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Why haven't NCAA fans always followed the WNBA? Sue Bird has her theories

Women's college basketball is hot, says now-retired WBNA player Sue Bird (shown here in 2022). "If you liked us in college, why didn't you follow us to the WNBA? It is probably one of the more interesting and maybe more difficult questions to answer."
Steph Chambers
Getty Images
Women's college basketball is hot, says now-retired WBNA player Sue Bird (shown here in 2022). "If you liked us in college, why didn't you follow us to the WNBA? It is probably one of the more interesting and maybe more difficult questions to answer."

Basketball star Sue Bird remembers winning the NCAA tournament in 2000 and again in 2002 while playing for the University of Connecticut. At the time, she says, her college games were the "hottest ticket" in the state. But when she moved over to the WNBA, the crowds thinned out.

"Society loves to give young girls and young women opportunity and promote that and support it," Bird says. "But something about when they become women, it feels a little less supported."

Bird notes that the WNBA players represent "every marginalized group that exists today."

"We're Black, we're women, we're gay," she says. "And those are the groups that are held back in our society. And so I don't think it's a coincidence that the WNBA has been held back in that way."

Bird holds the record for most career assists in the WNBA, with 3,234 over the course of her 19-season professional career. She's also won four WNBA championships and five Olympic gold medals. The new documentary Sue Bird: In the Clutch, details her final season in the WNBA in 2022.

Since retiring from the league, Bird has become an activist, fighting for LGBTQ rights and gender equity in women's sports. She's been vocal about the pay gap that exists in her sport, noting that while NBA stars can make upward of $40 million a year, WNBA players max out around $250,000.

"I've always said when we see WNBA players signing million dollar contracts, I will feel proud of that moment," she says. (During her career, Bird supplemented her WNBA salary by playing overseas in Russia.)

Bird credits college basketball stars like Caitlin Clarkwith bringing new fans to the women's game — and increasing the "cool factor" of the WNBA.

"Do I wish I was 22 and playing? Absolutely. I mean, what a time to be playing women's basketball!" she says. "Of course I'm sad that I don't get to do that. But I know as a 43 year old I couldn't, so I'm cool."

Interview highlights

On the gap between the popularity of women's college basketball and the WNBA

Women's college basketball is a huge entity. The NCAA is a huge entity. So when you go to college, and especially at a college like U. Conn., where we have sold out crowds every night, we're the hottest ticket in the state of Connecticut. There's no other professional team really around that area. So we had a ton of media coverage. And so, at the time, 2002, when I got to the WNBA, this is a league that's ... still new. It's getting going. And it definitely had some ups and downs in its coverage. I think when I entered the league it was heading into a downslope and then definitely plateaued. So it was different. It wasn't the same platform as college basketball. ... The level of play and the product was great and it was so much higher [in the WNBA], but it was lacking in all these other ways in terms of the media coverage, the investment. So it was confusing.

On playing point guard

Even when I think back to when I was a little kid, I always wanted to have my fingerprints on the game in that way.

A lot of it ... was making sure that our team was always on the same page, that we always understood what we were trying to accomplish. To get a little granular, it's as specific as what play we're running, when we're running it, why we're running it, what we're looking for both offensively [and] defensively. I think that became my identity, particularly later in my career. But it took probably all 20 years to really perfect it. It was always a part of me. Even when I think back to when I was a little kid, I always wanted to have my fingerprints on the game in that way.

A big part of playing team sports is understanding your teammates, understanding what makes them click, understanding who you can be a little harsher with, who maybe needs a pat on the back. Sometimes that can change day to day. And then at the same time, you're also someone on the team. So you're going to have your own emotions, your own mood swings.

On keeping calm under pressure

Athletes, we're all a little crazy. ... We are literally groomed to control our emotions in these really hyper emotional moments. So you prepare, you try to put yourself in those types of situations. Your coaches try to put your team in those types of situations so you can feel it. Nothing's like an actual game. ... I would say every big shot that I've ever hit in those split second moments, I feel very calm. I don't have a lot of chatter in my head. I'm able to just feel the game.

On how her skills as a point guard translate to her personal life off the court

I think athletes are rewarded a lot for characteristics or abilities that don't always serve them when they take their uniform off. ... Whether it's [in] an intimate relationship, friendships with your family, it doesn't always serve you in certain things. So keeping my emotions in check isn't necessarily the key to success and some of my relationships. So it's definitely something I've been working on, to be honest.

Megan Rapinoe, left, and Sue Bird on Oct. 06, 2023 in Seattle, Wash.
Steph Chambers / Getty Images
Getty Images
Megan Rapinoe, left, and Sue Bird on Oct. 06, 2023 in Seattle, Wash.

On whether she's competitive with her fiancée, star USWNT soccer player Megan Rapinoe

We don't feel a competitiveness within our relationship or with each other. But what does show up is that I'm not that different from who I was on the court as the point guard. ... A lot of times I had to put other people's needs ahead of mine, right? For the betterment of the team, for the common goal. ... If you had five of me on a basketball court, it would be a terrible team. Because you need different personalities. You need different types of players to make a good team.

Megan is the type where her game has a little more selfishness in it. She's a great passer, but she's looking for those moments. She's seeking them out. And so how does that show up in our relationship at times? She might take up a little more space. I might be willing to give that space up. So it's on both of us, myself first and foremost, to take space in our relationship, and for Megan to kind of see when that's happening, and then vice versa. So that's kind of one way in which it's impacted our relationship, but we're aware of it now. Shout out to couples therapy. And it's made the relationship even more fun to navigate.

On how Rapinoe convinced her to come out publicly

I was of the mind that I was out. I had told all my friends, all my family. All my teammates knew. My agents knew, the Seattle Storm organization knew. Everybody working at the WNBA knew. It wasn't something I was hiding. Why did I have to say this to a journalist to make me any more or less out? We started dating in the fall of 2016, and we had a lot of conversations. And again, I was making my point, and I would even say to her, like, "I go out, we go out to dinner, we kiss in public, we hold hands. How am I not out? There's nothing I'm hiding." And Megan's point, which I definitely came around to, was as long as there are people — both children, adults, it doesn't matter — who are getting murdered, bullied and everything else under the sun for being gay, people like us have to come out. Public figures have to come out because that's how you change the narrative. That's how you change the perception. It's essentially how you change culture and society.

On her six knee surgeries and deciding to retire

I do think a big part of my story is my left knee. I had all six surgeries on the one knee. Literally name it, and I've had it. ... So the story of my career is really a story of caring for that knee. ... By the time I retired, I was 41 years old and the reality is you're trying to keep up with 21 year olds. And so you have to be in a certain physical shape. And so I could have kept playing. I actually know I could have played another couple years. ... But knowing that it was really the amount of focus and work and diligence that it took to stay at a certain level that I just didn't want to do anymore. I just was kind of done doing it. To be that disciplined all the time, day in, day out, month after month, year after year, it finally caught up where I just didn't want to do it anymore. And that's really part of the reason that I retired.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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