No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
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Interest over time (higher numbers = more interest)
With the WNBA Finals underway, it’s important to remember what made this level of competition possible and the “firsts” that helped lead the way. 50 years ago Title IX, a landmark civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs, was signed into law.
Although the 37 words of the law didn’t directly mention athletics, it was its interpretation that mattered: women’s collegiate sports were part of educational programs, and therefore should be fielded and funded just as the men’s. It was a watershed moment for women’s sports.
To put it simply, the WNBA (and other women’s professional leagues) probably wouldn’t be here without Title IX. There’s still a ways to go, but using Google Trends search data, we can show a direct throughline between Title IX, interest in women’s sports, and the growth of The W.
First, let’s look at common WNBA-related search phrases. Interest in the league, its players, and its community has accelerated since 2004 (when search data began). For example, from 2004 to 2022 the 12-month moving average of searches for wnba schedule grew by 988%.
The WNBA season stretches over the summer from May to September with 36 regular season games plus the playoffs, which started August 17. If you want to know the results of those games, search for wnba scores (+7,550%).
Last year for The W’s 25th anniversary fans voted Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi as the GOAT (or greatest of all time). Searches for wnba best player are up 1,194%.
Want to get involved with the WNBA community? Search for wnba twitter (+11,320%). You can follow each team’s hashtag and keep up with both player fashion (#wnbafits) and the league’s social justice work.
Overall, searches for the wnba went up by 195% between 2004–2022. If search growth is any indication, the league’s due for that 2024 rumored expansion.
Beyond search growth, we can also look at the questions people are asking about The W, like who was the “first woman to dunk in the WNBA” and who was the “wnba first pick.” The below nine “firsts” are some of the most common things people ask Google about the league.
On July 20, 2002, Leslie threw down the W’s first dunk. In the split seconds between when the Los Angeles Sparks center’s feet left the hardwood and her hand touched the rim the play-by-play announcer excitedly asked “What’s she gonna do?!” SHE DUNKS IT. Since Leslie, eight other players have dunked in WNBA games: Michelle Snow, Candace Parker, Sylvia Folwes, Brittney Griner, Jonquel Jones, Liz Cambage, and Awak Kuier.
Dena Head & Tina Thompson
If we’re getting technical, there were actually two No. 1 picks in the league’s inaugural draft in 1997. The now-defunct Utah Starzz selected Head first in the elite draft (players already at the professional level in other leagues or overseas), and the also-now-defunct Houston Comets selected Thompson first overall from the regular draft (players fresh from college).
In 2002, a reporter asked New York Liberty forward Wicks a point blank question: “Are you a lesbian?” And Wicks replied with an equally point blank answer: "I am," making her the first WNBA player to come out publicly. Her answer helped pave the way for today’s out power couples like the Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley (The Vanderquigs), and the Connecticut Sun’s Jasmine Thomas and Natisha Hiedeman and Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner.
Although the WNBA had league presidents in the past, it wasn’t until Engelbert’s hiring in 2019 that the W had its first commissioner. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said: “With Cathy’s hiring, we wanted to signal to the broadest possible audience that the WNBA is a major league and that she has the same status as the heads of other U.S.-based sports leagues."
Becenti became the first Native American player in WNBA history when she signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Mercury for the league’s first season in 1997. Becenti, a member of the Diné (“The People”) or the Navajo Nation, played her college ball at Arizona State University and was the first woman to have her jersey retired by the school.
“There is indeed no one way to be Trans.” With those words posted on Instagram in 2020, then New York Liberty guard Clarendon became the first trans and nonbinary WNBA player to come out publicly. Clarendon, who uses he/him, she/her, and they/them pronouns interchangeably, has been an unwavering voice in the league for voting rights, reproductive rights, trans rights, and racial justice.
On June 21, 1997, Los Angeles Sparks’ guard Toler crossed over and hit a pull-up midrange jumper to score the league’s first points in a game that the Sparks would go on to lose to the New York Liberty 67–57. Although Toler’s team lost this game, she would go on to be the Sparks’ General Manager and Executive Vice President, helping the team capture the WNBA championship in 2001, 2002, and 2016.
Ann Meyers Drysdale
Meyers Drysdale became the first woman to sign a contract with an NBA team in 1979 when she inked a $50,000 tryout deal with the Indiana Pacers. Even though Meyers didn’t make the team, she made history. She went on to play in the WNBA precursor Women's Professional Basketball League and would later work as an Olympic women’s basketball commentator. She is currently the Vice President of Television for the Phoenix Suns and Mercury.
When Hammon’s All-Star playing career ended with the San Antonio Stars (now the Las Vegas Aces) in 2014, she was hired as an assistant coach for the city’s NBA team, the Spurs. After Summer League and All-Star coaching duties, she became the first woman to act as an NBA head coach after Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected from a game in 2020. Today, Hammon is back with the team that retired her jersey — it’s her first season as the WNBA Aces’ head coach.
These nine “first” are just the beginning. Since its inception in 1997, the league has carried forward the still yet fully realized promises of Title IX. The W and its players, coaches, staff, and fans are leading the way and reimaging what it means to be #MoreThan.
Want to learn more about the league’s “firsts?” Try searching Google for these phrases.
- First player to reach 1,000 WNBA career points: Cynthia Cooper
- First player to reach 1,000 WNBA career 3-pointers: Diana Taurasi
- First woman to win WNBA coach of the year: Marianne Stanley
- First WNBA MVP: Cynthia Cooper
- First WNBA Defensive Player Of The Year: Teresa Weatherspoon
- First WNBA Rookie of the Year: Tracy Reid
- First WNBA Most Improved Player: Tari Phillips
- First WNBA player in Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Cynthia Cooper
- First international player to sign a WNBA contract: Michele Timms
- First Dominican WNBA player: Katie Benzan
- First WNBA player to have a sneaker deal: Sheryl Swoopes
- First WNBA player signed to Jordan Brand: Maya Moore
- First former player to have equity in a WNBA team: Lisa Leslie
- First former player to be both a senior executive and part owner of a WNBA team: Renee Montgomery