Welcome to Your WNBA 101 Guide
I never thought I’d be here writing this for you. I used to love the silly femme performance I’d do where I’d tee-hee-hee about “sportsball,” because I have never played sports a day in my life. Certainly not as a kid — where I stuck to theater and art, as is my right as a gay — and not as an adult, honestly the whole concept just passed me by.
Something started to change for me a couple of years ago because it was brought to my attention how insanely hot WNBA players are. That was step one.
Step two came about a year after that, last summer when Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained in Russia. I helped helm Autostraddle’s coverage of Griner’s detainment and right away it became clear that the main reason she was in Russia in the first place was because of pay inequity in women’s basketball in the United States, which enraged me.
In part what was so upsetting was that I know why women’s sports don’t make the money they should to be able to pay players what they need…. it’s because people like me, casual watchers from afar who theoretically could be fans, don’t step up to the plate. So I joined an Autostraddle staff fantasy league (I fully recommend this with your friends, by the way!) and decided to get serious learning about the W.
If you’re someone who has always glazed over when anyone talked “sports” and now you have a little (or a lot) of anxiety around how to even jump in, even though you’d really like to try because you hear its gay and fun… welcome! I’m so excited to have you!
I’m going to hand hold you step-by-step — in obsessive, but also very accessible detail! — through everything you could possibly need to know. Fom what are the rules of a basketball game, anyway? To where to buy cute merch, how to watch games, who’s all gay here, and the queer politics of the league.
See? What did I say? Incredibly gay, insanely hot.
What Are the Basic Objectives to a Basketball Game?
Ok so let’s start with the basics. If you already know the fundamentals of basketball — look away! This part isn’t for you. Feel free to skip down.
Now, for the rest of us!! Basketball is a sport played between two teams. The goal is very simple: Get the ball into the basket.
When it’s your turn to have the ball (this is called offense) — every time the ball goes into the basket, your team gets two-three points. If the other team has the ball, then your goal is to stop them from getting the ball into the basket (this is called defense). At the end of the game, the team with the most points win.
Famously, Janelle Monáe messed this up while dressed as Lola Bunny from Space Jam while playing in the NBA All-Star game earlier this year, which resulted in NBA Hall of Famer (and Zaya Wade’s Dad) Dwyane Wade hilariously yelling to her “Janelle, we on offense!” And if you think I have video, you are absolutely right:
— ESPN (@espn) February 18, 2023
WNBA games are split into four quarters, each quarter is 10 minutes long. That means you’re looking at about 40 minutes of direct game play (not including the rare overtime), but with time outs, fouls, and a halftime break after the first two quarters — it’s about two hours per game. But it will fly by!
Each game starts at the center of the court, also known as the half court line. A ball is thrown up high by the referee and the team that catches the ball is the first to be on offense (again, trying to get the ball in the baket). The other team is on defense (again, trying to stop the ball from getting into the basket).
There is a certain amount of time that the offensive team has to try and get the ball into the basket, otherwise known as “the hoop” — in professional sports that allowed time is known by fans as the “shot clock” and in the WNBA the shot clock is 24 seconds.
So, to recap: Your team has 24 second to get the ball in the hoop, and the other team will try like hell to stop you. If you get the ball into the hoop, great! You get some points. But if you don’t even make an attempt at getting said ball into said hoop before the 24 seconds are over, then the other automatically team gets the ball. That means they’re now on offense and will now try to get the ball into their own hoop, you’re now on defense and it is your job to stop them.
In professional sports, the basket is 10 feet above ground, which is very high! Gotta have height or hops (the ability to jump high) to play this game. After the ball has been shot (thrown into the air), regardless of if it actually goes in the hoop or not… well, as the saying goes “what goes up must come down.” And everyone will fight to get the ball on its way back to earth.
Whichever team that gets the ball is now on offense, this is called a rebound.
(And yes, for my strategy heads in the audience, this also means that your team could catch their own rebound, thus extending their shot clock another 24 seconds.)
OK! Those are basics of how to play the game. Basket, offense, defense, rebound, and two-three points. So far, so good?
Let’s talk about the exactly where this game is played!
What Is the Basic Layout of a WNBA Court?
I’m glad you asked! For our 101 purposes, the basic layout of a WNBA court is essentially the same as any other full-sized basketball court.
First, you will have a basket, 10 feet high, on each side of the court.
Then, will be a center court, otherwise known as the half court line. This is where teams meet at the beginning of the game and also designates the halfway point from one team’s “side” of the court verses the other. When a team switches from defense to offense, they have to get the ball back to their side of the court (and quickly!) to get the ball into their own basket, and vice versa.
Surrounding the basket there are two different lines drawn on the floor that you should pay attention to. The first is a semi-circle drawn about 22 feet away from the basket, that is the three point line. Any baskets made (ie/shots of the ball successfully going into the basket) at this line, or beyond it, is worth three points. Any baskets made inside of that line is worth two points.
The second line to pay attention to is called the free throw line. The free throw line is a straight line, roughly 15 feet away from the basket. If a someone “fouls” a player while they were making a shot (that means someone broke a rule in defending a player while that player was attempting to shoot a basket), then the game pauses. That player who was fouled now gets to shoot two-three “free baskets” from the free throw line, without anyone defending them or causing a ruckus. Once that’s over, the game resumes again.
Ok so we have the rules of the game covered, and we’ve talked about the court, we’re almost at the finish line, but there’s one more key piece. What about the players themselves?
What Are the Positions on a Basketball Team?
Each of the two basketball teams will have five players on the court. Additionally, each team can have more reserve players on the bench who can be subbed into the game at any point. The WNBA allows each team a maximum of 12 players (so five on the court, seven on the bench), though in reality due to salary caps and financial restrictions most teams have roughly 11.
The “starting five” of a basketball game are generally considered to be the team’s best players in each position, and often the team leaders, though again — people can be switched or subbed in at any moment, and some teams play around with their starting five to meet their needs on any given night. So what are these five positions?
** all photos below are of famous lesbian, queer, or bisexual WNBA players, in case that didn’t feel clear to you!! **
The Center is usually the tallest player on each team, and you’ll most likely find them near the basket. On offense, the center tries to use their height to make close shots (called layups) and also to help their team keep their own rebounds. When on defense, the center uses their height and strength to block opponents’ shots and rebound their opponents’ missed baskets before anyone else can.
The Power Forward does a lot of the same things that you can expect from a center; you’ll most often find them underneath a basket, rebounding and defending against the taller players of the opposite team. But a power forward usually takes longer/farther away shots than a center.
The Small Forward plays against all players, small and large. They can score from long distance or close distance. They roam all over the court and they are sometimes also referred to as “wings.” Isn’t that cute?
The Shooting Guard is usually the team’s best shooter. An assassin, if you will. They can make shots from a long distance, close up, whatever is needed.
The Point Guard (you’ll also see this written by fans as “Point Gawd” as in Point God) is the player with vision on the court to see all the plays in motion, and open up opportunities for their teammates. The ball most often goes through them, and when switching from defense to offense, they are often the player who brings the ball up the court. They are usually the team’s best passer and one of their best shooters.
All of that said, it should be noted that the WNBA specifically can be pretty position-less! By which I mean, players will often fit into the slots as needed (so don’t worry too much about the positions), all with the same ultimate goal of… say it with me now… getting the ball into the basket!
WHEW! And there you have it! The basics of basketball! Now let’s talk more about The W.
What WNBA Teams Should I Root For?
There are 12 WNBA Teams total, six in the Eastern Conference and six in the West. I thought about making a team-by-team breakdown of the pros/cons of becoming a fan of each specific team, but then this tweet thread by Robocoko came across my timeline and I will never do better.
“No stats, Just vibes.”
Hi #WNBATwitter, I created another guide to help you and your pals pick which WNBA team to support this year: no stats, just vibes. As the title suggests, it is incomplete & biased.
(Thread, obvi) pic.twitter.com/BR4tmQ8AIl
— no its robocoko (@robocoko) May 1, 2023
If you are avoiding Twitter, Robocoko also made a full website version of the same perfect list, no tweets involved!
(I want to argue against my Aces being the league villains, but alas, I cannot 😞)
OK But — I Only Want To Know Which WNBA Team Is the Gayest (And Fulfill My Thirst)
Last season, roughly 20% (yes, 20%!!) of the WNBA were publicly out athletes. That’s one in five players — which likely makes it, statistically speaking, the gayest professional sports league in the world.
This year, Autostraddle research has us clocked out at 34 gay players out of 144 total players in the league — or nearly 25% of the entire league!! We just updated our annual list of all the gay players in the WNBA that you can also follow on Instagram for… well, you know why. You don’t need me to tell you. We’re all grown here.
How Long Is the WNBA Season?
WNBA seasons typically run about the length of Summer, from late Spring into mid-Fall.
The 2023 WNBA regular-season schedule will have record-high 40 games per team! That’s a four game increase from the previous record-high of 36 games, which happened just last season. The league is growing, you hear me!?!?
The 2023 season unofficially kicked off with the WNBA Draft, which happened last month (and yes, I covered the butch fashion). But as you know, this weekend officially begins the WNBA season.
Here are the all WNBA games during opening weekend:
Friday, May 19 2023
- Connecticut Sun at Indiana Fever (7 p.m.)
- New York Liberty at Washington Mystics (7 p.m.)
- Chicago Sky at Minnesota Lynx (8 p.m.)
- Phoenix Mercury at Los Angeles Sparks (11 p.m.)
Saturday, May 20 2023
- Atlanta Dream at Dallas Wings (1 p.m.) ** watch on ABC
- Las Vegas Aces at Seattle Storm (3 p.m.) ** watch on ABC
Sunday, May 21 2023
- Washington Mystics at Connecticut Sun (1 p.m)
- Indiana Fever at New York Liberty (2 p.m.) ** watch on Twitter
- Chicago Sky at Phoenix Mercury (4 p.m.) ** Brittney Griner’s first home game in Phoenix, watch on ESPN
The WNBA All-Star Game will be played roughly halfway through the season, on July 15th. It will be in Las Vegas, an ideal setting for innocent thirst and all around gay messiness.
There’s a special mini-tournament that happens within the season called the Commissioner’s Cup. This happens from Friday May 19th through Wednesday July 12th. Basically, the tournament tracks each team’s home and away “in conference” games (so East playing against East, and West playing against West). The teams with the top records in those games advance to play in the Commissioner’s Cup championship, and the teams who play in that championship game get prize money for both their teams and also community organizations of their choosing. The Commissioner’s Cup championship game will be Tuesday, Aug. 15.
The 2023 WNBA playoffs will begin Wednesday, Sept. 13 and continue through October. The last possible date for the WNBA finals is Friday, Oct. 20.
Where Can I Watch WNBA Games on TV and Streaming?
There’s no getting around it — watching WNBA games on TV can be one of the trickiest parts of getting into league as a fan. In fact, when NCAA college athletes were asked how many WNBA games they watched, a surprising 26% of them said they only watch between two to six games per year! With 13% not watching any games at all, and 8% saying they only watch the playoffs. Of the players who don’t watch regularly, a primary reason given was that they quite literally they didn’t know where to tune in.
But, the league is doing better about this!
You asked… We delivered 🗓️
Check out the national broadcast schedule for the month of May
— WNBA (@WNBA) May 15, 2023
This year, you can find nationally televised WNBA games on all the ESPN platforms (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN+), as well on ABC, CBS, the CBS Sports Network, Paramount+, Prime Video, and NBA TV. A fun fact is that you can also watch WNBA games on social media like Twitter. The league also struck a deal with the ION to run weekly games on Fridays. Here is a full broadcast schedule of all 40 games.
I know that’s a lot of platforms to keep track of! I set my Hulu Live account (since I don’t have cable) to record all the games available for my favorite teams, and work backwards from there. You can do the same thing using your DVR if you still have a cable box.
If you’d like a broadcast schedule for the WNBA games on ESPN and ABC, I have that for you here.
Who Should I Follow for More WNBA Content Online?
The WNBA is so important.
— Arielle (Ari) Chambers (@ariivory) April 5, 2017
Slowly falling into women’s sports fandom online has been one of my greatest gifts of the last two years. Things that I love: women kicking ass, smart and funny people talking about women kicking ass.
With that in mind, may I recommend:
WNBA on Twitter
- Ari Chambers, founder of HighlightHER (more on them below) and creator of the infamous meme “the WNBA is so important” — you’ll see it repeated a lot in fandom spaces
- Individual players (Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson has made my days better, girl is hilarious)
- Team Autostraddle, of course! Natalie, Heather, and Nic will get you right.
WNBA on Instagram
Also, individual players — especially the Gen Z players — all have TikToks, which can be very cute! Here are two rookies from the Indiana Fever, including #1 draft pick Aliyah Boston, goofing off in their new uniforms with vet Erica Wheeler (who maybe you heard just got gay engaged and made certain members of the Autostraddle team full-on sob):
Where to Buy the Hottest WNBA Merch
The day that I discovered Playa Society, it was over for my bank account. Black woman-owned and designed, Playa Society does (often limited edition) updated takes on ’90s style sports gear and I have no less than three shirts already in my personal collection.
Homage shirts are some of the softest that will ever touch your body, and they have logo gear for both the current 12 teams in the league along with vintage logo tees of WNBA teams past, if you wanna stand out.
BreakingT has the officially licensed apparel for the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (the players union, which was instrumental, among other things, in the #WeAreBG campaign last year to bring Brittney Griner home).
And listen, I haven’t worked my way up to the iconic orange WNBA hoodie — but it’s a classic. There’s a reason it sells out every time the league restocks it.
Politics and Key Discourse Surrounding the WNBA
One of greatest things that sets the WNBA apart from other professional sports leagues is that it is immensely political. During 2020, the WNBA were crucial leaders in bringing discussions of Black Lives Matter onto the courts — leading the way for the NBA to follow suit. The league had a particularly prickly relationship with gay fans (and players) in its early years, but now hosts some of the most robust Pride packages on any its peers in men’s or women’s sports. When the Atlanta Dream were owned by a Trump-supporting Republican, Kelly Loeffler, they protested their own owner and supported her opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock (who eventually won the seat) in the 2020 Georgia Senate race, eventually causing her to sell the team! She sold them to a local real estate group including Renee Montgomery, a Black former player on the Dream herself who had sat out the 2020 season to focus on her activism.
And of course, the WNBA players’ union was unrelenting and determined in their messaging last summer to keep Brittney Griner’s name in headlines and keep pressure on the Biden Administration to bring her home. Their influence could not be overstated.
Watching WNBA games are never just about the games themselves, but it’s also about the conversations that are embedded around the games. With that in mind, here’s some of what people are talking about right now:
— Gaming Society (@GamingSociety) May 16, 2023
+ Expand the League! This a common refrain in the weeks between the WNBA Draft and Opening Weekend, during the training camp period where players are often cut due to, among other reasons, a literal lack of available spots. This year only 42% (15/36) of 2023 WNBA draft picks are on rosters for the season tip off — and last year was not any better! The league cannot grow without space to let young (and often, popular! Fresh from large college fanbases!) players develop. But we can’t expand the league without also expanding its audience, which is tied to a lot sexism and capitalism and that is also why you are here today! To become part of that new audience, so that we can grow this league!!
Candace saying that she never had a locker in her entire 16-year career is crazy. This season with the Aces will be her first time having a locker. A locker!!! The bare minimum…yeah. pic.twitter.com/bRGTCCOaOt
— Can ♓️💫 (@prettycan4) March 30, 2023
+ Equal access to pay and facilities. This is definitely tied to the point above (see: capitalism and sexism), but a fact that stuns a lot of casual watchers is that it was only this year — 27 years in the making — before a single WNBA team, the Las Vegas Aces, had a standalone practice facility to call their own. In fact, WNBA superstar Candace Parker (who is gay, just a fun lil reminder that I like to point out the gays!) said that in her entire multi-decade career she had never even had a permanent locker to call her own! Which was a deciding factor in her decision to sign with the Aces this year. Breanna Stewart (also gay) made the ability to fly on chartered flights between games a central issue in her off-season free agency before signing with the New York Liberty. The league is improving on this, but the fact that the WNBA expects players to fly commercial, and deal with the stress it causes on their bodies, shocked their peers in the NBA. Because, frankly, it’s crap!
+ Inequity in media coverage between Black players and white players. A University of Massachusetts Amherst study on the 2020 season found that Black players receive roughly half the play in media mentions as their white peers. After reading more than 550 articles about the WNBA posted on ESPN, CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated’s website, the researchers discovered there was an “average 52 media mentions for Black players, compared to 118 for white players.”
And I’d like to point out, as has New York Liberty’s Jonquel Jones, that those numbers are compounded further when we are talking about gay and masc players — even though, as a majority Black league that is also nearly a quarter gay — Black gay players make up the backbone of the WNBA!
I just know some of y’all can’t stand that A BLACK WOMAN FROM HOPKINS SOUTH CAROLINA, who led her college team to a championship under the greatness of a Black Coach & then went on to the WNBA & has multiple accolades & a title in 5 years is the FACE OF THE LEAGUE❤️A’ja Wilson👑 pic.twitter.com/7RA3XemXSV
— Chermaine💫 (@Cher_The_Actor) May 15, 2023
(A’ja Wilson’s not gay, she’s just fun. But the point remains!)
+ Brittney Griner and others who are wrongfully detained. Now that she’s home safely, Brittney Griner, her wife Cherelle, and her team the Phoenix Mercury will be partnering with the Bring Our Families Home campaign this season to support others who are still being wrongfully detained in Russia and across other countries, including sponsoring letter campaigns (BG credits letters written to her as helping to keep her strength and sanity, to remember she wasn’t alone) and other advocacy avenues using her now very public platform. She’s also working on a memoir about her own wrongful detainment, where it’s expected she will speak more explicitly about gender pay gaps, a key reason that she cites for playing Russia in the first place.
+ Rights of players in the workplace. During the offseason, Dearica Hamby was traded from the Las Vegas Aces to the LA Sparks. Hamby asserted that she was being traded due to being pregnant, on top of a variety of other violations including being improperly spoken to about her pregnancy. At the behest of the players’ union, the WNBA launched an investigation to Hamby’s claims and earlier this week the findings of that report were released, including the Aces losing a future first round draft pick and a two-game suspension without pay for Aces coach Becky Hammon. Some have questioned the transparency of this process and that report, though the overwhelming majority are also in support of Hamby — who played her first game as a Spark last night, just seven weeks after giving birth.
Do you know where you can keep up with all of these conversations? Right here at Autostraddle! We will be having a weekly WNBA column, written by Natalie and Heather! You can read the first installment where they talk about BG, Becky Hammon, and more.
We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident
+ In this house, we respect Black culture and the impact that Black players have had on the league and basketball overall.
+ We’re glad and grateful every day that BG is home safe and well (but you’re still allowed to root against the Phoenix Mercury if you have a pre-standing grudge or rivalry agains the team, it is only fair.)
+ “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there.” — that’s word to Megan Rapinoe
+ We pay respect to Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Cheryl Miller (who never played in the league), Sheryl Swoops, Rebecca Lobo, and so many more who made sacrifices to play women’s basketball, often with little-to-no pay, so that the WNBA could still be here 27 years later.
+ Trans and gender nonconforming players have a place in this game — and all games, but right now we’re talking about The W.
And if All Else Fails… Here’s What to Yell During a Basketball Game When You Have No Idea What’s Going On
You’re gonna have to impress that hot date somehow. Or maybe you’d simply prefer a cheat sheet rather than reading this entire article. Either way, I’m here to help.
This is tried and true, use it whenever the team you are rooting for is on defense. I included the dash mark so that you get the right emphasis.
Yell this when a player gets fouled, but they still make the shot. This means that they will get an extra foul shot anyway, hence “and one!”
This is for when a shot is missed, especially by a player you don’t like. For extra bonus points you can also preemptively yell it when a player don’t like is mid-shot (thus, encouraging them to make a brick) — but I recommend doing that sparingly, or you might start annoying whomever is watching the game with you.
This is the opposite of a brick. Yell this when a shot goes through the basket, especially by a player you do like.
“She just broke her ankles!”
You have to watch closely for this one, but if you pull it off you will look so cool. When a player does a crossover (moves the ball from one side to the other) very quickly and pivots in a new direction, the player that’s defending her will stumble while trying to keep up. It will look like she’s lost her balance or is stuck in place, literally as if her ankles are going in the wrong direction from the rest of her body. Therefore, “she just broke her ankles!”
“Oooh, ok ok! They’re getting boards!”
Boards are rebounds. Say this when a team is getting a lot of them and everyone will assume you know what you’re talking about.
Downtown is a three point shot, the farther away the better.
In basketball, to “box out” is to get underneath the basket and hold your own/defend your space, thus “boxing out” another player and increasing your chance of grabbing the rebound for your team. If you see a cluster of players underneath the basket, it’s a great time to yell it.