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What to watch for as the WNBA season opens and interest spikes in women's basketball

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

It's shaping up to be a big year for the WNBA. The league's opening night comes on the heels of a record-breaking women's college basketball season during which more people watched the women's title game than the men's.

Now, as some of those college stars make their official WNBA debut as rookies — including Iowa's Caitlin Clark and LSU's Angel Reese — the WNBA will tip off Tuesday hoping to capture that excitement.

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

The regular season will run through 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 into October.

Here's what to watch for as the season gets underway this week:

Can anyone topple the Las Vegas Aces?

A'ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces walks on the court during a training camp scrimmage at Las Vegas Aces Headquarters on May 2 in Henderson, Nev. 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 court during a training camp scrimmage at Las Vegas Aces Headquarters on May 2 in Henderson, Nev. The Aces are the favorites to win the championship in 2024.

The Aces have won the WNBA title two years running (and they were runner-up in 2020), meaning this year they're looking for the three-peat. Led by the All-Star MVP A'ja Wilson, the Aces are the odds-on favorites to take the title yet again.

Their likeliest challenger is the New York Liberty, last year's runner-up. Their roster is stacked, led by two-time MVP and the league's no. 2 scorer, Breanna Stewart, and point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who topped the league in assists per game last year.

In contrast to the Liberty's older roster, keep your eyes on the Chicago Sky, who've put their chips on younger players. During the offseason, the Sky sent away their leading scorer as part of a blockbuster trade to net the No. 3 overall draft pick. With that pick, they chose college star Kamilla Cardoso (who is now out with an injury until at least June), and with their own No. 7 pick they chose Reese. Now, the Sky will look to those rookies to bring the team back to the Finals for the first time since 2021.

Can Caitlin Clark help turn around the Indiana Fever?

Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever looks on while playing the Dallas Wings during a preseason game at College Park Center on May 3 in Arlington, Texas.
Gregory Shamus / Getty Images
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Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever looks on while playing the Dallas Wings during a preseason game at College Park Center on May 3 in Arlington, Texas.

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

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

The excitement around Clark's rookie season has sparked a run on Fever season tickets and sellouts for other teams when the Fever are town. Some opponents, including the Aces and the 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 past four seasons. But the WNBA is friendly to teams making big turnarounds. The past few teams to draft back-to-back No. 1 picks have all won titles within a few years. Odds are the Fever can do it too — the only question is: how close can they get this year?

Who gets charters, and who doesn't?

For years, WNBA players had complained about the league's policy of commercial air travel for most regular season away games.

That's finally set to change. Last week, the WNBA announced that a charter travel program would be "phased in" beginning with the start of this year's regular season.

But not every team will fly charter right away. This week, only two teams are traveling by charter — including Clark and the Fever, who were seen enjoying the leather seats and legroom in a video posted to Instagram by guard Erica Wheeler.

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

That two of the league's teams traveled by charter was "a win," Stewart wrote on social media. "It could be a bigger one if the [WNBA] allowed teams who were not offered League charters to secure their own until a full 12 team solution is ready."

Expansion is on the horizon

On Tuesday, the Golden State Warriors owners announced the name of the Bay Area's new WNBA team: The Valkyries. The Warriors ownership was awarded the new expansion franchise last year. The team is set to start playing next season.

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

Copyright 2024 NPR

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.