I’ve been a basketball fan for pretty much my entire life as a sports fan. It was easy, coming of age during Michael Jordan’s rise to GOAT-hood (and doing that in a city very close to mine), to fall in love with the game, even though I admittedly grew bored at times with the Bulls’ dominance of the NBA. That boredom didn’t often last long, though, because he so regularly did the unbelievable (or un-BULL-evable, if you will) on the court.
I collected basketball cards, I collected basketball posters (I wish I had a photo of my bedroom wall as a pre-teen, I had a pretty impressive corner-to-corner, floor-to-ceiling display), I begged my parents for basketball jerseys (which I occasionally got), I watched basketball games, I followed NBA and NCAA tournaments with brackets I would hand-draw and post on my own bedroom door … you get the picture. When I went to college at Purdue, I worked as a sports reporter for the student newspaper and covered men’s and women’s basketball at a time when the men’s team was fair-to-middling and the women’s team was contending for national titles.
I still remember my first live women’s game, sitting courtside on press row at the Jack Breslin Center to watch the Boilermakers take on Michigan State on the road in East Lansing. We college paper reporters often covered the men’s games from the upper bowl of whatever arena we were in, so it was a change of pace to be courtside. And it was an extremely entertaining game, with Michigan State hitting a game-winning shot with seconds remaining to upset Purdue, who was ranked 7th in the country at the time.
It was a big game, with big performances, high energy, and big talent on display. I knew a lot of people, including several of my coworkers, who preferred the women’s game. At the time, in my early 20s, I wasn’t quite there, even after watching more games that season and seeing the Purdue women go all the way to the Elite Eight, falling to the eventual champions from UConn in the regional final. There was a player on that UConn squad many people were already calling the best women’s player of all time: Diana Taurasi.
That was 2003. It’s 2021, and in those intervening years, I’ve watched a lot of basketball. I’ve read a lot about basketball. I’ve thought a lot about basketball. But in all these years, I’ve mostly ignored the women’s game. Like, I hadn’t watched a full game of women’s basketball since my college reporting days. I couldn’t have told you who the last couple of women’s NCAA champs were (I would have guessed UConn, but that’s just playing percentages). I couldn’t have told you how many teams were in the WNBA.
But recently, something clicked in my head. I started watching more highlight clips from women’s games. I started reading more news coverage of the WNBA and NCAA games. I started thinking more about how the women’s and men’s games compare, and their relative qualities. And I wanted to learn more, watch more.
And as it turns out, I wanted to check out some WNBA trading cards.
I’d read a few months ago about how, like seemingly every other kind of trading card since the start of the pandemic, WNBA cards were having a bit of a moment. I heard about how certain rookie cards were popping up for hundreds of dollars, when they’d been more or less ignored previously. I was intrigued, but at first I figured I’d stay away, mostly because I wasn’t following the WNBA, and I wouldn’t know whose cards to go after.
Then, as I started to become more interested in the women’s game more recently, I read that in 2020, Panini had released its first WNBA Prizm set. Prizm is a big name in the trading card game. Prizm is the gold standard for modern cards, and I’m not sure exactly how we got here, but when you’re talking about rookie cards of any player in practically any sport over the last 10 years or so, the top card is invariably going to be a Prizm variant.
So as a collector/investor (in that order), I thought of two things: One, the FIRST Prizm set of anything is a big deal, going back to 2012 when it was introduced, and two, if I’m going to start following the WNBA, what better way to kick this thing off than collecting some WNBA cards?
I still had the same question as before, though: What players should I be pursuing? I made a tentative first purchase from eBay, spending about $4 for the Prizm card of one of the league’s more high-profile players, Washington Mystics positional shapeshifter Elena Delle Donne.
Due to the high prices for most Prizm cards, I don’t have very many in my collection. When I got this card, though, I was like “this is a damn pretty card.” I get, at least on an aesthetic level, why Prizms are so sought-after. They’re shiny, they’re mirrored, they have good photography, and while the designs aren’t necessarily mind-blowing, they’re solid and kind of iconic in their own way. Year in, year out, there’s a sort of familiarity and sameness to the Prizm family of sets that calls to mind the design continuity of a prestigious car model. You see a Prizm card from 20 feet away, you know it’s a Prizm card. There’s something to be said for that kind of consistency.
The 2020 WNBA Prizm cards, with a couple exceptions, are much more affordable than their NBA and NFL counterparts, so I started to contemplate which other cards I would want. University of Oregon wunderkind Sabrina Ionescu was the No. 1 draft pick last year and most sought-after card in this set, commanding prices of $40 to $100 or more for her base New York Liberty rookie card (I later found out she was injured early on in her rookie year, meaning these prices are still just based on the hype and expectation of her eventual return). But wait a minute, I thought … there are not that many teams in the WNBA (there are 12, I looked it up), and not that many players in the league, so how many cards are there in this Prizm set?
Well, there are 100 cards in this set, I found out. What a nice, tidy, small, round number. And how much are complete base sets of this landmark set going for on eBay? As it turns out, I found one for about $70 shipped (with several others going closer to $100). So I decided to take the plunge, committing myself not just to these cards, but also to an expanded exploration of a whole side of my beloved basketball that I’d been ignoring for too long.
From an “investing” standpoint, I felt like this was a bit of a no-brainer. This is the first set of women’s basketball cards in the most significant and desired trading card imprint in the industry for more than a decade. The key rookie card, the Ionescu, is itself commanding prices in excess of the cost of this entire set in certain conditions, and even if the copy of her card I got in this set was less-than-perfect, it will still be a card that appreciates in value as she (hopefully) accomplishes great things as a professional. And even the cards in this set of established players like Delle Donne are considered “Prizm rookies,” or those players’ first appearances in a Prizm set. That’s a thing!
From a collecting standpoint, that Delle Donne card had me hooked. What a pretty, shiny, enviable card. The idea of having the whole set of these appealed to me the instant I started to consider it. I don’t buy complete sets, generally, but this just felt right.
Let’s take a look at some of the cards, shall we? Descriptions below correspond to the photos’ position in the slideshow.
- The photography, as I mentioned, is pretty top-notch in this set. The action shots like this one of Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings are all very well framed, and the backgrounds are sublimated somewhat — a nice balance between pushing the background to the background (thus elevating the in-focus player) and keeping the background visible and in its context. The main player is also outlined in a Topps Chrome-style relief line, which seems to be the industry standard on these chrome-foil cards.
- The card backs are also quite clean and carry that iconic Prizm stature to them. The photo is just a crop of the front photo (in this case, a fun studio shot of Brittney Sykes tossing a ball behind her head), with a good sampling of flavor text and a single season of stats paired with career totals. I have no notes, other than to add that I dig the updated WNBA logo, which the league updated in 2019. The old one felt like a knock-off NBA logo, and this one not only has a better silhouette, but it individuates from the NBA with its orange-and-white color scheme. It’s a definite upgrade.
- Another cool action shot, this time of Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, a great player who is perhaps most known for dunking in games. For a long time, I thought it was kind of lame that people made a big deal about women dunking, mostly because usually the dunks just barely clear the rim, and it’s not like anyone in the WNBA is backing their opponent down in the post, turning and two-hand monster dunking like Shaq in his prime. But then my view on it started to change. I still think people make too big a deal out of it, because the women’s game isn’t about verticality the same way the men’s game is, and so dunking doesn’t play a strategic role the same way it can in the men’s game, but at the same time, dunks get the WNBA on Sportscenter, dunks get the WNBA trending on Twitter. Dunks are the currency of the men’s game, which everyone is already used to, so when one happens and people are debating about how good a dunk it is or whether a woman’s team could beat a men’s team, etc., the WNBA gains relevance in sports discourse. There are going to continue to be men who are dismissive of the women’s game or ignorant about it in the way I have been, but getting their gums flapping is pretty much always going to be preferable to being completely ignored.
- The studio shots in this set are, like the action shots, just exemplary. There are a lot of great ones to choose from, but this one of former Notre Dame and current Phoenix Mercury star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith is easily the most visually arresting. She’s lean, she’s strong, she’s moving into the camera like she’s on the attack, her hair is flowing in a studio-produced breeze, and she’s got a killer look on her face. Like Jimi Hendrix sang, she’s comin’ to GETCHA.
- The 2020 season was, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a pretty weird one. A LOT of players sat it out, some got sick, some were injured, games were postponed and canceled due to safety protocols, etc. The race for Rookie of the Year, similarly, broke some weird ground, as Minnesota Lynx guard Crystal Dangerfield became the first-ever rookie not drafted in the first round to win the award. This set only includes the rookies drafted in the first round, including Ionescu and her Oregon teammate Satou Sabally, who went No. 1 and No. 2, and I included No. 3 pick Lauren Cox in the photo as well, so you can see an example of a college action shot being used on a card.
I’m really happy with my purchase. There’s some history here, as well as some really great card design, and some wonderful depictions of fantastic athletes in a sport I’m newly reinvigorated about. The Stanford Cardinal just won the NCAA tournament, the WNBA draft is in about a week, and I just purchased the WNBA League Pass. Admittedly, this is not the ideal time to buy, since the last season has been over for a while and the next season’s schedule hasn’t been released, but it was only $6, and that tiny bit of cash gives me a chance to watch highlights and full-game video from last season, including the playoffs. When the new season launches, I’ll re-up for — if historical prices are a guide –between $16 and $20 for EVERY TEAM for the ENTIRE SEASON. That’s practically nothing, particularly compared to the cost of the NBA League Pass, which starts at $200.
So yeah, I’m in on the WNBA and women’s basketball, and I’m truly enjoying learning the differences in strategy and approach on the court between the men’s game I know so well and the women’s game. This is the 25th anniversary year for the WNBA, and it’s so interesting to behold the women’s professional game with history and context, something it was missing (by definition) for the first bunch of years. There have been enough seasons played that now we already see different eras of the game defined by key players and teams, dynasties that have risen and fallen. We now have legends, retired players who hold league records, and current players who have started to eclipse some of those records.
Speaking of records, looking at the WNBA record books, you see a lot of categories with the same lady at or near the top of them, and it happens to be the same lady who knocked off that Purdue team in the NCAA tournament back in 2003. She’s still going, and now she’s got a Prizm card, too.