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ABC News
Hayley Wildes

How the WNBL is leveraging the Opals' World Cup success

The 2022 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup, held in Sydney across September and October, was a once in a generation chance to build momentum for women's basketball in Australia.

The Opals have historically been one of Australia's top performing national sporting teams, and after falling short at the Tokyo Olympics, the Opals returned to glory in Sydney as the legendary Lauren Jackson scored 30 points in her final international game to lead Australia home against Canada, claiming a memorable bronze medal.

Jackson's exploits will go down in history as she came out of retirement after six years. Rightfully so, Jackson and her teammates made national – and international – headlines.

Finally, women's basketball was on the back page of papers and social media was abuzz. It was a fairytale finish to a tournament that was the most attended in history as 145,519 fans packed stadiums throughout the nine days of play.

Fast forward two months and the WNBL season is in full swing with a massive uptick in crowd numbers compared to last season, but the question remains – will the league be able to capitalise on this momentum in the long term?

"You can't really put a price on it," Christy Collier-Hill, head of the WNBL, told the ABC.

"The World Cup was such an enormous success for not just the Opals, but for women's basketball.

"Outside of the basketball world, if you ask anyone – and I've done this many times – which female Australian basketball players can you name? I get three with a high level of consistency; Lauren Jackson, Liz Cambage and Michele Timms, and that's as deep as it goes for most people, unfortunately.

"We've got a job to do – we've got to make more household names and the World Cup absolutely provided us with a stepping stone to do that."

The long road ahead

For Kristy Wallace, who quickly became an Australian fan favourite at the World Cup thanks to her unrelenting defence and toughness, the tournament was everything that she'd dreamed of.

"Nothing will ever top that experience – to be in my home country with young Australian girls and boys looking up to us," she told ABC Sport.

Inspiring and positively impacting kids around Australia is what sport is all about and the Opals certainly accomplished that feat at the World Cup, but the fight to gain media attention and equality in the sport continues.

"There's no doubt there is increased media interest from what was already a very low base in previous seasons, but we still have a long way to go," Collier-Hill said.

"As a league, we push and push and push and push – we literally have to jump through hoops on fire to get any sort of mainstream media coverage.

"It's an ongoing challenge, however, we recognise that and the other thing we've done well is embrace 'new media' – we've engaged directly with podcasts, and other WNBL and basketball media as a realisation that they are our supporters, and they are getting our messages out there."

Wallace, who plays for the Melbourne Boomers in the WNBL, also spoke frankly about the possibility of the World Cup being a turning point for the league and women's basketball in general.

"There is a long way to go, we are making small steps in the right direction and that's all you can really ask for," she said.

Seeing stars shine at home

The importance of having WNBL players shine bright on the world stage can't be underestimated for a league that is trying to cultivate more household names.

A player like Steph Talbot is the perfect example.

Talbot is a multiple-time Olympian, a former WNBL MVP, and a WNBA mainstay, but prior to the World Cup, she had never truly received the recognition that she deserved in her home country.

Her World Cup campaign was nothing short of extraordinary, and without her, the Opals may not have walked away with a medal.

Talbot carried the team through stretches of games and was rewarded with a place on the tournament All-Star Five team.

Australians took note of Talbot's tournament and now, fans across the country will be going to WNBL games to get a chance to watch her live and up close.

And it's not just Talbot that fans now want to see – there's the obvious Lauren Jackson factor at the Southside Flyers – but they now know more about the likes of Sami Whitcomb, Cayla George, Sara Blicavs, Tess Madgen and Wallace.

It's this type of organic growth that is key to the WNBL gaining more fans and relevancy.

"It blows my mind that it took so much for that [recognition] to happen," Wallace said.

"I'm really glad that players are starting to get that appreciation and I think the World Cup definitely helped players like Steph get the recognition that they have obviously deserved for a long time."

The World Cup provided the WNBL with a great launching pad into this season, as did the return of Jackson with the Flyers.

She is bringing new and old fans to the league, Southside's average attendance through the first three rounds is more than triple what they averaged last season.

And while many might be heading to games just to see Jackson, they in turn witness the play of every athlete on the court and create new connections.

Growth opportunities

Through the early rounds, the WNBL has seen crowds grow by about 70 per cent on last season.

One aspect that the WNBL has nailed on the head is fan and player interaction post-game.

"It's the standout factor that the WNBL has over every other professional sporting league in the country – our accessibility," Collier-Hill said.

"You'll find every WNBL team after a game sitting on the court in a coordinated manner, signing autographs and taking selfies.

"There's no other code in the country where you can do that. You don't just get to see your heroes on-court, you can actually meet them."

"For me, that's just why you do it," Wallace added.

"It's for those kids and for them to have someone to look up to. It's just such a healthy environment and it's basically why we play the game."

In her first season with the Boomers, Wallace is thriving in a starting guard role, averaging 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.

She credits the organisation for their professionalism and believes that quality is what will help drive the league forward.

"There's that quote – you can't be what you can't see, and I think organisations like the Melbourne Boomers are really trying to create a platform for players like us to shine," she said.

It's certainly been a whirlwind 2022 for Wallace, whose incredible resilience was finally rewarded earlier in the year as she completed her rookie season in the WNBA – with the Atlanta Dream – after years of injury setbacks.

"It was honestly incredible, and I couldn't believe I was there — I had massive impostor syndrome the entire time," she said.

Wallace's on-court presence is must-see sport and it's players like her, and many other worthy WNBL players, that will be key in lifting the league to new heights – on and off the court – especially as other female professional sports continue to evolve in Australia.

For Collier-Hill, she wants what is best for all female sports in the country.

"Are they our competition? I suppose they are, but at the end of the day, my personal view is that I'm all about women's sport and female athletes," she said.

"Collectively, I think all of us who are in women's professional sporting leagues should be helping each other out. I have great relationships with the women who work in those other leagues.

"We're there to help each other, not pull each other down.

"However, there's no doubt that those leagues are ahead of us in a number of areas and it's just about seeing what they do, learning from them, and as they share with us, we share with them."

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