add at least two teams in the next two to four years. “Longer term, more than that,” she added.
The pressure is on as viewership rises. A sellout crowd of close to 20,000 attended the league’s first game in Canada, between the Minnesota Lynx and the Chicago Sky, in Toronto on May 13.
On Sunday, Stewart looked at the thousands of fans in the stands who celebrated her superteam’s first win and her home debut. “I think I made the right decision,” she said of coming to the Liberty (1-1).
The Fever (0-2) surely feel the same way about choosing Boston, who had 15 points Sunday. She hasn’t been able to power Indiana to victory just yet, but at least she’s getting the chance to try.