Credit: Sydni Baluch

This year’s WNBA draftees are poised to make a unique impact on the sport, and there’s a chance Chicago will be at the center of it all. 

As the 2024 WNBA season begins, attention on the league is snowballing. But though the WNBA has experienced numerous transformations since its founding in 1996, we owe its current spotlight to a new group—a cohort of twenty-two-ish-year-olds with generational talent and true cultural relevance. It’s the league’s most hyped draft class in its history. And here in Chicago, the Sky’s two first round picks—Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese—could lead the team to an unprecedented rebirth.

The 2024 draft class emerged from a thrilling NCAA tournament in March. This year, it was Women’s March Madness that kept the basketball internet rapt with frenetic attention and instantly broke viewership records. And, of course, there was the absolute star-power of this year’s senior class: Reese and Cardoso, as well as Caitlin Clark, Cameron Brink, Rickea Jackson, Nika Mühl, and so many more.   

On April 7, the women’s tournament ended with the South Carolina Gamecocks defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes to cap off their 38-0 season with a national championship trophy. It was a statement win after the Gamecocks lost to superstar Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes in the 2023 NCAA Semifinals. Not this time. Dawn Staley’s team managed to shut Clark down with the kind of dogged defensive pressure possible only when seeking the ultimate revenge

Just eight days later, these NCAA stars headed to the WNBA draft. And while inequities continue to mark the identity of the league—from low pay to frustrating broadcast deals to difficult schedules—the 2024 draft class embodies a striking confidence. As children of the new millennium, these new draftees were all born well after the WNBA began in 1997, growing up with professional women’s basketball as a fact of existence. Their generation is known for using TikTok and Instagram instead of Google. And today, college athletes like Reese can make millions of dollars as students thanks to rule changes by the NCAA allowing endorsement deals for name, image, and likeness. They already have nicknames, brand deals, and hundreds of fans who watch them eat fast food and talk shit when they go live for hours on end. Many college basketball stars have shared popular social media content with thousands of fans before ever getting broadcast on national television. 

In other words, when it was go time on April 15, the 2024 WNBA class came ready. That day, I joined the flood of fans in downtown Brooklyn for the live broadcast of the draft. When I arrived, swarms of people were lined up outside just for the athletes’ walk from the tinted tour buses to the front doors for the traditional WNBA orange carpet. 

The players wore knock-out looks: head-to-toe Prada, teeth jewels, gradient sunglasses, statement accessories, tailored pantsuits, Cartier jewels, and custom-made designer gowns with slinky sparkles and dramatic asymmetrical cuts. It was a far cry from the outfits of ten years ago when players were encouraged to wear stiff business casual styles, and it left many downright emotional. Under the dramatic dome of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I think everyone sensed that things without words were coming into existence, anew.

First came the much-hyped number one overall draft pick, with the Indiana Fever selecting  Clark. I love Clark (yes, I’ve said it), but she also has the makings of a true Chicago rival: a Midwestern foe siding across state lines, now an Indiana prodigy who can shoot impossible threes and has a tendency to argue with the referees. Not only that, but she and Reese are known for going head-to-head with dialed-in intensity and trash talking (Though they’ve also expressed the kind of mutual respect and admiration that makes me love women’s sports so very much.)

After Clark came number two overall pick, Brink, drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks, who immediately broke down crying. “I’m so proud of all of us,” Brink said under the bright lights next to ESPN’s Holly Rowe. “Look at all we’ve done.”

Then, finally, came Chicago’s turn: two national champions, and our third and seventh overall picks, Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese. 

The crowd screamed, and I screamed with them.

We screamed because the Sky had selected arguably the most recognizable and marketable players remaining in the draft—and rivals at that. We screamed because Cardoso left her home in Brazil at fifteen to pursue her dreams of being a professional basketball player, and as she was drafted, her mom and sister watched from the auditorium floor. “I had a goal to be here tonight and give my family a better life,” Cardoso said from the stage. We screamed because Reese brings impeccable toughness and resilience to her professional career, and to Chicago. “This is for the girls that look like me, that’s going to speak up on what you believe in,” she once told reporters after winning the 2023 NCAA championship. “It’s unapologetically you.”

Kamilla Cardoso FaceTimes with Chicago Sky coach Teresa Weatherspoon for the first time, just minutes after being selected as the third overall pick. Credit: Maya Goldberg-Safir

We screamed because we’re hungry for more stars in women’s basketball, for the WNBA to champion more Black players, who make up more than seventy percent of the league. And while I’m not sure about the others, I screamed because something was clear in these draft choices: The Chicago Sky must keep rebuilding not just their roster but their organizational infrastructure. Because though other WNBA ownership groups have brought an influx of capital to teams like the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty, including new practice facilities and somewhat scandalous chartered flights, the Sky have caught flack in recent years for not even providing their players with lockers. In fact, Chicago’s team continues to practice at the Sachs Recreation Center in Deerfield, which has 3.8 stars on Yelp and was once, “in simpler times,” a place where the Bulls practiced in 1987

And while the front office has said building a dedicated practice facility is a priority for the franchise, nothing speaks of the absolute necessity for change like drafting Cardoso and Reese. These two are stars with stock on the rise. In fact, Reese is already valued at $1.8 million. Both bring widespread popularity and parasocial followings that create a new kind of pressure to usher in change. 

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Fandom around women’s basketball has been steadily growing. “It’s one of the most authentic and energetic celebrations of female physical power that you can go to,” said Chicago Sky fan Isa Vázquez, who purchased a season ticket package after the Sky’s championship run in 2021. “Anytime I run into another Sky fan it’s like an instant connection—we’re cosmically drawn together.”

That energy has been magnified tenfold with the draft class of 2024. The arrival of new fans was marked by a swell of outrage around Clark’s base rookie salary, which like all other WNBA rookies is roughly $76,000.

“If you’re new to the party, welcome,” said writer and podcaster Chris Pennant. He described the prominent feeling toward thousands of newcomers: “You’re welcome here, please come. We’re glad you’ve finally caught on.” 

But “herehas not always felt like this. 

Historically, loving the WNBA meant taking pride in a league that often induces eyerolls and shrugs and downright hate following its mention. As a college student, I wrote an undergraduate thesis about this, stalking the corners of early Twitter for typical comments like, “Women’s basketball…it’s just like watching men’s basketball, if men’s basketball were played in three feet of water.” 

I was particularly obsessed with the hatred inspired in men by Brittney Griner, who at the time was a 6’8’’ superstar at Baylor University known for dunking since high school. Those tweets, comments, and even headlines about Griner were so vile that I wouldn’t dare repeat them anywhere. 

In 2013, Griner made history by coming out as a lesbian as she entered the league, something  no one had ever done before. She also later revealed in her memoir In My Skin that Kim Mulkey, her former coach at Baylor, had actually prevented her from coming out during college. “We just can’t have that stuff out there,” Griner recalled Mulkey telling her, behind the closed  door of her office, referring to a message of love and acceptance by an LGBT group that Griner had tweeted out. 

Just ten years later, the WNBA has transformed into a league known for being audaciously queer, inclusive, and overwhelmingly led by Black women who continue to boldly advocate for social change. In large part this is because economic conditions for players remain subpar. Players have typically flown commercial to away games, and the salary cap is $1,463,200…for an entire team. And there are only twelve of them. In fact, there are so few roster spots in the WNBA—144 in total—that the draft is something of a false summit; while the league drafted thirty-six players in 2023, only fifteen actually made it onto their team’s final roster by opening day. 

Pennant put it this way: “We’ve seen how attuned the players in this league are with social issues and some of that, for better and for worse, comes with the fact that they’re not making as much money.…I think that makes them more aware of what’s right and what’s wrong, about morality.” 

Yes, this is WNBA fandom: full of highs and lows, laced with heartbreak, shadowed by histories of suppression. But it’s also alive with the possibility of change. Women’s basketball has always been something tenuous and imperfect and dear, regardless of whether others understand. It’s been something for us.

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In October of 2021, the Chicago Sky franchise was at a high point, clinching their first-ever WNBA championship with the leadership of Candace Parker, who’d returned to her hometown with the single-minded focus of winning a title.

But the era of Sky glory soon ended. After failing to return for a second WNBA championship series in 2022, the all-star veterans left one by one, including Parker. Former head coach and general manager James Wade traded away the team’s 2024 first-round pick and 2025 first-round swap with the Dallas Wings in exchange for Dallas guard Marina Mabrey. 

Then things got worse. Halfway through the 2023 season, with the Sky scraping by, Wade abruptly announced his departure from the team—and the league—in favor of an assistant coaching position for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. 

With the off-season came more departures, including a trade of the Sky’s franchise player Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury, reportedly by her own request. “It was bleak,” Vázquez told me, recalling that time. Many were growing despondent.  

But by that time, in October of 2023, the franchise had hired a new head coach in WNBA legend Theresa Weatherspoon and Jeff Pagglioca as her general manager. The two set their minds on a “true rebuild” for the team, looking to build momentum on the third overall draft pick acquired from Copper’s trade to Phoenix. And just a day before the 2024 draft, the Sky also traded to acquire the seventh overall pick from the Minnesota Lynx. Bring on Cardoso and Reese. 

Of course, even with new stars like these, the league will stumble: No anecdote makes that more evident than the fact that the Chicago Sky’s first preseason game against the Minnesota Lynx on May 3 was completely unwatchable for anyone outside of Minneapolis’ Target Center. Across social media, fans seethed with anger over limited broadcast contracts, WNBA app errors, and the league’s lack of preparation for such an influx of interest. 

Then things started to shift. 

First, a fan known only as @heyheyitsalli began streaming the game on their cell phone via X, formerly known as Twitter. The grainy footage has been watched millions of times. Just days later, in response to fans’ backlash and committed cell phone viewership, the league announced Chicago Sky’s next preseason game would be livestreamed on their app for all to see. (The game featured Reese less than twenty-four hours after attending the Met Gala on her twenty-second birthday.) That same day, even more incredibly, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters that the league planned to invest $25 million for all teams to take full-time chartered flights this season. By the time of Chicago’s first home game at Wintrust Arena on May 25, who knows what other seismic shifts could occur. 

And for a league leading with outspoken advocacy and stalwart fans, change is not just possible but necessary. Otherwise we could see a new kind of reckoning, and nowhere would it make more sense than here in Chicago (or Deerfield). As Pennant told me, “This is the league where, if something doesn’t happen, if ownership is not committed to bettering the conditions, this is the league where we could see a strike.” 

So “Welcome to the W,” as we say when a veteran player knocks a rookie to the ground, then asks if they’re okay. It’s a kaleidoscopic moment in women’s basketball history: all at once beautiful, kind of trippy, and colliding into the new.

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Maya Goldberg-Safir is an independent writer and audio producer based in Chicago (and sometimes Oakland, where she was born and raised).

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1 Comment

  1. This was such an amazing story. I can’t wait to see how much the league grows this season and years to come!

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