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What to watch for as the WNBA season opens: NPR

Caitlin Clark, No. 22, and Aliyah Boston, No. 7, of the Indiana Fever during a preseason game earlier this month. Together, the two consecutive No. 1 draft picks hope to lead the Fever to their first playoff appearance since 2016.

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Caitlin Clark, No. 22, and Aliyah Boston, No. 7, of the Indiana Fever during a preseason game earlier this month. Together, the two consecutive No. 1 draft picks hope to lead the Fever to their first playoff appearance since 2016.

Grégory Shamus/Getty Images

This is shaping up to be a big year for the WNBA. The league’s opening night follows a record-breaking women’s college basketball season in which more people watched the women’s title game than the men’s.

Now, as some of those college stars make their official WNBA debuts as rookies — including Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese — the WNBA kicks off Tuesday in hopes of capturing that enthusiasm.

The WNBA is looking to build on the success of its 2023 season, the most-watched in more than two decades, with viewership up 21% and attendance up 16% compared to 2022. And now, the league plans expansion in 2025 and 2026.

The regular season will run until mid-September, with a break for the Paris Olympics in July and August, in which dozens of players will compete. The playoffs will run from late September to October.

Here’s what to watch for as the season kicks off this week:

Can anyone topple the Las Vegas Aces?

A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces walks on the field during a training camp scrimmage at the Las Vegas Aces headquarters on May 2 in Henderson, Nevada. The Aces are the favorites to win the championship in 2024.

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A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces walks on the field during a training camp scrimmage at the Las Vegas Aces headquarters on May 2 in Henderson, Nevada. The Aces are the favorites to win the championship in 2024.

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The Aces have won the WNBA title two years in a row (and they finished second in 2020), which means this year they’re looking for the triple. Led by All-Star MVP A’ja Wilson, the Aces are the favorites to win the title again.

Their most likely challenger is the New York Liberty, last year’s runner-up. Their squad is rich, led by the double MVP and number 1 in the league. 2 scorer, Breanna Stewart, and point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who led the league in assists per game last year.

Unlike the older Liberty team, keep an eye on the Chicago Sky, who have focused on younger players. During the offseason, Sky sent away their leading scorer in a blockbuster trade to land the third overall draft pick. With that pick, they chose college star Kamilla Cardoso (who is now injured until at least June), and with their own No. 7 pick, they chose Reese. Now, Sky will look to these recruits to get the team back to the final for the first time since 2021.

Can Caitlin Clark help reverse Indiana Fever?

Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever plays with the Dallas Wings during a preseason game at College Park Center on May 3 in Arlington, Texas.

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Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever plays with the Dallas Wings during a preseason game at College Park Center on May 3 in Arlington, Texas.

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On the other end of the spectrum are the Indiana Fever, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2016, and their most recent title, won in 2012, feels like ancient history.

But their fortunes change. With the No. 1 pick in April’s WNBA draft, the Fever selected Caitlin Clark, the transcendent college guard who came into the league straight from a championship game loss during her senior college season with Iowa. With Indiana, Clark joins 2023 Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The excitement around Clark’s rookie season sparked a race for Fever season tickets and sellouts for other teams when the Fever are in town. Some opponents, including the Aces and Washington Mystics, have moved home games against the Fever to larger venues to accommodate ticket sales.

That’s a lot of excitement for a team that has lost 100 games over the last four seasons. But the WNBA favors teams that make big turnarounds. The last teams to draft back-to-back No. 1 picks all won titles within a few years. There’s a good chance the Fever can do it too – the only question is: how close can they get this year?

Who benefits from charters and who does not?

For years, WNBA players have complained about the league’s policy on commercial air travel for most regular-season away games.

This is finally about to change. Last week, the WNBA announced that a charter travel program would be “phased in” beginning at the start of this year’s regular season.

But not all teams will fly charter right away. This week, only two teams are traveling by charter, including Clark and the Fever, who were seen taking advantage of the leather seats and legroom in a video posted to Instagram by goalkeeper Erica Wheeler.

Other teams traveling this week left by bus or commercial flight. That includes the New York Liberty, which took a charter bus to Washington, D.C., for its game Tuesday, said Breanna Stewart, who is also vice president of the WNBA players’ union.

That two of the league’s teams traveled by charter was “a win,” Stewart wrote on social media. “It could be more significant if the (WNBA) would allow teams that haven’t been offered a league charter to get theirs until a full 12-team solution is ready.”

Expansion is on the horizon

On Tuesday, the owners of the Golden State Warriors announced the name of the Bay Area’s new WNBA team: The Valkyries. Warriors ownership secured the new expansion franchise last year. The team is expected to begin play next season.

The Valkyries are the league’s first expansion franchise since 2008, and they will bring the total number of teams in the league to 13. A 14th team is expected to come to Toronto in 2026, CBC reported last week. An expansion to Toronto would mark Canada’s first-ever WNBA team, and it would be the largest the league has seen in more than 20 years.

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