LAS VEGAS — Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier have recently launched Unrivaled, a new basketball league, which they see as complementary to the WNBA, offering players an avenue to fill offseason voids.
As women’s basketball gains momentum in TV viewership and popularity, Unrivaled aims to work in parallel with the WNBA rather than compete against it. Stewart, a forward for the New York Liberty, expressed her hope that both Unrivaled and the WNBA can encourage and support each other, rather than creating division.
Breanna Stewart Unrivaled, the latest addition to women’s professional basketball leagues, is set to operate during the WNBA offseason, from January through March. The league will be based in Miami and will feature six teams comprising 30 of the best professional women’s players. The games will involve one-on-one and three-on-three formats, which have been gaining popularity. The court will be full-sized but two-thirds the size of a regulation one, and the founders believe the fast-paced and high-scoring nature of the games will attract viewers.
This new league offers a temporary solution to some long-standing frustrations that players have had with the WNBA, which is currently in its 27th season. One of the main concerns is the controversial prioritization clause, set to take full effect in the following season. This clause mandates players with at least three years of experience to return to their WNBA teams in time for training camp or face suspension for the season. This has been challenging for players who play overseas during the WNBA offseason, as their postseason schedules may conflict with the WNBA’s training camp.
Unrivaled provides an alternative for players to keep playing and marketing themselves outside of the relatively short, six-month WNBA season. Additionally, it grants players the opportunity to spend time with their families during the holidays and engage more with fans and brands in the U.S. market—rare occurrences for women’s players domestically.
Stewart emphasized that Unrivaled aims to give players more options and choices, countering the limitations posed by the prioritization clause. With this new league, they hope to regain control over their schedules and careers, and foster a more collaborative relationship with the WNBA.
Breanna Stewart: How Unrivaled, WNBA can help each other
Stewart, Collier, and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert have engaged in early conversations about Unrivaled, and they described the discussions as positive and productive. They all recognize the potential for cross-marketing between the two leagues, which would benefit both organizations and all players involved.
Collier, a forward for the Minnesota Lynx, highlighted the idea of showcasing the 30 best assets (players) in Unrivaled, which would help grow individual players’ profiles. She emphasized that in today’s sports landscape, fans tend to follow and connect with players more than teams. By nurturing the growth and popularity of individual players through Unrivaled, it could ultimately benefit the entire WNBA by driving more interest and viewership.
Stewart echoed this sentiment, believing that having WNBA stars participate in Unrivaled could attract more fans to the WNBA, and vice versa. The potential for cross-promotion between the two leagues could create a mutually beneficial relationship, increasing visibility and engagement for both organizations.
In terms of marketing, Collier mentioned that content will play a significant role, focusing on providing behind-the-scenes glimpses, podcasts, and extensive coverage through “cameras everywhere.” This approach aims to give fans unique access to players, offering them content that is not typically available during the regular season, when players are often out of the public spotlight.
Overall, the founders of Unrivaled and the WNBA see this collaboration as a promising partnership, combining their efforts to grow women’s basketball and elevate its presence in the sports world.
During Cathy Engelbert’s tenure as the WNBA Commissioner, a key focus has been on elevating the league’s players into household names and supporting them in building more sponsorships throughout the year. Engelbert expressed the WNBA’s commitment to supporting initiatives like Unrivaled, led by players Napheesa Collier and Breanna Stewart, from a marketing perspective.
While raising capital in a challenging market, the league hopes for the success of Unrivaled and is prepared to offer various forms of support to help it thrive. As part of its efforts to become a year-round center for women’s basketball and women’s sports in general, the WNBA aired Athletes Unlimited games on its WNBA League Pass platform during the previous winter, and it did not charge any extra fees for access.
Athletes Unlimited is a five-week fantasy sports-like league that takes place in March and features WNBA players, including stars like NaLyssa Smith of the Indiana Fever and Lexie Brown of the Los Angeles Sparks, who was recently named the chairperson of AU’s Players Executive Committee. The league’s involvement in showcasing these events highlights its commitment to keeping women’s basketball at the forefront even during the WNBA offseason.
In summary, under Engelbert’s leadership, the WNBA has been actively working towards making women’s basketball a year-round focus and supporting initiatives like Unrivaled and Athletes Unlimited to promote and empower WNBA players beyond the traditional WNBA season.
During the first season of Unrivaled, discussions about the WNBA’s prioritization clause were gaining momentum. Although Unrivaled and Athletes Unlimited (AU) both provide opportunities for women’s basketball players outside of the WNBA season, they have distinct differences. Unrivaled’s roster consists mostly of mid-tier players or those striving to secure starting roles, and it features three-on-three and one-on-one formats, which sets it apart from traditional five-on-five play.
Breanna Stewart highlighted that Unrivaled offers a unique space for players who are not participating in overseas leagues, creating an opportunity that hasn’t been explored extensively before.
In comparison to other women’s professional basketball leagues in the United States, the WNBA stands as the longest-running and most prominent league. While there have been other attempts to establish women’s basketball leagues, such as the Women’s Basketball Development Association (founded in 2004), the Global Women’s Basketball Association (established in 2016), and the Women’s American Basketball Association (launched in 2017), they have largely focused on former college players rather than WNBA talent. These leagues have not achieved national recognition, significant financial payouts, or major television deals, making the WNBA the leading women’s professional basketball league in the U.S.
Unrivaled’s emergence and collaboration with the WNBA, as well as AU’s growth and impact on the women’s basketball landscape, signify the ongoing efforts to expand opportunities and visibility for women’s basketball players beyond the traditional WNBA season.
Breanna Stewart: Building Unrivaled roster
During the All-Star weekend, Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier, as leaders of Unrivaled, were approached by their fellow players with questions and interest in the new basketball league. They engaged in recruiting efforts and held meetings in Las Vegas to further promote and establish the league.
Brittney Griner, the Phoenix Mercury center, expressed admiration for Unrivaled’s initiative and stated her support for the league. While she hasn’t committed to playing in it yet, she expressed her enthusiasm for being involved and following its progress.
For WNBA players, this offseason is significant as they face decisions regarding the prioritization clause. Some players have already utilized their time off to invest in other ventures, such as broadcasting, while others are exploring opportunities in marketing deals. Some players must decide whether to pursue partial overseas deals or opt to skip the WNBA season altogether.
Chelsea Gray, the Las Vegas Aces point guard, has participated in overseas play and has been actively involved in broadcasting recently. She is the only player publicly known to be associated with competing in Unrivaled. However, Collier and Stewart have clarified that they will not have a direct role in determining the league’s players; instead, a committee without player involvement will handle player selection.
Currently, Collier and Stewart are primarily gauging players’ interest in Unrivaled. While many players at the All-Star weekend expressed intrigue, they refrained from publicly sharing their specific offseason plans.
Overall, Unrivaled’s emergence comes at a pivotal time for the WNBA, with players facing critical decisions about their careers and commitments, making the new league a notable alternative for players seeking to expand their basketball opportunities.
Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu expressed excitement about Unrivaled and its potential for growth and evolution. As one of the newer generation of players, she has chosen to stay in the U.S. during the WNBA offseason instead of playing overseas. With her numerous endorsement deals, including a forthcoming Nike signature shoe, she has additional income sources to compensate for any potential loss of earnings that might come from not playing overseas as a top-tier U.S. player.
On the other hand, Breanna Stewart, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, has traditionally spent most of her offseasons playing overseas in Russia and Turkey for teams like UMMC Ekaterinburg and Fenerbahçe. She has a substantial list of endorsements, including her own signature shoe with Puma, making her one of the highly marketed WNBA players.
Stewart has been vocal about her concerns regarding the prioritization clause, and in response, she has signed one-year deals in the past two offseasons, partly due to the clause’s implications. Additionally, with her wife Marta Xargay expecting their second child in the fall, Stewart has been contemplating whether she wants to continue her overseas career.
Napheesa Collier, a 2019 draft pick from the University of Connecticut, also played overseas early in her career in France. However, in the last two years, she has been on a WNBA Player Marketing Agreement, which compensates her for making appearances on behalf of the WNBA.
These players’ choices and endorsement deals illustrate the diverse paths and considerations players face during the WNBA offseason, and Unrivaled could provide a new option for players seeking alternatives to overseas play.
Initially, Napheesa Collier expressed criticism towards the prioritization clause, stating that she would contemplate not playing in the WNBA if she could earn more money overseas. As one of the final draft classes before the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was implemented in 2020, she was subject to smaller rookie contracts, which may have influenced her perspective.
However, Collier’s perspective underwent a shift following significant personal experiences. After the birth of her daughter in May 2022 and the wrongful detainment of Brittney Griner during her overseas stint, Collier made the decision not to pursue overseas play again. These life-changing events likely played a role in shaping her priorities and led her to reconsider her stance on playing overseas.
With the emergence of Unrivaled and the potential it offers for players to compete in a league based in the United States during the WNBA offseason, Collier may see this as a preferable option that aligns with her desire to stay closer to home and avoid the challenges and uncertainties associated with overseas play.
Breanna Stewart: Unrivaled aims to fill WNBA gaps
According to recent reports from ESPN, Unrivaled aims to secure enough private funding and sponsorships to offer players salaries similar to what they earn in the WNBA. The WNBA’s supermax base salary in 2023 is $234,936, though only a few players are currently close to that figure.
While some superstars like Breanna Stewart and players from powerhouse teams like the Las Vegas Aces may take less to play on competitive rosters, the league states that players have the potential to earn up to $750,000 through a combination of base salary, marketing deals, major award payouts, and postseason income. However, no player has reached that threshold yet.
Stewart and Collier have already begun working with various business and sports leaders, including Twitter, DAZN, the WTA, and WWE. These partnerships aim to create meaningful and authentic collaborations that support and promote women’s sports beyond just having a partnership in name.
There is a growing interest from sponsors in women’s sports, as evidenced by the increased number and size of activations during events like WNBA Live, a fan fest held during the All-Star weekend. Overall viewership for women’s sports, including the WNBA, is on the rise.
The 2023 WNBA All-Star game, for example, aired on ABC in prime time for the first time in history and attracted an average of 850,000 viewers, making it the most-watched All-Star game in 16 years, as reported by ESPN. Breanna Stewart expressed optimism about the potential for Unrivaled to further grow the audience for women’s sports.
By providing a platform that makes women’s basketball easily accessible to viewers, she believes that more people will tune in, leading to increased interest from investors and sponsors. This growth in support can benefit not only the top players but also the entire league, fostering further development and recognition for women’s basketball.
During the All-Star weekend, the skills challenge, won by Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum, and the 3-point contest, featuring a record-breaking performance by Sabrina Ionescu, saw increased viewership, despite airing at 4 p.m. ET on a Friday. However, the timing of the TV window was a concern for many players, highlighting one of the several occasions when the WNBA schedule has been perceived as lackluster or even abysmal.
Breanna Stewart, who has been increasingly vocal about league issues in recent years, sees her role as a founder of Unrivaled as an opportunity to address these pain points and create positive change. By taking more control over their own destiny through Unrivaled, Stewart and her fellow founders aim to ensure that they can pursue the changes they desire and improve aspects of the women’s basketball landscape, such as scheduling and overall player experience.
Having more agency in shaping the future of women’s basketball and addressing the concerns that players have is a significant motivation for Stewart and the other founders of Unrivaled. This new league provides them with an avenue to advocate for their needs and aspirations, taking steps towards making the sport even better for everyone involved.
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