The W.N.B.A. Is Putting on Some of the Best Pro Basketball in America

On opening night in the W.N.B.A., three hours and 25 minutes until the Atlanta Dream’s home tipoff against the Dallas Wings, Brennan Galloway, who runs game operations, was standing in the breezeway beneath the seats of State Farm Arena, a cement colosseum where the Hawks, the city’s N.B.A. team, play from October until at least April. The Dream rents this downtown venue for its regular season, which runs from May into September, but its lease doesn’t give access to all the facility’s perks. The Hawks’ locker room, for instance, was off limits; the Dream players suit up where visiting opponents do (their opponents get a dressing room down the hall).

“I liken calling and directing a game to flying a plane,” Galloway, whose job the Hawks fill with a multitude of staff members, told me. He held a stack of scripts he had written for the show. These included player introductions and spectator contests that would take place during timeouts. He was planning to hand out the scripts to the arena’s in-house crew, which would be wrangling microphones, a camera operator, an M.C., dancers and fans, when he was waylaid by Dan Goldberger, the team’s marketing director, trailing a gaggle of interns; they needed his help carrying boxes from the Dream’s designated “storage room” (a shipping container beside a dumpster out back) to the “game operations room” (more like a spacious closet). Along the way, he bumped into the team’s mascot, a gray-furred bird named Star, who had just examined his costume, which was 5 years old and still moist from a recent preseason outing (“If we could by chance find some Lysol, that would be fantastic”), and the captain of the dance team (“I have a minor urgent problem — there’s a leak in the dance room”).

By the time Galloway made it upstairs to the arena’s control booth, it was an hour and 30 minutes until tipoff. A man crawled out from under a control board and said, “I really hope we don’t have a clock issue at 6 o’clock.” It was 6 o’clock. “We have a clock issue,” another man said, referring possibly to the one on court counting down to game time. Through a bank of windows, the team — separated by the coaches into “bigs” and “littles” — could be seen going through drills several stories below. Pass, receive, jump, flick, swish.

“Doors open at 6:30,” Galloway told the production team. “Attendance tonight will be pretty light, so we might work to get some good shots. That might be a challenge.” A good camera shot is one that makes the stands look full. ESPN/ABC carries only 16 of the league’s 204 regular-season games (some of which also air nationally on CBS Sports Network, Twitter and NBATV), so each team must produce its own TV broadcast, complete with commentators, and negotiate with local stations to air it. The game tonight would be streaming live on the website of the Atlanta ABC affiliate. Both commentators were new, last season’s duo having declined to take a significant pay cut.

Opening day for any sports franchise is portentous. On this Friday, Memorial Day weekend, the first day of the W.N.B.A.’s 23rd season, it was especially so for the Dream, which is trying to prove it can survive as the only major women’s professional team in a city glutted with men’s franchises (the Hawks, the baseball Braves, the football Falcons, the soccer United). Success that evening required finding a way to put on an N.B.A.-style show in an N.B.A.-size arena without N.B.A.-scale resources. A less-than-perfect outing risked alienating first-time ticket buyers and giving local media outlets an excuse to ignore them. Not that they need one. That morning, The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s sports email newsletter omitted any mention of the game, though it reported on the Braves’ new left fielder and the Falcons’ interest in retaining an ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Despite reaching the playoffs in eight of its 11 years in town, the Dream has always struggled for attention.

That struggle was exacerbated in 2017, when State Farm Arena closed for renovations for two summers and the team had to move to a smaller, harder-to-reach arena on the Georgia State campus. “Fans don’t like change,” Mary Brock, one of two local businesswomen who own the team, told me.

They also don’t like losing. That season was the team’s worst in nearly a decade. After it ended, Brock and her co-owner, Kelly Loeffler, fired their coach of four seasons, Michael Cooper, a former five-time N.B.A. champion with the Lakers. To replace him, they hired Nicki Collen, who was then a 42-year-old assistant coach for another W.N.B.A. team, the Connecticut Sun, and a self-proclaimed analytics nerd with a mechanical-engineering degree from Marquette, where she played guard. Collen requested a video coordinator and that more resources be devoted to film and statistics. She also recruited a couple of free agents, the guard Renee Montgomery, a two-time league champion with the Minnesota Lynx, and Jessica Breland, who had been named to the all-W.N.B.A. defensive team playing for the Chicago Sky, to join the Dream’s star forward, Angel McCoughtry. In 2018, the Dream reached the semifinals and, despite losing McCoughtry to torn knee ligaments, took the eventual runner-up Washington Mystics to a deciding fifth game. Collen was named coach of the year. Tiffany Hayes, a guard, was voted First Team All-W.N.B.A.

The Dream were optimistic that another winning season would help them gain traction in a difficult market. The team lacks sponsors for the small advertising patch on the uniforms and the marquee space across the chest, which would mean a six-figure endorsement. (In April, AT&T became the league’s jersey sponsor.) “On a local level, the challenge is people don’t spend money on women’s sports,” Goldberger told me. “Businesses don’t invest in the sport. When it comes down to it, are they buying corporate tickets like they are to the Falcons?” In Atlanta, the Dream must compete for dollars with lots of other events, sporting and otherwise; it is also a young organization. The New York Liberty, one of the W.N.B.A.’s original franchises, secured its first patch sponsor last year, after 22 seasons.

In many ways, the Dream’s local challenges mirrored those of the league, which has struggled to carve out an identity separate from the N.B.A., its founder and majority owner. Comparisons between the two are inevitable and yet often misleading: The N.B.A. is more successful but also 50 years older, which has allowed it to mold the game — and the audience — in its image. Judging women’s basketball by the standards of men’s is like assessing an orchestra with a decibel meter. Yet expanding Americans’ notions of what professional sports should look like and who should play them requires confronting current disparities between men’s and women’s experiences. Around the W.N.B.A., in the lead-up to the season, teams seemed hopeful that the #MeToo movement might bring about such a reckoning. In November, the W.N.B.A. players’ union opted out of its collective-bargaining agreement with the league, which was set to run through 2021, saying it wanted financial transparency and a better working environment. In March, as the United States women’s soccer team prepared for the World Cup, which it won in July, its players sued their sport’s national federation. They claimed gender discrimination, saying that they receive less compensation and have to make do with inferior training, travel and playing conditions compared with the men’s team; a subsequent audit found that from 2016 to 2018, the women’s games generated more revenue. The case is pending.

[The Best Women’s Soccer Team in the World Fights for Equal Pay.]

Brock and Loeffler, one of only two all-female ownership groups in the league (the other is in Seattle), bought the Dream, Brock says, in part to provide Atlanta with strong female role models. “The value this is for young girls as they become young women is important to us,” she says. Statistically, girls who play sports tend to have greater career success later in life compared with not playing, she told me: “Little boys are always expected to play sports. Little girls — it’s not expected, even with Title IX. This is what we want for our daughters. We want dads and daughters.” But they also believe that financial success is a crucial element of the Dream’s aspirational picture. “Our goal is to run this like a business and make money — not so much make money but not lose money,” Brock says. “We definitely think we know what it could take to make it work.” In addition to Collen, they hired the former general manager of the Sun, Chris Sienko, as general manager and president, and tasked him with overhauling their brand, including redesigning the team’s logo and pursuing new partnerships with Atlanta businesses that might be interested in supporting women’s initiatives in the area.

Twenty minutes out from the opening-night tipoff, a D.J. played “Uptown Funk,” while at both ends of the court, little girls who would dance in the halftime show lined up facing one another, leaving space in between for the players to run through. Galloway took his seat at the scoring table between Kelsey Bibik, the team’s just-hired P.R. manager who would live-tweet the game, and the arena announcer.

The M.C. gave Renee Montgomery the mic: “Thank you guys for coming out. We need y’all’s help. Let’s make this a hard place to play in!” The crowd, boisterous despite the swaths of empty seats, roared agreeably.

“Standby lights for anthem,” Galloway said. The players ran through the rows of children. “House lights, 3, 2, 1.” A horn sounded, the ref tossed up the ball, and the game — and the season — began.

Though women have been playing basketball competitively since shortly after the game’s invention in 1891, perhaps the most direct impetus for the W.N.B.A. was a single college season — that of the 1994-95 University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, led by its star, Rebecca Lobo, now an ESPN commentator, and its still-dominant coach, Geno Auriemma — whose undefeated run, which happened to take place during an N.H.L. lockout, captivated the country. So, too, did the 1996 Olympic team, stacked with household names at the time like Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley, which won gold in Atlanta. In fact, the teams’ obvious appeal actually spawned two leagues: The American Basketball League, founded by four entrepreneurs, began with eight teams in the fall of 1996, traditional basketball season. In the summer of 1997, the N.B.A. debuted its own eight-team women’s league, playing in its arenas during its off-season. By the end of 1998, it had crushed its competitor.

Initially, the N.B.A., a private corporation, owned the W.N.B.A., also a corporation, and all its teams or franchises. But in 2002, the N.B.A. began to sell them. Some W.N.B.A. teams changed cities, some folded, others were added. Today there are 12: Five belong to N.B.A. owners, and seven, including the Dream, belong to independent entities. Collectively, the teams own 50 percent of the W.N.B.A. corporation; the other 50 percent is owned by the N.B.A.’s 30 franchise owners. This works out to N.B.A. ownership of about 70 percent of the league.

As the W.N.B.A.’s ownership structure became more complicated so, too, did its narrative — especially because neither the N.B.A., nor the W.N.B.A., nor any of its teams will disclose complete financial information. The W.N.B.A.’s attendance peaked at almost 11,000 fans per game in 1998, its second season; its current average is 6,800, a drop of close to 40 percent. But all young leagues struggle to sell tickets. The N.B.A., founded in 1946, is 73 years old; when it was about the age of the W.N.B.A. now, Wilt Chamberlain played his legendary 100-point game in 1962 in front of roughly 4,000 spectators. And because the league is small, a single franchise’s decisions can make an outsize difference: Last season, the New York Liberty owner, James Dolan, moved the team from Madison Square Garden, where it averaged 9,000 fans per game, to the Westchester County Center, which holds 4,400, forcing at least a 50 percent drop in attendance. (The team has since been purchased by Joseph Tsai, a founder of Alibaba; Tsai recently took control of the Brooklyn Nets, in the N.B.A., but where the Liberty will play next season is unclear.)

Gate receipts, while critical, do not solely determine a franchise’s value. The fact that since 2009 W.N.B.A. teams have been sold but not shuttered hints that, at the very least, they aren’t incurring debt. They might well be attracting fans new to basketball who then go to N.B.A. games. They may also, through creative financial arrangements, like paying rental fees to facilities controlled by their owner (a common practice in men’s sports), claim tax-deductible losses while legally generating revenue elsewhere. In fact, in 2014, the W.N.B.A.’s president, Laurel Richie, told the Sports Business Journal that some of the franchises had begun to see profits. The first to do so, in 2011, was the Connecticut Sun, owned by the Mohegan Tribe, which attached its arena to its casino, in UConn country. By 2013, the N.B.A.-affiliated Minnesota Lynx (Timberwolves), Indiana Fever (Pacers) and Phoenix Mercury (Suns), were also in the black, as was the Seattle Storm, which the SuperSonics’ Oklahoma-based owners had sold to Force Ten Hoops, a partnership owned by several local businesswomen, just before moving their N.B.A. team to Oklahoma City and renaming them the Thunder, leaving the Storm as the only professional basketball ticket in town. Each market seemed to demand its own strategy, but the teams had in common that they were at least 10 years old, had owners with significant resources to spend on them, were in a basketball-hungry locale and had won or played for a championship. This season, the Storm is defending its third title.

Over all, thanks to the N.B.A.’s backing, the W.N.B.A. is by far the longest-running women’s professional sports league in America. However, a competing narrative — largely put forward by the N.B.A. itself — is that the league has always lost money. In the lead-up to the continuing collective-bargaining negotiations with the W.N.B.A. players’ union, Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s commissioner, told the A.P. that the league had lost more than $10 million in every year of its existence. Many questioned the wisdom of an executive sowing doubts about his own product. But the figure is probably accurate. “This isn’t a lie,” Rodney Fort, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan, told me. “The I.R.S. is listening. It’s just that that may not reflect the value to them of owning them.” Teams’ accounting tricks are part of the equation, and the W.N.B.A. most likely serves to improve the N.B.A.’s image among women. Even if the figure of the $10 million loss is a recurring and representative one, it’s worth keeping in mind that the N.B.A. takes in an estimated $8 billion a year. “This is silly,” David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University, says. “This is a tiny, little business. It’s irrelevant whether they’re making money or not.”

Silver countered such criticisms by telling me, “I think it’s easy for people to say we shouldn’t be talking about losing money when it’s not their money.”

Claiming financial losses to justify lower player salaries is a common tactic in labor negotiations with men’s teams, too. But a W.N.B.A. team’s salary cap is just under $1 million; the maximum salary for a player is $117,900, a figure that has changed little to account for star power or experience. (Sue Bird, a guard on the Storm and one of the league’s biggest names, says she has had a total of about a 1 percent raise over her 17-year career, less than the cost-of-living increase in Seattle.) Rookies, even former college superstars, make $54,000 at most. As a result, many players spend their off-seasons, from October till May, playing in Europe or Asia for teams funded by wealthy sports clubs or feuding oligarchs, who can pay them many times what they make in the W.N.B.A. There’s no recovery time between seasons; no chance to practice with teammates; no vacations or holidays with family and friends. And for the teams, there are eight months during which their best marketing assets, the athletes themselves, are out of town.

When Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the players’ union executive committee and a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks, announced in The Players’ Tribune that the union would be opting out of its collective-bargaining agreement, she was careful to make clear that they were not demanding “some LeBron money” ($35.65 million annually, or about three times the combined salaries of the W.N.B.A.’s 144 players). Neither the league nor the union will disclose the specifics of what’s being negotiated. Ogwumike said the players want improvements to their experience and health and safety. (The current agreement has minimal support for working mothers, for instance.) But, she said, first priority is player compensation and salary. Berri said he believes the league’s revenue is about $70 million, which would mean the players are getting less than 20 percent; N.B.A. players get 50 percent of their league’s revenue.

To give them that — “a minimum investment,” Berri says — would cost the N.B.A. just over $20 million. “This is pocket change at this point,” Cheryl Reeve, the coach and general manager of the Minnesota Lynx, told me. “They just have to have the willingness to do it.”

How much investment would it take for the W.N.B.A. to stand on its own? And why has neither it nor any women’s professional sports league in America gotten that yet? Men’s leagues, simply by virtue of starting decades earlier, have enjoyed countless advantages: baseball, basketball and football were well underway when commercial television began reaching a large audience, elevating regional stars into national heroes. Currently, women athletes get about 2 percent of the coverage on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and just over 3 percent on local news in Los Angeles, according to a 2015 study by researchers at Purdue University and the University of Southern California. And when they were featured, the segments tended to be delivered “in a matter-of-fact, uninspiring and lackluster manner” in contrast to the “continuous cacophony of exciting coverage of men’s sports.” Online, Berri has noted, sites like NBC Sports often give more coverage to animals — horses, dogs, fish — than to women.

“I think exposure on television is a material part of changing the game here,” Alisha Valavanis, the chief executive and general manager of the Storm, says. “We need the W.N.B.A. accessible to every household in the country.”

Silver, on the other hand, told me that attendance is the most important ingredient in a league’s success and must come first: “It’s also our experience that, from a media standpoint, unless you have a vibrant arena, unless you have an active audience in your buildings, it diminishes the quality of your presentation. Because there’s no energy around the telecast.”

And yet, last year, TV ratings for N.B.A. games declined 5 percent, while those for W.N.B.A. games, though much lower in absolute numbers, increased 64 percent, despite being available mostly on cable channels — and then only erratically. In June and July, the soccer Women’s World Cup reached roughly a billion viewers, shattering records set during the 2015 tournament. Fox executives attributed this largely to their decision to air 22 of the 36 group-stage games on network television as opposed to putting them on cable, as they did four years ago. Coverage created ratings, it seems.

Men’s sports have also received public subsidies for stadium improvements to increase attendance. Over the past 30 years, construction costs alone for new and renovated major-league professional sports facilities for M.L.B., N.F.L., N.H.L., N.B.A. and M.L.S. teams exceeded $58 billion, more than half of which was publicly funded, according to Victor Matheson, a professor of economics and accounting at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass. In Atlanta in recent years, taxpayers funded nearly a third of the construction costs that went into new stadiums for the Braves ($622 million) and the Falcons (whose $1.6 billion facility is shared with the United) and the renovations for the Hawks’ arena ($192 million). The only women who can play in one of them are players on the Dream, for three months, and even then they sometimes have to get out of the way. “Five games this year we will get kicked out of State Farm,” Brock told me in April, referring to potential playoff dates in September and October, when the arena will be occupied by, among other events, Disney on Ice and the Hawks’ season opener. “That doesn’t happen to the men.”

Many in women’s professional sports are tired of hearing that until their leagues increase attendance or draw higher ratings, they don’t deserve serious investment, which has always seemed to come first for men. Money spent, or “lost,” on them is typically described as a “cost,” while money poured into men’s franchises, many of which lose much more of it, is described as an “investment.” According to an article in The Sacramento Bee, published just after the city was awarded an M.L.S. franchise this spring, most of that league’s teams are losing money, yet investors are enthusiastically paying $200 million expansion fees to buy in. No one would agree that M.L.S. gives fans soccer at its finest. But when it comes to fundamentals — pure basketball — the W.N.B.A. does.

“Is every owner in every sport being asked, ‘Is your team making money or not?’ Because that’s going to decide whether the league is viable or not,” Vince Kozar, the chief operating officer of the Phoenix Mercury, told me. “The year-over-year comparisons feel really shortsighted and really specific to women.”

They also tend to hijack any narrative about the league. Precious column inches and TV minutes that could be spent on other story lines — Feuding teammates! Rumored trades! Championship predictions! — end up being devoted to considerations of whether the W.N.B.A. will ever match the success of the men’s game. And frustratingly, even to explore this dynamic requires you to repeat those comparisons all over again.

In March, while most of the Dream’s players were overseas, Renee Montgomery was in Atlanta, trying to imagine life after basketball. If she were a man, she would be a multimillionaire and never have to work again, unless she felt like it. After winning a national championship at the University of Connecticut, with her Dream teammate Tiffany Hayes, in 2009, she was drafted fourth overall by the Minnesota Lynx. The fourth pick in the N.B.A. that year, Tyreke Evans, currently makes $12.4 million a year, more than 100 times what Montgomery does earning the league maximum. If she were a man, this paragraph also might have started another way, perhaps with a description of her skill: the slouch in her shoulders and almost casual way she lets loose a three-point shot; how her coaches say she plays joyfully, like a little kid.

Montgomery’s trajectory in the league has been typical: After a year, she was traded to the Sun, then briefly to the Storm, then back to the Lynx. In the off-seasons, she played in Russia, Lithuania, France, Turkey, Australia, Poland and Israel, which is where she was last year when Nicki Collen called and persuaded her to sign a multiyear contract. This off-season, Montgomery, who at 32 is the Dream’s second-oldest player, decided she needed a retirement plan. So she turned down offers from overseas and signed up for acting classes. She also tried to increase her social media presence. “I used to be a really private person,” she told me. “Now I try to post something every day.”

One Tuesday afternoon this past spring, she participated in shooting drills and a three-hour improv comedy class. Afterward, she had arranged to tape the first episode of an interview show she created to air on Facebook, “Bring Your Own Snacks,” at the TV studio of an organization that trains young people to use audiovisual equipment. Her idea was to build up a highlight reel and audition as an actress or an interviewer. “Life in basketball has been great, but now that I’m trying to talk about life after basketball, I don’t have a résumé, I don’t have anything,” she said. “No previous work experience.”

In her car outside the studio, Montgomery checked her email. Dan Goldberger had sent a note asking her to attend a three-point competition for kids at a nearby high school. She had been invited to sit in their “influencers” section. “That cracks me up,” she said and put it in her calendar. A willingness to perform these kinds of civic engagements — “shaking hands and kissing babies,” as Adam Fox, the chief executive of the Chicago Sky, described it to me — has been a constant for the league. Without a huge marketing budget, unpaid appearances are a way to get exposure. With Collen at the helm, the Dream were raising their community profile, too: The coach attended without complaint nearly every event Goldberger asked her to. “It’s still that grass-roots effort that is women’s basketball,” Collen told me. “Especially in such a saturated market, how do you differentiate yourself?”

The W.N.B.A. has long wrestled with the same question, though it has a clear, distinguishing feature: It is the most diverse league in professional sports, according to the Racial and Gender Report Card issued in 2018 by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. More than half of all professional positions on its teams are held by women, and more than a quarter of these jobs are held by people of color. It also has a notable number of openly gay players and coaches, including many of its biggest stars. In 2014, it became the first pro sports league to hold events celebrating L.G.B.T. Pride month, and players have lent their names to causes ranging from justice reform to gun control to voting rights, often using social media to speak directly to fans.

Initially, these qualities were not viewed as salable to sponsors or the public. “Historically, the men can just be really, really great at their sport,” Lindsay Kagawa Colas, a sports agent at Wasserman who represents many of the W.N.B.A.’s biggest names, told me. “Women have to be everything. They have to be the best. They have to be beautiful. They have to be well spoken. They have to be safe.” In the 1930s, barnstorming women’s teams like C.M. Olson’s All-American Redheads managed to make a living trouncing local men’s squads while maintaining a polished appearance and impeccable manners off the court. A few years ago, the W.N.B.A. rookie orientation still included tutorials on makeup, hairstyle and fashion.

But the marketplace may finally be changing, in part because of women players’ willingness to challenge what they were told it wanted. As an example, Colas points to her client Brittney Griner, the Phoenix center, who declined that tutorial and became the first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike, in 2013; Griner is tattooed, 6-foot-9 and models the company’s men’s wear. More recently, the Storm has successfully promoted Sue Bird’s “it couple” status with the popular soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Seimone Augustus, a guard on the Lynx, noticed a dearth of league apparel, like the N.B.A. Starter-brand bomber jacket she remembered having as a kid, and decided to design a line of clothing herself. She told me she has seen more team merchandise at airports, “so people know W.N.B.A. teams even exist in their markets.” Last year, Mountain Dew, an N.B.A. partner, made its first personal endorsement of a W.N.B.A. player, the Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, and offered her equal placement with N.B.A. athletes in its ad campaigns.

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This spring, the league itself introduced a brand “reset,” promoting its players as “badass ballers and dynamic women who challenge convention and shape culture.” The campaign is aimed at cultivating a new crop of fans who, as its marketing materials put it, “see themselves and their values in the W.N.B.A. and its players, but may not be aware of it until brought to their attention.”

“Let’s step back,” Adam Silver told me, explaining the new approach. “Maybe at halftime somebody should be speaking on an important topic to the W.N.B.A. audience or reading poetry or it’s a very different kind of music, but let’s start from scratch rather than make this sort of just a lighter version of what the N.B.A. is. Let’s rethink what a sports league should be and how to present it to our fans.”

In May, seven months after the league’s former president, Lisa Borders, resigned to become chief executive at Time’s Up, an organization founded by Hollywood figures to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, Silver hired as her replacement Cathy Engelbert, the chief executive of Deloitte, and named her the league’s first commissioner, a title that she says gives her a seat at meetings with the commissioners of men’s professional leagues. “Because these players are so socially conscious and so community minded, I think that gives us a story and a platform for the W to be a convener around social issues,” she told me. On one hand, the strategy seems forward-thinking, authentic, “just being true to who we are,” as Bird put it to me. Terri Jackson, the executive director of the players’ union, called Silver’s remarks, when I relayed them to her, “encouraging” and “refreshing.”

On the other hand, N.B.A. players are not asked to be more than basketball players. “When you talk about marketing men’s basketball players or men’s athletes in general, I think their play comes first and everything else comes second, where in women’s sports, it’s usually the other way around,” says Diana Taurasi, a guard for Phoenix, whom many consider to be the greatest women’s player of all time. “I just wanted to play basketball, get better every single year, and all that stuff just got in my way of playing basketball.”

The afternoon I spent with Montgomery illustrated how difficult it is to meet all the expectations society puts on women trying to carve out an identity as a professional athlete. The “TV studio” where she had arranged to tape her show turned out to be an overheated conference room containing two sweating men with a pair of box lights who wanted her to endorse their organization on Facebook Live. “This is interesting,” Montgomery said, observing the lack of audiovisual students, TV cameras, set dressings. “We’ll make it be whatever you need it to be,” one of the men assured her, an offer she declined with a polite, “We’ll have to talk more.”

Later, at a restaurant she frequents in an upscale mall across from her condo, Montgomery recognized that they had most likely tried to take advantage of her. They had certainly wasted hours of her afternoon, which she knew would make many other people justifiably furious. She wasn’t. Partly, this was not in her nature: “I’m an easy yes,” she told me. Partly it was practice. “Playing in front of big crowds, I’ve mastered controlling my emotions,” she said. “If you’re tired, don’t show it. If you’re mad, don’t show it.” Anger or negativity, Montgomery felt, could hurt your teammates’ morale and let opponents get in your head. Those emotions also make female athletes less marketable. Sometimes, Montgomery wondered if being able to ignore these on-and-off-court considerations and play purely for herself would have given her a bigger career: “I’m a shooter, but I pass up a lot of shots because I think I can get our team a better one,” she said. “I don’t think that’s what superstars are made of.”

In mid-May, the Dream traveled to Connecticut to play in a preseason round robin with the Liberty, the Wings and the host Sun. On the morning of their first game, the players ran drills in the empty Mohegan arena. Kelsey Bibik took photos and tweeted them. Instantly a troll shot back, “Audience makes it look like a real game.”

Collen was irked. “It’s people like this,” she said, showing the comment to Bibik on her phone. “Should I respond? ‘Have a great day?’ He has 72 followers.”

These kinds of derisive remarks, which tend to disparage the women’s game as inferior to the men’s, and often include the commenter asserting (ridiculously) that he could beat the best players one-on-one, provide a constant backdrop to any news or social media posts about the league. When the maker of the NBA 2K20 video game announced in August that it was adding W.N.B.A. players, which Engelbert told me the league hoped would raise their profiles among a “younger, digital-native and millennial population,” a popular Reddit meme featured Taurasi Photoshopped into a chef’s uniform (implying that women belong in the kitchen) and a controller with buttons labeled “paint toe nails,” “cry from period cramps,” “tap ‘Y’ 50 times to enter maternity leave.”

Among serious basketball watchers, however, those who follow both men and women, there is a real philosophical debate over which league plays the game better. “The respect that the league garners in the basketball world is very high,” Kara Lawson, a former W.N.B.A. player who is an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics, told me. “N.B.A. players and coaches are passionate about the league.”

“I get it, it’s human nature, the physical-capability difference between men and women,” Bill Laimbeer, the coach of the Las Vegas Aces and a former N.B.A. all-star with the Detroit Pistons, told me. “It doesn’t mean the men’s is a better basketball game. It means they can dunk more or they jump higher or block more shots.”

Basketball is risk assessment — judging the relative merits of giving up the ball versus keeping it — and sheer athleticism can actually be a crutch. “The guys can get away with a lot because they’re 6-foot-8, 200-some pounds,” Seimone Augustus says. “We have to be more cerebral in our approach.” The fact that the women’s game doesn’t yet have the sort of isolation players who score regularly without any of their teammates touching the ball, like James Harden, LeBron James or Russell Westbrook, means they have to be more disciplined and creative in executing set pieces and rely more on three-point shooting, the same qualities the Golden State Warriors, winners of three of the last five N.B.A. championships, are lauded for — and, paradoxically, that Montgomery saw as a flaw of her play.

Which shows the extent to which our definition of the game and its “superstars” is a social construct. “A little boy or a little girl goes to an N.B.A. game, and they want to see a crazy windmill dunk and be wowed,” Bird says. “Because that’s been rammed down our throat, we’re conditioned to think that’s the only thing that’s great.” But you get fewer points for dunking than perimeter shooting, precisely because it’s not as hard. The Warriors’ star Stephen Curry plays below the rim; increasingly, others in the N.B.A. are following his example, which is also the W.N.B.A.’s.

The sheer concentration of talent in the W.N.B.A. makes it extremely competitive. There are 2,627 girls in the United States playing high school basketball for every W.N.B.A. roster spot, according to estimates by the website FiveThirtyEight, compared with one N.B.A. roster spot for 1,021 boys. At the outset of any season, it is impossible to guess how a given team will do, a feature exacerbated this year by a noticeable number of missing stars: Breanna Stewart, last year’s M.V.P., tore her Achilles’ tendon playing overseas; Taurasi was sidelined by back surgery. “Good luck figuring out who’s not going to make the playoffs,” Cheryl Reeve says.

The Dream hoped grit and tough defense would get them one of those eight berths. Preseason predictions put them in the middle of the standings. In the locker room before the first of their games in Connecticut, against the Wings, Collen sought to use the team’s underdog status as a motivator. “We’re sixth in Vegas to win this year. Nobody thinks we’re good except the people in this room,” she said. “Let’s keep that chip on our shoulder.”

As the team took the court, I found a seat in the stands behind the Dream’s bench. Nearby, a woman who introduced herself as Martha, and her husband, Bill, said that they had been Sun season-ticket holders for 15 years, since the team’s first season. The Sun played after the Dream that evening and the following one. Many fans who came to both games, as Bill and Martha did, seemed to remember Hayes and Montgomery from their UConn days, nearly a decade ago. “This is Hayes’s team,” I overheard a man wearing a Mets jacket tell his companion in the stands the following night before their game against the Liberty. “Hayes is the leader on this team.”

Sure enough, with the Dream trailing, it was Hayes’s return to the floor in the middle of the third quarter that ignited a 9-point run to tie the score. In the fourth, the Dream pulled ahead 61-59. The Liberty answered, at which point it became hard to remember that the outcome didn’t really matter. A one-handed runner by Maite Cazorla, a guard whom Collen had drafted from the University of Oregon’s Final Four team, missed badly. The veterans were already fond of Cazorla, who is still working on her degree and had spent that morning finishing homework. From the bench, Montgomery leapt to her feet: “Go get it! Go get it!”

“I like that one,” the man in the Mets jacket said, nodding toward her.

It occurred to me that this sense of affiliation was the precise feeling the league and the teams were trying so hard to sell. This man seemed to have achieved it just by watching them play.

The Dream beat the Liberty by 5 points. Two weeks later, they won their home opener against the Dallas Wings, 76-72. Afterward, the team threw tiny basketballs into the crowd. It felt like an auspicious beginning.

Before their next game, Kelly Loeffler, one of the owners, told The Athletic, “I think winning a championship is on the radar for us.”

That’s when the losing started. “There’s almost something intangible holding the Dream back,” Bria Felicien, who covers the team for the website HighPostHoops, wrote in the midst of a five-game losing streak after a particularly ugly 23-point trouncing by the Aces. At the postgame news conference, Collen was blunter: “We can make shots. And we’re just not.” The regular season ends on Sept. 8. As of press time, the Mystics had the best record, followed by the Sun, Sparks and the Aces, who played the Sun in Connecticut on Aug. 23. (“Friday’s game — you should have been there!” Martha told me soon after her team won it by 4.) The Dream did not qualify for the playoffs. Already, across the league, players are filling out visa paperwork for overseas teams. Montgomery is staying in town again, having secured a hosting job with the Dream’s ABC-station partner.

A single demoralizing season probably won’t turn off Atlanta sponsors looking to invest in what the league represents, but it also doesn’t help drive ticket sales. “But one of the problems is, a lot of people don’t even know that there is a team,” Montgomery told me. “So whether we were doing good or bad, those groups of people don’t even know we exist in the first place. I do think if we were doing good and getting more headway and more news coverage, I do think that would help.”

Perhaps the greatest marker of success will be when the Dream has a losing season and fans know about it and come to games anyway. “Sports are different from any other business you can think of,” David Berri says, before comparing a team to a restaurant, where “if you go and it’s not good, you leave. You have no loyalty. That’s not how fans behave. Even when their team is awful, they never leave. Once you’ve got a person hooked on your product — it’s very much like an addiction — you have a license to print money. It takes decades for those attachments to form.”

For many franchises, there are signs that is starting to happen. “It’s generational,” Amber Cox, the Sun’s vice president, says. “We’re starting to see the first girls who grew up with the W.N.B.A. bringing their daughters.” Fandoms, she adds, “get passed down through the family.”

And yet, current players seem increasingly tired of waiting for their experience to improve. In August, Brittney Griner, who dunked three times in the July All-Star game, threw a punch at the Dallas rookie Kristine Anigwe after Anigwe swung at her face during a battle for a rebound. Teammates left the bench, leading to six ejections (and subsequent suspensions). Rebecca Lobo and the website Her Hoop Stats argue that fewer fouls have been called this season, for which Griner and others blame subpar refereeing. Griner told ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel that her three-game suspension had pushed to a breaking point her own long-simmering frustrations with what she felt was the league’s inattentiveness to its biggest stars; its salary structure means that Griner, who makes seven figures abroad, earns no more stateside than her less-decorated peers. “How do players balance their own self-interest versus their support of a league still in growth mode and trying to become self-sustaining?” Voepel wrote. “That has been a debate for a long time.”

Ogwumike was hopeful there would be a new collective-bargaining agreement completed before the finals in October that would address some of these concerns. “It’s important for people to understand that we’re not just out here asking for millions,” she told me. “We want to see a business that is still very much alive and thriving, thrive better.”

But, I asked her, should they be able to ask for millions?

“Of course we should be able to,” she said. “But I think that in terms of the growth of the league right now, it wouldn’t be realistic, based on the information that we do know.”

I asked Taurasi, the league’s all-time leading scorer, who since being drafted in 2004 has won three championships and four Olympic gold medals, why she comes back every summer. Her Russian club team pays her $1.5 million a year, and in 2015 gave her more than her Phoenix salary to sit out the W.N.B.A. season. “You come back for the competitiveness of it,” she said. And, she added, her ties to her team. She was speaking from the Phoenix airport, where the Mercury was catching a flight to New York. She had just been cleared to play, and the team was about to capture a playoff spot. But she added: “There comes a point when players aren’t going to want to do it. They’d rather go play eight months overseas, get paid 10 times as much as they get paid here and have their summers off. The year-round grind eventually wears you down physically and mentally. And it’s going to happen to the next group of players too.”

Basketball, however, demands optimism. You couldn’t launch such an awkward object at such an unreasonable target without it. “I really believe that it’s changing,” Augustus told me. Bird agreed: The game is the best it has ever been, she said, and more people seem interested in watching and investing in women’s sports. Those signs are encouraging. And yet, she added, “Well, like where the hell have you been?”/

Kim Tingley is a contributing writer for the magazine who writes the Studies Show column.

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