LAS VEGAS — Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier view Unrivaled, their newly founded basketball league, as symbiotic to the WNBA and an avenue to fill offseason voids for players as women’s basketball continues to grow in TV viewership and popularity.
“Oftentimes in the WNBA, it seems like we’re fighting against each other when we should be working parallel,” Stewart said. “So hopefully, Unrivaled and the WNBA can continue to do that, where we can really kind of encourage one another.”
Unrivaled, whose emergence was announced one week before players began arriving in Las Vegas for the 2023 WNBA All-Star game, is the latest women’s professional basketball league and would run during the WNBA offseason from January through March. It will be based in Miami and feature 30 of the best professional women’s players on six teams, playing one-on-one and three-on-three, a game booming in popularity. It will be full court, but two-thirds the size of a regulation one, and the founders believe the prolific offense will entice viewers.
It’s a way for players to at least temporarily address many of their long-standing frustrations with the WNBA, which is in its 27th season and will introduce the full effects of the controversial prioritization clause next season.
The clause requires players with at least three years of experience to return to their WNBA teams in time for training camp or else be suspended for the season. That can be difficult because overseas clubs often play their postseasons beyond training camp. Team owners got the clause codified in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, and players have since publicly pushed back.
Unrivaled is an answer to the prioritization problem and a way for players to keep playing, thereby continuously marketing themselves, outside of the short six-month WNBA season. It also allows players the opportunity to take a short break from basketball, be home with family for the holidays and earn more facetime with fans and brands in the U.S. market. All are rare occurrences for women’s players domestically.
“You can kind of give players more options and more choices, because I think the prioritization really didn’t give us any choices,” Stewart said. “And now we’re taking them back. And it’s just coming in from a different source.”
How Unrivaled, WNBA can help each other
Stewart, Collier and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said they had conversations about Unrivaled early in the process. Stewart said they were good conversations, and Collier described them as positive. All spoke about the cross-marketing potential that would benefit each league and all players.
“We think it could be a great partnership,” Collier, a Lynx forward, said. “We’re highlighting their 30 best assets. And so when you grow individual players, it’s really more about that than teams nowadays. People follow players more than they follow teams. By growing that it only helps the league, so we thought it would be mutually beneficial.”
Stewart said watching WNBA stars in Unrivaled could lead fans to the WNBA, and vice versa. That’s also true of brands that now have more touchpoints with fans by sponsoring the leagues and players. Collier said content will be a large focus in marketing with behind-the-scenes looks, podcasts and “cameras everywhere.” It will increase visibility and relevance in a time when players are usually out of the spotlight.
“It’s going to be a lot of cool access to players you don’t necessarily get to see very often,” she said.
That’s been a focus for the WNBA during Engelbert’s tenure as the league attempts to grow its players into household names throughout the year and help them build more sponsorships.
“We’d like to certainly support what Napheesa and Stewie are doing from a marketing-specific perspective and see what they can put together [and] how they’re thinking about it,” Engelbert said before the All-Star game. “Having raised some capital recently last year, it’s a tough market out there. It’s a tough economy. But we hope it’s successful, and we’ll support them in a lot of different ways from a marketing perspective.”
The league aired Athletes Unlimited games on its WNBA League Pass platform at no extra charge last winter. Engelbert said at All-Star weekend it was part of the league’s push to “become the center of women’s basketball, not just during our season, but all year round and maybe longer term, the center of women’s sports.”
AU Basketball, a five-week fantasy sports-like league held in March, is entering its third season and features WNBA players such as Indiana Fever forward NaLyssa Smith, the Season 2 champion, and Los Angeles Sparks guard Lexie Brown, the newly named chairperson of AU’s Players Executive Committee.
Its first season hit as prioritization chatter really began taking off. While the league and its PEC doesn’t market itself as an offseason home for WNBA players, it has rostered dozens of mostly mid-tier players or those working their way into starting roles. The players compete for individual points in traditional five-on-five with teams drafted each week by the top four points earners.
“Unrivaled and AU are similar but different,” Stewart, a Liberty forward, said. “Obviously [it’s] a league that’s happening in the United States, with players who aren’t playing overseas, but also [Unrivaled] is not five-on-five. It’s three-on-three and one-on-one and [a] way smaller pool. I think that it’s an opportunity for both to happen, because this is a space that really hasn’t been worked in for very long.”
The WNBA is the longest-running women’s professional sports league in the U.S. The Women’s Basketball Development Association was founded in 2004 and the Global Women’s Basketball Association was established in 2016. The new Women’s American Basketball Association launched in 2017 with 18 teams. All are largely places for former college players, not WNBA talent, and none has national clout, large payouts or major TV deals.
Building Unrivaled roster
Stewart, an All-Star captain, and Collier said they fielded questions from their peers about Unrivaled over the weekend. Collier said they were doing some recruiting and had meetings in Vegas about the league “just trying to get it off the ground.”
“I think it’s amazing what they’re doing,” said Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who reiterated she will no longer play overseas again after her wrongful detention in Russia. “Whether I play in it or not, I’m definitely going to be around and watching and being there.”
It’s a major offseason for the WNBA as players determine how they will handle prioritization. Some have already used their time off to invest in other projects, such as broadcasting, or big names are looking to rely on marketing deals. Others will need to decide if they can make partial overseas deals, or if they want to skip the WNBA altogether.
Las Vegas Aces point guard Chelsea Gray has played overseas and recently has done more broadcasting. She is the only player publicly attached to competing in Unrivaled. Collier said she and Stewart will not determine who is in the league. Instead, there will be a committee that does not include any players on it.
Collier and Stewart are mostly gauging players’ interest at the moment, though many at All-Star weekend demurred on publicly sharing any offseason plans.
“[Stewart] had mentioned it a little bit before it got announced,” Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu said. “I was excited to read up on it and see the growth and evolution that it’s going to take.”
Ionescu, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, is one of the newer generation of players to stay home during the WNBA offseason rather than play overseas. She also has a long list of endorsement deals, including a Nike signature shoe dropping next month, that can offset any lost income she’d make as a top-tier U.S. player on a powerhouse club.
Stewart, the No. 1 pick in 2016, followed the road paved by those before her and has spent most of every offseason playing overseas at UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia and Fenerbahçe in Turkey. She also has a long list of endorsements, including her own signature shoe with Puma that hit last summer, and is one of the few WNBA players who’s highly marketed.
Stewart has been outspoken about the prioritization clause and signed one-year deals the last two offseasons, partially citing the clause as the reason. Her wife, Marta Xargay, is expecting the couple’s second child this fall, which made Stewart contemplate whether she wanted to continue her overseas career.
Collier, a 2019 draft pick out of Connecticut like Stewart, played overseas in France early in her career. The last two years she’s been on a WNBA Player Marketing Agreement instead, which pays her for making appearances on behalf of the WNBA.
At first Collier was critical of the prioritization clause and said she would consider not playing in the WNBA if she made more money overseas. She was one of the final draft classes stuck on smaller rookie contracts before the new CBA in 2020. Following the birth of her daughter in May 2022, and Griner’s 10-month detainment, Collier decided she didn’t want to play overseas again.
Unrivaled aims to fill WNBA gaps
The league hopes to raise enough in private funding and sponsorships to pay players a salary similar to what they make in the WNBA, ESPN reported this month.
The WNBA supermax base salary is $234,936 in 2023, though only five players are within $1,000 of it. Many superstars, such as Stewart and players for the reigning champion Aces, are taking less to play on stacked teams. The league said players can make up to $750,000 with a combination of base salary, marketing deals, major award payouts and postseason income. No one has yet reached that threshold.
Stewart and Collier told ESPN they’re already working with business and sports leaders such as Twitter, DAZN, the WTA and WWE. The details around financials have not been shared.
“We want them to be really involved in women’s sports and believe in what we’re doing,” Collier said. “Not just like an in-name kind of partnership.”
More sponsors are buying into women’s sports as seen most recently by the number and size of activations at WNBA Live, a fan fest held in the Mandalay Bay convention center during All-Star weekend. And overall viewership remains on the incline. The 2023 All-Star game was on ABC in prime time for the first time in history and was the most watched in 16 years with 850,000 average viewers, per ESPN.
“If we put ourselves in a platform where an audience can find us, they’ll watch us,” Stewart said. “And that’s an amazing opportunity. And I hope that it’ll continue to add more viewers, more investors [and] more sponsors, not only for the top players, but really for the entire league.”
The skills challenge, which Gray and Kelsey Plum won, and 3-point contest, which featured a record performance by Ionescu, were also up even though they aired at 4 p.m. ET on Friday. That TV window was an issue for many players and was one of the many times the schedule has been lackluster at best and truly abysmal at worst.
Stewart, who has become even more outspoken on league issues in recent years, wants to take more of the charge in addressing those pain points as a founder of Unrivaled.
“[It’s] the ability to kind of control our own destiny,” Stewart said, “and make sure that the things that we want to go after we make happen.”