Sabrina Ionescu Says the WNBA Is at a “Breaking Point” For Change

Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Sabrina Ionescu has been hard at work.

Last season, the New York Liberty guard played tirelessly alongside her team to get to the WNBA championship, only to be defeated by the Las Vegas Aces in a 70-69 final game. But this offseason and preseason has been “my best one so far,” Ionescu tells PS in an exclusive interview tied to her partnership with CarMax, the sponsor for the WNBA season tip-off.

In the months leading up to the 2024 season, Ionescu has been focused on a 360-degree approach to her health. That’s included doing bloodwork and health assessments to help determine the nutrition, recovery, sleep, and especially hydration strategies that will best serve her body and her game this year.

As a result, she feels more than ready to go up against the roster of competitors. And that counts this year’s rookie class, which includes collegiate phenoms Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, and Cameron Brink.

But Ionescu doesn’t see them as competition at all, telling PS, “I don’t really look at it that way.” She’s has enjoyed watching the rookies “push our league in the right direction” – it’s exciting, she adds, not intimidating. “There’s just so many more fans that are now following our league [who] have followed those individuals in college and now are able to kind of be fans of the WNBA. And I think that’s so important, especially with the growth of our league.”

Over the past few years, the WNBA has seen a surge of both viewership and investment in the league. In 2023, the league saw 36 million total unique viewers in its regular season across all national networks, the highest since 2008. The WNBA also brought in more than $200 million in revenue, a 200%-plus year-over-year increase. And ticket sales for the league have also skyrocketed – up 93% compared to last year, per Stubhub data.

With this meteoric rise in interest has come welcomed change, Ionescu says – like the W’s expansion to Toronto and the Bay Area, and the decision to invest in charter flights for the teams, the latter of which Ionescu is particularly excited about.

With less time spent in airports and more time for recovery and practice, “there’s going to be better product on the court and that’s what’s by far the most important thing,” Ionescu says.

On other fronts, the league continues to fall short, she tells PS. A prime example: the WNBA’s missed opportunity to stream the Chicago Sky’s pre-season game (Angel’s Reese’s WNBA debut) on League Pass against the Minnesota Lynx, despite streaming other games like Caitlin Clark’s debut with the Indiana Fever. (A fan’s live stream of the Sky vs. Lynx game amassed over 2 million views, by the way!)

These kinds of mishaps continue to frustrate the New York Liberty player. “I just feel like we need to take more of a proactive approach than a reactive and understanding that the league has never seen what it is seeing right now in terms of the visibility, the talk, the attendance – just the turn in how women’s sports and our league as a whole is viewed,” Ionescu tells PS.

While the three-point-shooting star says she’s giving the league some grace as they navigate the increase in viewership, Ionescu also worries that these kinds of “hiccups” could lead to fans not wanting to follow and watch. “I think the more access we can create for our league as a whole and across all teams, not just a few teams, the better it will be in terms of attendance and viewership and investment in our league,” Ionescu says.

While the league reexamines their plans for viewership, she also hopes they take a look at the budget, as the conversation around the pay equity gap continues to swirl. For context, the WNBA has always had a pay gap due to several factors, including the fact that player contracts don’t include revenue sharing and the audience viewership compared to the NBA. Salaries remain relatively low for these reasons and many WNBA players opt to play overseas during the offseason to supplement their income – something Ionescu doesn’t believe they should have to do.

“We understand that we’re not driving in the same money that the NBA is at this time, and we’re also just a newer league. And so I don’t think anyone a part of the WNBA is sitting here demanding there to be complete equality across the board – I think it’s just understanding that we need to be able to make a living and we deserve to not have to go overseas,” she tells PS.

That said, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), approaches renegotiation in November. That coupled with the rise in viewership, attendance, and a potential new media rights deal could be the perfect storm of ammunition to advocate for better pay, Ionescu says. “It’s about time that we get what we deserve,” Ionescu says – and she feels fairly confident that the time is now.

“I’m excited to be a part of a league right now that’s at that breaking point,” Ionescu, adding that it’s not just the player’s advocacy that will help them get there. It starts with everyone, she tells PS. “It starts with investment. It starts with coming to a game, showing up, buying League Pass. As that continues to rise, so will our income.”

Alexis Jones is the senior health and fitness editor at PS. Her passions and areas of expertise include women’s health and fitness, mental health, racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, and chronic conditions. Prior to joining PS, she was the senior editor at Health magazine. Her other bylines can be found at Women’s Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, and more.

Related Posts
Latest Fitness
The End.

The next story, coming up!