WNBA Aug 6, 2023; Brooklyn, New York, USA; New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) and Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson (22) fight for a loose ball in the first quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine a championship series featuring some of the best professional basketball players in the world competing for the two best teams in the country–one of which is the defending national champion, while the other hasn’t seen a Finals series in 21 years. These teams were an even 2-2 in their regular season matchups, each has a 2-time MVP, including this year’s and last year’s recipient. There are five No. 1 draft picks between both teams and one of them has never lost a championship game at the college or pro level. It’s a setup good enough to be scripted and a sports fan’s dream. Luckily, we don’t have to imagine this scenario. Where else could you find this perfect postseason other than the WNBA Finals?

This year’s WNBA Finals featuring the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty is slated to be the best Finals in WNBA history. Whether it’s key matchups like A’ja Wilson versus Breanna Stewart (who has never lost a championship game during her time at UConn and with the Seattle Storm before she took her talents to “Stew York”), the superteam narratives surrounding both teams, or the excitement of the league growing and expanding as a whole, there’s something for everyone in the 2023 Finals–including the many new fans who were introduced to the league this year. The 2023 regular season was the most-watched season in 21 years–which is also the last time the Liberty made it to the Finals. The WNBA on ABC averaged 627,000 viewers, making it the most-watched season since 2012, and viewership across ESPN networks was up 21% from the 2022 season, including 36 million unique viewers. The WNBA also saw surges in social media activity, with 20 million actions/engagements, 1.1 million hours watched, and 373 million video views–increases of 65%, 42%, and 96%, respectively, from the 2022 season.

Amid such an impressive line of stats, it’s easy to forget that the WNBA is still a developing league. The WNBA is currently in its 27th season and although that seems like a long time, 27 seasons is infancy in sports years. That’s why these stats and postseason storylines are particularly imperative for new fans–the numbers are evidence that the league is expanding, not only in the number of teams, but the number of fans. With so many new viewers each year, the importance of compelling stories cannot be understated–they keep fans coming back again and again. 

Luckily for the WNBA, this year’s Finals might start a narrative that never fails to hook fans: a rivalry. The scripting of this year’s postseason has all the ingredients to cultivate a good one between New York and Las Vegas for years to come. 

Rebecca Lobo, a former UConn and Liberty great and current WNBA analyst, was a part of one of the best rivalries in college sports between UConn and Tennessee, and understands better than most the ins and outs of sports rivalries. The Aces and Liberty just might make one happen in the WNBA.

“I hope so,” Lobo said of that potential during ESPN’s virtual WNBA Finals press conference this week. “Part of that might be predicated on what each team’s roster looks like next year. Vegas we kind of know, but New York has some big-time players who will be unrestricted free agents again. But certainly, this really could become one of those great rivalries.”

Although Sabrina Ionescu, Courtney Vandersloot, and Benijah Laney have secured extensions with the Liberty, much is still up in the air for New York next year, as two-time MVP Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones will be unrestricted free agents. Given Stewart’s record-breaking scoring and Jones leading the Liberty in offensive rebounding, their potential absence could spell trouble for the Liberty’s offense moving forward. But even so, the Liberty have secured five players so far at least through 2024, including Ionescu, Vandersloot, Laney, and rookie Nyara Sabally. That’s not a bad spread of talent at all.

However, it’s Stewart, in particular, who could be a key factor in a potential WNBA rivalry between the Liberty and Aces. “I think that’s one of the things that’s been so wonderful about the conversation around A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart,” Lobo said, “[is] these two young players who are two of the best players in the league and have been since they came into the league–and they’ve been an incredible foil for one another and for their fanbases.” 

Certainly, there are other exciting matchups in this year’s Finals. The Aces and Liberty both have strong shooting guards and Kelsey Plum’s superior defense versus Sabrina Ionescu’s ever-improving three-point scoring ability is a highly-anticipated pairing. Benijah Laney, who has averaged 20 points per game in the semifinals against Connecticut will also likely be a handful for the Aces’ underrated defensive specialist Jackie Young. But for Rebecca Lobo, Wilson/Stewart is particularly enticing for other reasons.

“It’s reminiscent of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson back in the day in the NBA helping to grow the intention around the league,” Lobo said. “Not only their fan bases but the great Celtics/Lakers rivalry.”

Although the NBA today is a well-established league, that wasn’t always the case. For years, the league actually lost money, to the point that in 1948, the NBA had to cut its 60 game schedule to 48 games to save money. Comparatively, the WNBA is in its 27th season, roughly equivalent to the 1970-80’s NBA. The NBA didn’t truly take off until several years later, with help from the Bird/Johnson rivalry, which arguably started in 1979 at the NCAA Championship between Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. 

Lobo believes a comparative rivalry in the WNBA, possibly through A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart, could provide the league with similar results. “It would absolutely be great for the league to have a rivalry, especially a bicoastal one,” Lobo said. “Depending on what happens to the Liberty’s roster, you would certainly expect these two teams to be two of the top teams in the league next year.”

The WNBA Finals begin on Sunday, October 8th at 3:00 EST on ABC and the ESPN App.

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.