A look at NBA commissioner David Stern’s impact on the WNBA

Stern led the NBA for 30 years and oversaw the formation of the WNBA.

On Jan. 1, news broke that former NBA commissioner David Stern had passed away at age 77.

During his 30-year tenure, the league’s longest-serving commissioner was responsible for the most successful period in NBA history — under his leadership, the league expanded from 23 teams to 30, surpassed $5 billion in television revenue, and grew exponentially around the world. Stern was also a driving force behind the formation of the WNBA in 1996.

“His steadfast commitment to women’s sports was ahead of its time and has provided countless opportunities for women and young girls who aspire to play basketball,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement.

In the early 1990s, the NBA had reached unthinkable heights behind the success and legend of Michael Jordan and the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team. Stern decided it was time to introduce the world to a professional women’s basketball league, and in April 1996, the WNBA was formally approved by the NBA’s board of governors.

In the 14 months that followed, the NBA worked to build the league from scratch, signing players, establishing teams, and negotiating sponsorship and television deals. The NBA’s involvement in the creation of the WNBA was crucial to its advancement and image.

“When I knew that the NBA was involved, I made my decision quickly: I was going to the WNBA no matter what,” Teresa Weatherspoon, who played in the league for seven years, later said.

As SB Nation’s Natalie Weiner wrote earlier this year, the WNBA enjoyed a highly successful inaugural season thanks in large part to Stern and the NBA’s “nearly unprecedented investment in women’s basketball.”

The league had established broadcast partnerships with NBC, ESPN, and Lifetime Television and received over 50 million viewers during its first season. By the end of the 1997 season, WNBA average attendance was 9,804, more than double league officials’ early projections. In its second season, the league enjoyed its highest-ever average attendance of 10,864.

Originally, the WNBA was completely centralized under the NBA, but in 2002 the league changed its model to allow for outside parties to own a WNBA franchise. Since 1996, the WNBA has grown to include 12 teams and 144 players. Before the start of last season, the league announced a multi-year broadcast partnership with CBS Sports Network.

“Without [Stern’s] vision and engagement, the league wouldn’t have gotten off the ground,” said the WNBA’s first president Val Ackerman to ESPN in 2014. “He was the mastermind, and the WNBA was really in line with his vision about how sports and society are intertwined.

After news of Stern’s passing broke, the basketball world stopped. Messages from current and former players, coaches, owners, analysts and fans all over the world began pouring in.

“You leveled the playing field before it was the “thing to do,” two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker tweeted.

For all that he did for men’s basketball, Stern’s creation of the WNBA and his resulting impact on women’s basketball will long be remembered in history. Without David Stern, the WNBA likely wouldn’t exist.

“David Stern was the mastermind of the WNBA and contributed to the women’s game at the professional level. May he rest in peace,” the WNBPA wrote.

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