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From Angel Reese to Rickea Jackson, the 2024 WNBA rookies talk to theGrio about achieving new heights in basketball and beyond.
If this era in sports is proving anything, it is that women’s basketball is a main event. 
This year’s NCAA championship game between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Iowa Hawkeyes had the largest audience in women’s college basketball history and became the most-watched basketball game at any level since 2019, peaking at 24.1 million viewers. The women’s face-off far surpassed the men’s championship game between the University of Connecticut and Purdue, which garnered 14.8 million viewers. Subsequently, Monday night’s WNBA Draft became the most viewed WNBA event on ESPN platforms, earning 3.09 million viewers eager to see where their favorite players would launch their professional careers.
“We are witnessing a transformational moment in sports,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert during a press conference on Monday night. “Women’s basketball is not a fad. We have been steadily building this momentum for years, and we are ready for what’s next.”
The latest generation of players in women’s sports is raising the bar and experiencing an abundance of extraordinary and unprecedented opportunities. Engelbert noted that women’s basketball, especially with the 2024 class of draftees, is leading the charge for change in the industry. Along with their enormous talent, each player brings an undying love and passion for the game. Inspired by the legendary players who came before them, like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Candace Parker, and player-turned-champion coach Dawn Staley, the 2024 draft class is breaking more glass ceilings and using every available opportunity to showcase what they’re bringing to the table – both on and off the court.  
Along with their undeniable talent, these young women’s presence off the court is bringing a new level of recognition to the world of women’s sports. With the introduction of NIL (name, image and likeness) deals, players are leveraging their unique personalities to attract a new fanbase to women’s basketball — and this long-awaited opportunity is not something they take lightly. According to former UConn player Aaliyah Edwards, who spoke with theGrio following the announcement she will be heading to the Washington Mystics next season, this is a moment ripe for “humanizing the basketball player” beyond the court. 
Already blazing a trail of big-name endorsements, “Bayou Barbie” Angel Reese, who, after declaring her departure from LSU during the semifinals, will join the Chicago Sky, has raised the bar for NIL deals. During the 2022-2023 WNBA season, she secured 17 sponsorship deals, including collaborations with Amazon, Raising Cane’s, McDonald’s and Coach. With each partnership, Reese tapped into a new audience, showing not just WNBA fans but the world that there is more to her than basketball. As she told theGrio at the 2024 WNBA Draft, she understands the power behind each deal and asserts there is no chance she’ll be stopping anytime soon. 
“[The NIL deals are] bringing more engagement to the game,” Reese said, after coming down from the high of being drafted to the Chicago Sky. “This class is historic and I think all of us are going to be able to continue to do that. The deals don’t stop here, and we are going to be on the big screens. We are going to be in the commercials that everyone gets to see.”
In addition to showcasing how impactful and important such deals can be in elevating an athlete’s career, Reese’s success highlights the opportunities available to many of her fellow WNBA players as they attempt to subsidize salaries that are still a small fraction of those offered to even the lowest-payed male players in the NBA
During the 2022 to 2023 season, players in the WNBA received an average annual pay of $116,580, with the highest-earning players receiving $242,000. In comparison, players in the NBA received an average salary of over $10 million. Women in sports have been advocating for equal pay and recognition for decades, and this generation of players is continuing that fight. Speaking with theGrio, the overwhelming desire amongst the 2024 class is expansion and equity in basketball. 
“I want everything we deserve,” said Rickea Jackson, newly drafted to the LA Sparks from the University of Tennessee, in reference to the chartered flights, big TV deals and nationally televised games that are standard in the NBA. “I feel like we just deserve it all. This class particularly is really raising that level and raising that bar.”  

As rookies in the now 27-year-old league, there’s also a tremendous amount of weight on their shoulders. Balancing this new chapter and the charge for advocacy with relentless prowess and respect for those who paved the way is no easy feat. It’s a balancing act most women know all too well. However, if there’s one thing this year’s class can learn from other groundbreaking women in sports, like gymnast Gabby Douglas and tennis star Naomi Osaka, it’s the importance of prioritizing mental health and wellness. 
This draft class has been surprisingly transparent about the mental game they are also playing. Ahead of the draft, Reese made headlines when she disclosed the mental toll of being known as a fierce competitor. Speaking with theGrio, Reese noted she uses journaling and the support of other pros as her outlet to work through challenging moments. 
Likewise, Celeste Taylor, the 15th overall draft pick now headed to the Indiana Fevers, told theGrio she always keeps her Bible close by to stay grounded at any moment. In addition to mutual support and a close connection to faith,  Jackson told theGrio she leans on her boyfriend and her two fashionably named dogs, Chanel and Fendi, when she needs extra strength. 
“The women in the W[NBA] are absolutely the strongest women,” said Charisma Osborne, as she reflected on her journey to the league. “There’s so much adversity at times, and to see how far the game has grown now, I’m just super excited to be a part of it.”
The ultimate goal for every player in this year’s draft class is the same: the growth of the WNBA. As they navigate their rookie seasons, each of these draftees hopes to continue to elevate the game for forthcoming generations. As Commissioner Engelbert expressed, this renewed excitement and attention on the WNBA will last “more than a moment.” With her sentiments echoing through the hearts and minds of every player, they are ready to rise to the occasion. 
“[I want to] continue to get people to see us and notice us and know that we are more than basketball players,” Taylor told theGrio. “It’s going to take time. As long as you invest in us, we are going to give back tenfold.”
Kayla Grant is a multimedia journalist with bylines in Business Insider, Shondaland, Oz Magazine, Prism, Rolling Out and more. She writes about culture, books and entertainment news. Follow her on Twitter: @TheKaylaGrant