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The WNBA is celebrating 25 years of resilience. When will it get equal treatment?

The Women’s National Basketball Association is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week. The WNBA has fought for national recognition of its athletes and has been at the forefront of the fights for racial justice and LGBTQ equality. Despite its share of financial hurdles, the WNBA has stayed resilient and relevant. Sue Bird of the champion Seattle Storm joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the league.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, the Women's National Basketball Association is celebrating a milestone this week, its 25th anniversary.

    The WNBA has fought not only for national recognition of its athletes, but it's long been at the forefront of the racial justice movement and the fight for LGBTQ rights. The league has faced its share of financial hurdles, but the WNBA continues to prove its resilience and relevance.

    The 2020 season was dedicated to Breonna Taylor. Players also took a united stand against former Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, who co-owns Georgia's Atlanta Dream team and criticized the league's support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

    To explore the league's successes and hardships, I'm joined by Sue Bird of the champion Seattle Storm. She's won four titles in the league and is an 11-time All-Star.

    Sue Bird, I am so excited to say this. Welcome to the "NewsHour," and thank you for being here.

    This is going to be your 18th season in the league. You have played for minutes and games than anyone else; 25 years this week for the league. What does this moment mean to you?

  • Sue Bird:

    It's pretty special.

    I think, for myself, it's just really exciting both to know that I have been be able to play this long, but also that I have been be able to see the league grow. And, right now, it really feels like there's a turning point in a good way happening. There's some momentum built surrounding our league.

    You mentioned it. The work we have done off the court has spoken for itself. But the work we have been doing on the court also speaks for itself. So, it's super exciting.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should say, you have been playing this long, and you have been straight killing it for this long, all those titles. And you guys are defending champions, we should mention too.

    And the league has come a very long way, right? The viewership has grown steadily year over year. There have been some landmark deals when it comes to pay increases and paid maternity leave. And, as we mentioned, you guys have led the way when it comes to all the pro leagues really taking a stance for social and racial justice.

    Why do you think that is? Why do you think the WNBA has been able to lead in that way?

  • Sue Bird:

    I think it's just a product of a couple of things, one being the makeup of our league.

    I think, when you look at the percentages, we have a high percentage of Black women in our league. We have a high percentage who are in the LGBTQ community. These are things that we live. And then, of course, we're women. So these are things that we live every day, being marginalized in different ways.

    So, that doesn't — that doesn't leave us just because we put a basketball uniform and start playing a game. So I think it's just in our DNA a little bit.

    But what we have also found is, through our time as basketball players trying to get a professional league going, trying to make it successful, we have encountered a lot of different things there. And, sometimes, I joke that people say shut up and dribble. Well, we wanted to. We actually wanted to be basketball players and to be judged for our play on the court.

    But it seems like everybody likes to talk about all the other things that surround our league, that our uniforms should be tighter, we should look more feminine.

    So, I think, through that, I guess, journey with this league, we developed a little bit of a backbone. And now not only do we stand up for ourselves, but we love to extend our voice to others as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You guys have lived through the pandemic in the same way the rest of the country and the world has too for the last year. You played last season in that bubble. This next season is bubbleless.

    Is there any concern about that? Are you worried at all about going back to some version of a new normal?

  • Sue Bird:

    Yes and no.

    I mean, I think, at times, when — we're starting to travel now. So we're taking commercial flights, and we're in airports. And it can be a little alarming at first to see people without masks.

    But, simultaneously, I think our league has actually done a tremendous job of educating our members, our players on the vaccine. And I don't have an exact percentage for you, but I'm pretty sure that our league is going to be pretty close to being 100 percent vaccinated. And that right there calms my nerves.

    I think not only have we educated ourselves in order to get that needle on our arm. We're also willing to help educate others, and hopefully instill some vaccination confidence in some people who might be on the fence. So, that gives me great confidence heading into this season that we're going to be able to play safely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This last COVID season also revealed that a lot of the same gaps that persist in the rest of society absolutely still exist in pro sports.

    Talked about reduced games for the WNBA, worse facilities than the men's league. And, of course, women still make a smaller percentage of the league revenue than the men do. At this point, 25 years into the league, what do you think it will take next to close some of those gaps?

  • Sue Bird:

    Yes, I mean, a lot of people like to compare us to the men.

    And I understand why. I actually try not to fall into that trap. I think the NBA is incredibly successful for a lot of reasons. Some of those reasons are investment. We haven't gotten that investment. We haven't gotten the corporate sponsorship investment. We haven't gotten the media coverage.

    These are facts. I think it's something like we get 4 percent of media coverage. So, to me, when you think of the first 25 years of the WNBA, and then maybe think of like the — what hopefully is the next, into our 50th year, we just haven't been invested in.

    So, to me, it's like, what a great investment. We're all — we're hanging on as it is, and we're doing well. And the product on the court is getting better and better without the investment. So, imagine what would happen from zero if you just go up to one or two or three or something, and you get something in that investment category.

    It can only do better. So, that excites me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As we mentioned, you and the Seattle Storm are kicking off this season as defending champs.

    Care to make a prediction? Is it back to back?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sue Bird:

    Man, back to back is hard. Back to back is hard. You don't see it often, and there's a reason. It's really hard when you have that target on your back.

    Of course, I'm going to say that I think we're going to win. But I also know that it is up for grabs. We had a lot of turnover on our roster. So, we're a new team, just like a lot of teams, trying to put it all together.

    So, I guess you will have to tune in. You will have to tune in and see what happens.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You will have to tune in. That's a great message for everyone out there.

    Sue Bird of the champion Seattle Storm, as the WNBA marks 25 years, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Sue Bird:

    Yes, thank you so much for having me.

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