Dawn Staley on Women’s Basketball’s Rise: “It Is a Long Time Coming”

In a breakthrough year for women’s basketball, Dawn Staley has been, appropriately, at the forefront. On Monday, the wildly successful coach at the University of South Carolina will lead the Gamecocks on a grand stage in Paris when South Carolina plays Notre Dame in a historic season opener.

Staley guided the Gamecocks to its third consecutive Final Four in the spring, and last month she was courtside at the WNBA Finals to cheer on former South Carolina star and two-time league MVP A’ja Wilson lead the Las Vegas Aces to the championship over the New York Liberty.

It was the second title in a row for the Aces, while Louisiana State cut down the nets in March, but both events felt like a resounding victory for the entire sport. This year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament broke the record for in-game attendance while also reaching new highs in television viewership. The national semifinal game in which Staley’s Gamecocks were upset by Iowa drew an average of 5.5 million viewers, ESPN’s third-largest audience for a women’s college basketball game. Nearly 10 million viewers tuned in for the title game between LSU and Iowa, making it the most viewed women’s college basketball game on record. The WNBA Finals, meanwhile, set a 20-year high for TV viewership, drawing an average of 728,000 viewers over the course of a four-game series that also gave the league some overdue cultural caché. The games had all the buzz and electricity befitting a championship round, replete with celebrities such as LeBron James, Mark Wahlberg, Aubrey Plaza, and Jason Sudeikis sitting courtside in Vegas and Brooklyn.

For a sport that has long fought for respect and mainstream recognition, 2023 has felt like something of a revolution. “Women’s basketball is bursting at the seams,” Staley told me in an interview last week. “It is a long time coming.”

Monday’s game, which will be broadcast on ESPN, represents yet another milestone as the first regular season NCAA basketball game (of both men and women) to be played in the French capital. Staley sees it as evidence of the game’s burgeoning popularity—and financial power. “I’ll tell you this: It would not have been a thought if the organizers didn’t think they could make some money,” Staley said.

“It’s not going to be on ESPN for nothing,” she added. “They know it’s a valuable asset.”

Staley has never shied from talk about money in college sports, often drawing attention to the enormous disparity between the men’s and women’s competitions. She has been among a chorus of coaches to call for women’s college basketball to negotiate a TV rights deal similar to the top men’s sports. ESPN currently pays $34 million annually for a package that includes rights to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and almost 30 other collegiate championships, while the rights for both the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the College Football Playoff are negotiated in separate deals valued at hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

In 2021, a report commissioned by the NCAA to examine gender equities concluded that a stand-alone TV deal for the women’s basketball tournament could be worth more than $100 million on the market. “We need somebody to bet on us,” Staley said, “and I know that they’ll get a return on their investment.”

A star in college and the pros, Staley, 53, boasts a playing career as decorated as her legendary run as a coach. As tenacious as she was diminutive, the five-foot-six point guard was a two-time national player of the year at the University of Virginia, a six-time all-star in the WNBA and a three-time Olympic gold medalist who carried the flag for Team USA at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. As a coach, Staley has been a serial winner, engineering turnarounds at two flagging collegiate programs: at Temple, which she transformed into a perennial NCAA Tournament participant after being hired in 2000, and at South Carolina, where she has built a juggernaut and won two national championships since arriving in 2008. Staley earned another Olympic gold in 2021 as coach of the US women’s team in Tokyo.

Staley’s rise to the top distinguishes her from a coaching field in women’s college basketball that remains overwhelmingly white. She is, as GQ put it in 2021, “the most important Black woman in college basketball.” And her long career as both player and coach makes Staley a cross-generational icon—a link between the ascendant modern game and an era when professional opportunities for female hoopers were scarce.

“If you were top of the top of the game,” Staley recalled, “the next best thing was going overseas to play and the biggest thing was to play in the Olympic Games. We played to play at the next level.”

Staley was on the ground floor of the 1990s women’s basketball boom. After finishing her career at Virginia in 1992, she bounced around overseas, suiting up for teams in France, Italy, Brazil, and Spain before resuming her career in the United States, where a pair of fledgling women’s basketball leagues launched in the middle part of the decade. Staley joined the now defunct American Basketball League as one of its founding members in 1996, playing a couple seasons before switching to the WNBA, where she starred from 1999–2006.

From Getty Images for Aflac.

“Young people nowadays…they only know that there was a league,” Staley said. “They don’t know the times in which playing on the collegiate level was one of the ways in which you basically played out your career.”

Today, Staley stands atop a very different landscape in women’s basketball, one littered with transcendent talent and a swelling number of fans. The collegiate ranks burn particularly bright with star power, with LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark headlining the upcoming season (and possibly next year’s WNBA Draft). All of that has helped turn women’s basketball into appointment viewing, even spectacle. As the Aces and Liberty were squaring off at a raucous Barclays Center in Brooklyn last month during the WNBA Finals, Clark and Iowa were playing an exhibition game before 55,646 spectators at the university’s football stadium, an NCAA record for women’s basketball.

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