After a decade marred by drug scandals, corporate sponsor withdrawal, and tape-delayed finals between unlikely contenders, the National Basketball Association was faced with a marketing crisis.
The growth the association had experienced on the backs of the dynastic 60’s Celtics had started to fade, and the NBA needed marketable superstars to turn things around.
Larry had already been drafted by Boston after his junior year, and Magic was chosen #1 overall in the 1979 draft shortly after the aforementioned NCAA title game.
It didn’t take long until these two were going back-and-forth in the NBA finals, and by the end of the ’80s, the NBA found itself in a completely different stratosphere in terms of fan engagement.
It was the personal rivalry above all that was so compelling: two individuals from completely different backgrounds that willed their teams to the highest level year after year.
The association struck gold and has continued to drive its marketing in a superstar-based way ever since. For example, a game between the teams in LA will be billed as “LeBron vs. Kawhi”, and even if both players were hurt they’d probably pivot to “Davis vs. George”.
The WNBA is shrouded by questions about how it’ll ever gain mainstream fan interest. In its 25th season, the W has built a respectable fanbase but pales in comparison to the level of adoption that most of the major US men’s sports leagues have attained.
Since its inception, the WNBA also has used individual stars as the main engine for promotion. If you watched TV in the mid-nineties, chances are you saw the “We Got Next” campaign more times than you could count.
As great as these three were, and many after them, the WNBA still hasn’t been able to strike that same proverbial gold… yet.
The 2020s could change everything for the WNBA
If only WNBA could find two college stars entering the league around the same time…
If only those two stars had both the size and skill that allowed them to completely dominate on the floor…
If only those two players would meet again and again in the finals…
Stewart is widely considered the most successful women’s college basketball player of all time. Four years at UCONN brought four national championships and four most outstanding player awards for Breanna.
Wilson also dominated in college, bringing the first-ever championship to the University of South Carolina program depsite having just a fraction of the talent around her that Stewart did in Connecticut.
A matchup in the 2016 NCAA final would have been possible if South Carolina didn’t drop a sweet sixteen matchup to Syracuse – the team that UCONN eventually rolled over in the title game.
Breanna and A’ja were drafted in 2016 and 2018, respectively, both with the #1 overall pick. Two years after being drafted, they were each named MVP of the league.
Then, in the 2020 WNBA bubble, we saw them matchup for the first time in the finals. Stewie’s Seattle Storm bested the Las Vegas Aces in just three games in their first finals matchup, which certainly left A’ja Wilson motivated to get back there and force a different outcome.
The WNBA jumped all over this opportunity and saw the potential in this new rivalry. The opening game of the year between Seattle and Las Vegas was billed as A’ja vs. Breanna, and I have a feeling we’ll see a lot more of that in the coming years.
Are the Storm and the Aces on a crash course to meet in back-to-back finals? Probably.
Are A’Ja and Stewie the next Magic and Larry? They’re sure off to a good start.