Stars come out to see Aces beat Liberty in WNBA Finals opener

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
Game 1 of the WNBA Finals went to the Las Vegas Aces who used a strong second half to beat New York, 99-82, to take the series lead.

LAS VEGAS — It was all there on display in one neat package Sunday afternoon.

The WNBA’s two best teams. A sold out crowd. A national television audience on ABC. Ashanti performing at halftime. Sports royalty courtside with LeBron James, Tom Brady and Sheryl Swoopes in attendance.

If this is what the WNBA’s present looks like, you should be encouraged for its future. The league is continuing to grow and produce a product worth watching. Great players. Excellent coaches. Not-so-great officiating.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Lebron James and former WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes pose for a photo during the first half between the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty during game one of the 2023 WNBA Finals at Michelob Ultra Arena. (Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports)

I don’t know what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is wearing Tuesday night when he shows up at T-Mobile Arena to be on hand when the Golden Knights raise their Stanley Cup banner before starting their 2023-24 season against the Seattle Kraken, but even if Bettman were to step out of character and wear a suit that wasn’t navy or gray, he’s not competing with Cathy Engelbert, the WNBA commish who was sartorially splendid in a white and orange pants suit as she took in Game 1 of the W Finals at Michelob Ultra Arena between the defending champion Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty. 

Engelbert, a one-time CPA who has been running the WNBA since 2019, is having a good year. The Aces and Liberty are clearly the league’s best teams, super teams if you will, led by the league’s two best players — Breanna Stewart for New York, A’ja Wilson for Las Vegas. And they will play at least two more times after the Aces took Game 1, 99-82, in front of a boisterous sellout crowd of 10,300 as Las Vegas looks to win back-to-back titles. More than likely, it’s going to go four games and perhaps even five. That’s how evenly matched these teams are, even if it didn’t play out that way Sunday.

Las Vegas Aces owner Mark Davis and part-owner Tom Brady talk before the game between the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty during game one of the 2023 WNBA Finals at Michelob Ultra Arena. (Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports)

On Thursday, the WNBA announced it was expanding to 13 teams by adding San Francisco for the 2025 season. And Engelbert said Sunday they’re going to have a 14th team to announce by year’s end. Maybe Portland. Maybe Miami. Toronto? Nashville? Who knows?

But the fact the WNBA is adding and not shrinking is a positive sign. So is the fact the league raised $75 million in working capital this year. Maybe not enough for all teams to fly charter instead of commercial to all road games, but it’s on the right path.

Engelbert did a “State of the WNBA” prior to the opening tip of Game 1 and she had a boatload of good news and numbers. Like the record 39 marketing partners the league has. That WNBA fans are 131 percent likely to purchase products from those sponsors. That overall attendance was up 16 percent despite Seattle, Phoenix and Los Angeles — three traditionally strong WNBA markets — struggling and failing to make the playoffs. That the league’s social media platforms have generated hundreds of millions of views. That viewership on ESPN and ABC is at its highest point since 2008.

“The goal is to keep growing the business for the next generation of WNBA players,” Engelbert said. “The more our players get noticed, the more interest it generates for our fans.”

And there’s a new crop of potential superstars on the horizon waiting to join in 2024. LSU’s Angel Reese. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith. Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers. All are becoming familiar with fans thanks to the growing popularity of the women’s college game and that carries over to the WNBA.

But the current superstars are doing just fine, thank you. Wilson, who had 19 points and eight rebounds, and Stewart, who had 21points and nine boards, didn’t disappoint. However, the Liberty were unable to match the Aces’ firepower in the second half as Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum took the game over and Chelsea Gray, who was celebrating her 31st birthday Sunday, was too much for New York to handle.

“We felt we could play better,” Hammon said of the Aces’ improved performance in the final 20 minutes after trailing 49-46 at halftime. “We ramped up defensively and locked in.”

Young and Plum finished with 26 points apiece while Gray had 20 points and nine assists. If they continue to do what they did Sunday, it’s going to be tough for the Liberty, no matter how many adjustments Sandy Brondello makes come Wednesday’s Game 2.

Either way, at least the WNBA can be happy in the fact that it is on solid footing and things are looking good both on and off the court. Especially in the “Battle of the Super Teams” during the Finals. 

“I’m a big studier of history,” Engelbert said. “And if you do look back 40 years or so into the NBA, their Finals were on tape delay, they didn’t get good broadcast windows. 

“We’ve got some really good (broadcast) windows coming up here in the Finals and yeah, they did put us on the map.”