Once in a generation, there’s an athlete whose game is so great, it literally changes their sport. Sabrina Ionescu, 22, is that athlete. While playing at the University of Oregon, Ionescu became the first college basketball player—male or female—in the history of the NCAA to score 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists. If you’re not a basketball fan, let us put that another way: Ionescu is so good, her game has been credited with boosting attendance at women’s basketball games around the country.
In what came as a shock to no one, the history-making point guard was the number one draft pick in the 2020 WNBA draft (which was live-streamed due to the coronavirus and drew the highest viewership in 16 years). Her freshly minted New York Liberty jersey sold out in an hour, the record-breaking Age of Ionescu officially underway.
In a system in which women’s sports are consistently undervalued and underfunded, the fight for equal pay is only the beginning. Women athletes are constantly told they can’t draw crowds and that they aren’t as deserving of cushy endorsement deals. It’s more difficult to buy their jerseys and harder to catch their games on TV. They ride in economy while men's teams fly private.
Through the sheer power of her play, Ionescu is confidently proving that all of that is bullshit. Women athletes are serious competitors with a lot more to offer. “If you want to watch players on a team that stands for something that’s more than just basketball, these women stand for something a lot bigger than themselves,” says Ionescu. “In every sport that’s played, in every athlete, you really watch for those players that have a story to tell.”
We asked Ionescu how she feels about being basketball’s golden girl, the future of women’s sports, and what it will take to finally get equal pay.
Glamour: How does it feel knowing that your game has helped bring more fans to women’s basketball? On the road, the University of Oregon team was credited with boosting attendance at opponents’ arenas by 75%.
Ionescu: It was awesome to see our team be able to do that—especially on the road and obviously at our home games. Just being able to watch how many people came progressively through the years and to watch how attendance went up. Being on the road and seeing how attendance continued to rise and how many people wanted to stay after to sign autographs and stuff, it really just goes to show how special the team was—and how it was changing not only our city and our state, but everywhere else we played.
Even with amazing successes, huge inequalities still exist in sports—in pay, in training conditions, in airtime and promotion. What was your experience of that?
In my first two years, our team wasn’t very good and our attendance wasn’t really high, and so we didn’t get as much theater, we didn’t get as many shoes, we didn’t get a lot of the stuff that the men’s team did. But even in my last year, I mean, we flew commercial everywhere while the men’s team flew private to games—but we had more people in attendance to every single game in my last year and our ticket sales were higher than the men’s team. So you still see [the inequality].
With the WNBA, with the new collective bargaining agreement, we’re seeing small changes. I hope that we can just continue to change it. Pay is probably the biggest issue, but I think even the little things—the gear, the representation, the TV time—all of that stuff adds up.
As you can attest to, and as we’re seeing play out with the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, even when women athletes do outperform men, they’re still not compensated fairly. What do you think it will take to change that?
I definitely think it starts with the system, because I think originally the culture was that women aren’t “supposed” to be playing sports, so people weren’t “supposed” to be going to women’s games. That has obviously totally changed and shifted. So I think that it definitely starts with education and the representation of women in sports so we can finally see that as a norm. You shouldn’t be watching a game and be surprised that you see women winning medals and playing at a really high level. We shouldn’t still be having to demand equal pay. Hopefully in the future, like for our children and our children’s children, it should just be so normal that they see that.
Your first WNBA season is getting off to a very different start because of the pandemic—namely, no fans for the foreseeable future. Do you think that creates an opportunity to create more systemic changes?
I definitely see it in a positive light. There are so many opportunities for TV time, being able to stream the games, have them on ESPN, maybe have more people who are at home being able to watch the games. The draft was the most-watched draft in 16 years. That was a prime example, and that wasn’t even a game that people were watching. I think more people will definitely be watching the games if they’re online.
Other than being great competition, why should people pay attention to women’s basketball?
Being able to watch women work hard, grind, and tell a story through their performance is a huge reason—and honestly, a source of inspiration whether you’re in sports or a different profession. I think you can really hold onto that mentorship and inspiration from the way that these women play and carry themselves.
Originally Appeared on Glamour