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The WNBA season opener shows budding stars, defending champs, and the 'Clark effect'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Women's pro basketball starts their season today. And, yes, fans are dying to see what Caitlin Clark can do in the WNBA. But, you know, there are still 11 other teams and scores of exciting stories to tell. And to help us get into those stories and gear up for this season, Cassandra Negley joins us now. She covers women's basketball for Yahoo Sports. Welcome.

CASSANDRA NEGLEY: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. So you wrote that this is a really different landscape compared to the end of last season. How so?

NEGLEY: Yeah. I mean, you have the two-time champion Las Vegas Aces at the top, and everyone is still looking up to them. But, as you mentioned, Caitlin Clark is in the league now. There's so much attention on her - higher viewership, attendance, interest. I was at a shootaround this morning in Connecticut, and there's just an excitement around the league. There's also a lot of star players who have switched teams. And everyone's just trying to topple the Aces from their stance at the top.

CHANG: Yeah. The Las Vegas Aces - they were the champions - what? - two years in a row, right?

NEGLEY: Yeah.

CHANG: What will stop them from a three-peat, you think - Caitlin Clark?

NEGLEY: You know what? Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever could take some games from them. I do think so. But I think it'll be some veteran teams. The Liberty played the Aces in the WNBA finals last year. They returned all of their starters as well, and they have another year of chemistry together. Seattle Storm added some key pieces in Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith at the point. That's a team. And Phoenix, of course, has Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner when she's healthy, and that's a team that might be able to do it as well.

CHANG: So, as you mentioned, the arrival of Caitlin Clark - it brings, like, so much attention, so much demand. How well do you think the league is managing the Caitlin Clark effect?

NEGLEY: I think we'll see in the coming weeks how well they're able to handle it. I think that'll be the big story of this season. We're already seeing them implement charter flights. That's something that a lot of players have pushed for for a really long time. And it's really important for their recovery - things like Indiana being able to get back home tonight and have a true off day tomorrow or be able to practice at a good time. But it's also security. These are huge names now in the WNBA. They're on commercials when you're watching, you know, streaming services.

CHANG: Yeah.

NEGLEY: And for them to be able to get out of airports - that's really important. So I think we'll see more things like that as the W adjusts to having, you know, not just Caitlin Clark but all of these household names.

CHANG: You just called the WNBA the W. I know they're trying to rebrand as the W. What is that rebranding about? And do you think it'll catch on?

NEGLEY: Those of us around the WNBA - we've just called at the W for a long time.

CHANG: Oh, I had no idea. OK (laughter).

NEGLEY: No, that's OK. But I do think the WNBA - I talked to their marketing COO a few weeks ago at the draft, and they're really taking marketing seriously - the storylines, the rivalries. They have these great commercials introducing rookies to the league. I think that will also go a long way as they continue their growth.

CHANG: I am curious. How much easier is it to watch games this season because of Caitlin Clark? Is there a noticeable difference?

NEGLEY: Yes. There is a huge difference. This has been a focus for the WNBA in the past few years to make it easier to be a fan. You know, I grew up when the WNBA first came out, and you didn't have the internet to look up game times. Now you can stream so many different games. You can get the league pass to see most of the games. There are more national TV games than we've seen in the last few years. And most of Caitlin Clark and the Fevers games are going to be available. They're really feeding...

CHANG: Wow.

NEGLEY: ...Into the fandom that's joining the league.

CHANG: Why not? Cassandra Negley reports on women's basketball for Yahoo Sports. Thank you so much, Cassandra.

NEGLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "COME DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jason Fuller
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.