WNBA players A'ja Wilson and Kristi Toliver
WNBA stars A’ja Wilson (left) and Kristi Toliver

WNBA at 25: Boardroom Clubhouse Conversation Reflects on League’s Past, Present, and Future

A powerhouse panel discussed the state of the league a quarter-century in, and what comes next after the “Wubble.”

Thursday’s WNBA Draft marks the unofficial beginning of the league’s 25th season. And on Monday night, in partnership with Nike, Boardroom convened an unforgettable Clubhouse panel to reflect on the past, present, and future of the women’s professional basketball in America.

Host Ros Gold-Onwude was joined by 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, three-time WNBA champion Kristi Toliver, ESPN’s LaChina Robinson, Founder of HighlightHER Ari Chambers, Vice President of Basketball Operations for the New Orleans Pelicans, three-time WNBA champ and Hall of Famer Swin Cash-Canal, and Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes.

The 2020 season was unlike any other, owing to the players’ powerful commitment to social justice causes and their isolation in the “Wubble” — a term this panel would be okay with never hearing again. Independent of their historic organizing efforts in support of Black Lives Matter and voter registration in Georgia, Robinson noted that the play inside the bubble was phenomenal: “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”

However, the panelists were quick to note that successes of the last year did not happen overnight.

The last 25 years have been filled with challenges for WNBA players that have required a constant fight. Swin Cash-Canal pointed to the importance of the players’ unified approach to their new collective bargaining agreement in advance of the 2014 season; although it ultimately netted what she considers a “crappy CBA,” the players’ demonstration of unity sent a message that paved the way for the much improved 2020 CBA.

“The hope was always that the next CBA would get us what we wanted. The unity made our message clear. It let them know that they were at the table with the whole league,” Cash-Canal said, adding that the CBA struggle is only the most recent example of how WNBA players have always had their foot on the gas. “We stay building for the next generation.”

The panel also discussed Nike’s 25th Anniversary jersey collection, which was unveiled last week. Each team has three editions — Explore, Rebel, and Heroine. The jerseys were developed in collaboration with past and present WNBA athletes.

The result? A fire collection that Wilson pointed out fits better than any kit she’s ever worn. 

The partnership is proof that the athletes of the WNBA can drive numbers, which had Cash-Canal recalling a time when she was sponsored by an unnamed brand that used actresses to play basketball players in their ads. “We moved the needle,” she said, “but brands needed to invest in women in order to make these changes.”

Added ESPN’s Robinson: “I hope that the sponsors and decision-makers were watching the phenomenal basketball that we saw last season and in the NCAA tournament. People need to start writing checks. Period. Point blank.”

In addition to gaining the corporate attention they deserve, the women noted that there is still enormous room for growth in the sport.

Coming off an appearance in the NCAA national championship game, Adia Barnes reflected that the importance of being a Black woman in a head coaching position was not lost on her. “It’s amazing that this is still even a conversation. It shows that Black women don’t get opportunities, that representation matters,” she said.

Cash Canal echoed this sentiment, highlighting that the basketball knowledge that former players have is invaluable for them as they evolve into coaches and executives. “There are types of experience that can be learned, that can be taught, but what cannot be taught is a player living through the grind of the game.” She challenged the WNBA on this issue, citing untapped potential in developing these opportunities for its former players.

But as Monday night’s panelists looked to the future, they expressed a sincere sense of hope for the future of the game.

Toliver put it best: “I hope that [people] just say, ‘These girls can fucking ball.’ That’s it.”