The league began with a player draft held in Manhattan's Essex House in July 1978, with eight teams participating. While few of the teams had firm commitments on playing locations (or team names, for that matter), the league planned to play a 34-game season with teams in Chicago, Houston, Iowa, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Jersey, New York City and Washington, D.C. Houston drafted Ann Meyers from UCLA, while New Jersey's top choice Carol Blazejowski of Montclair State University said that she wanted to retain her amateur standing to be eligible to play in the 1980 Summer Olympics. Lusia Harris, a collegiate star at Delta State University, was selected by the Houston team, but was reluctant to commit to playing after hearing the $3,000 to $5,000 salaries estimated by the Minnesota franchise. With its last pick in the draft, the Cornets selected Uljana Semjonova, a 6-foot-11-inch player for the Soviet Union's national women's basketball team who would be inducted as an inaugural member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in the class of 1999, but would never play a game in the WBL. The New Jersey Gems selected Carol Blazejowski from Montclair State College, but she announced while on tour in Bulgaria with the U.S. national women's team through her coach Maureen Wendelken that she had no intention of playing professionally and that her goal was to retain her amateur standing to be able to play for the U.S. at the 1980 Summer Olympics. Molly Bolin, who grew up in Moravia, Iowa, became the first player signed by any team in the WBL when she was signed by the Iowa Cornets.
The league played its first game on December 9, 1978, between the Chicago Hustle and the Milwaukee Does at the Milwaukee Arena, with the league's inaugural game attracting four minutes of coverage in the previous night's CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Milwaukee mayor Henry Maier issued a proclamation likening this first game to the first professional football game, played in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and the first pro baseball game, played in Cincinnati.
The league was divided into two divisions, with Chicago, Milwaukee, the Iowa Cornets and Minnesota Fillies playing in the Western Division, while the Dayton Rockettes, Houston Angels, New Jersey Gems and New York Stars were in the East. The eight initial teams paid $50,000 for their franchise, while the four teams to be added for the 1979–80 season were expected to pay $100,000, and $250,000 per team for each of four more teams in the following season. The Does had a crowd of 7,824 at the game, which saw the hometown team lose to Chicago 92–87, with Debra Waddy Rossow scoring 30 points to lead the Hustle.
The league was able to arrange an all-star game in 1979, which was played at the Felt Forum in New York City's Madison Square Garden in front of 2,731 fans. The game was hastily arranged and inserted into the league's schedule, using a court borrowed from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and forcing some players to have to make hectic travel arrangements to get to their next regular season game. The East beat the Midwest by a score of 112–99. Althea Gwyn of the New York Stars led the East with 19 points and 16 rebounds, while Chicago Hustle players Debra Waddy Rossow with 26 points and Rita Easterling with 19 points led the Midwest. Easterling, who also grabbed 18 rebounds, was named the game's most valuable player.
Behind 36 points by Paula Mayo, the Houston Angels defeated the Iowa Cornets on May 2, 1979, to take the league's first championship, 111–104 in the final game of a best three-out-of-five competition.
The league made it through its first season with all eight teams in operation, though the Dayton Rockettes had been taken over by the league in February 1979 and was to be relocated to either Indianapolis or Los Angeles. New franchises had been awarded to Dallas, New Orleans, San Francisco and St. Louis, Missouri, while applications were received for potential franchises from Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
On April 9, 1980, despite Iowa's league-leading scorer Molly Bolin's 36 point, the New York Stars held on to win game four of the finals 125–114, behind 27 points by Pearl Moore and 22 by Janice Thomas. Stars coach Dean Meminger called the game the "culmination of a year of hard work". In what proved to be a harbinger of things to come, however, the Stars asked to go on a two-year hiatus not long after winning the title.
In a game scheduled in Chicago on March 21, 1981, players of the Minnesota Fillies, one of only three teams to play in all three seasons that the league was in existence, walked off the court before the starting lineups were announced in a game against the Chicago Hustle in a protest over unpaid salaries. Referees and team coach Terry Kunze tried to cajole the players back onto the court to play their game, but were unsuccessful. The team, which had been averaging 1,000 to 1,500 in attendance per game were suspended from the WPBL by commissioner Sherwin Fisher, who called the walkout as "very detrimental to the league".
The Nebraska Wranglers won the league's 1980–81 title, defeating the Dallas Diamonds three games to two. In the fifth and final game, Rosie Walker led the victors with 39 points, while the Wranglers' defense held Nancy Lieberman of Dallas to 12 points, less than half of her season average.
Bill Byrne had founded the league hoping that the 1980 Summer Olympics would showcase the game's stars and bring media and public attention to women's basketball, but the United States-led boycott of the Moscow games only added to the league's misfortunes.
By the fall of 1981, the league was showing what The New York Times described as "feeble flickers of life." That November, commissioner Dave Almstead announced the league had disbanded, having generated $14 million in losses in its three years on the court. Almstead, who had succeeded Fisher as league commissioner in May 1981, announced the league's shutdown after trying unsuccessfully to contact the surviving eight teams' investors and team owners. Fischer, owner of the Chicago Hustle, insisted that he would field a team that would go barnstorming if the league went out of existence, and thought that teams would be fielded for a fourth season by Chicago, Nebraska and New Orleans. Some of the players were able to play professionally again in the 1984 Women's American Basketball Association.California Dreams (1979–80) / Nebraska Wranglers (1980–81)
Chicago Hustle (1978–81)
Dallas Diamonds (1979–81)
Dayton Rockettes (1978–79) / Washington Metros (1979–80)
Houston Angels (1978–80)
Iowa Cornets (1978–80)
Milwaukee Does (1978–80)
Minnesota Fillies (1978–81)
New England Gulls (1980–81)
New Jersey Gems (1978–81)
New Orleans Pride (1979–81)
New York Stars (1978–80)
Philadelphia Fox (1979–80)
St. Louis Streak (1979–81)
San Francisco Pioneers (1979–81)
1978–79 Houston Angels
1979–80 New York Stars
1980–81 Nebraska Wranglers
Ann Meyers, top pick in the WBL draft in 1978 for the Houston Angels, WBL Co-MVP for the 1979–1980 season playing for the New Jersey Gems, now the General Manager for the Phoenix Mercury
Carol Blazejowski, now the General Manager for the New York Liberty
"Machine Gun" Molly Bolin, Co-MVP for the 1979–80 season
Brenda Chapman, the WBL scoring leader in the 1978–79 season
Rita Easterling, MVP for the 1978–79 season
Donna Geils, now Donna Orender, former President of the WNBA
Denise "Neicy" Craig, former Dayton Rockettes player, Hall of Fame inductee of Shaw University, Hall of Fame inductee of CIAA, Hall of Fame inductee of Princeton High School Athletics, Princeton, New Jersey
Nancy Lieberman, former Phoenix Mercury player, first-ever coach of the Detroit Shock, now a basketball analyst on ESPN
Muffet McGraw, now Head Coach at University of Notre Dame
Rhonda Rompola, now Head Coach at Southern Methodist University
Rosie Walker, MVP for the 1980–81 season
Kaye Young, later known as Kaye Young Cowher, the late wife of American football coach Bill Cowher
Anita Ortega, played with the San Francisco Pioneers and a brief stint with the Minnesota Fillies. She was one of the women that decided not to play in a Fillies game due to contractual violations by the owners. She was a 1980 WBL All-Star and described as the "Dr.J" of her time because of her crafty athletic moves. She later became the highest ranking Afro-Puerto Rican in the Los Angeles Police Department.
Houston 2–0 New York
Iowa 2–1 Chicago
Houston 3–1 Iowa
Philadelphia and Washington disbanded after 10 games.
San Francisco 2–1 Houston
Minnesota 2–1 New Orleans
Iowa 2–1 Minnesota
New York 2–0 San Francisco
New York 3–1 Iowa
New England disbanded after 12 games.
Dallas 2–1 New Jersey
Nebraska 2–0 Chicago
Nebraska 3–2 Dallas