Over the course of its 27 year history, the WNBA has come to be defined by dynastic superteams and fierce rivalries.
It dates back to the league’s humble beginnings in the late 1990s, when the now-defunct Houston Comets won the first four WNBA finals, defeating the New York Liberty in three of them. The Minnesota Lynx were next, appearing in six finals between 2011 and 2017, winning four titles.
But those teams were built in very particular ways. The Comets became the WNBA’s first dynasty because the league distributed players to each team ahead of its inaugural season and had no idea how good four-time WNBA finals MVP Cynthia Cooper would be. Whereas the Lynx were built primarily through the draft, being fortunate enough to select Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus No 1 overall, and later trading for Sylvia Fowles.
The WNBA’s new superteam era is fundamentally different, because the rising tides in Las Vegas and New York were not born out of the league’s mistakes or chance in the draft, but through free agency. A new collective bargaining agreement ratified in 2020 gave players the freedom to choose their destinations for the first time in league history.
It came to a head this winter when two of the greatest players of all time headed for opposite sides of the US for two of the league’s biggest markets, with Candace Parker joining the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces and Breanna Stewart going to the New York Liberty.
As a result of an unprecedented level of player movement, the WNBA’s next era is going to look fundamentally different. But it could also be a whole lot better for everyone involved.
“I’m a big rivalry [person],” Parker said after a recent Aces practice. “You think about the foundation of every single thing and every single person that tunes into anything: college basketball has UConn and Tennessee, right? Put it on the map … You think about the NBA with the Celtics and the Lakers and their rivalry, right? And I think in order to [succeed], you need those types of rivalries.”
The Aces signed two-time MVP Parker this offseason after running away with the 2022 WNBA championship behind an MVP season from center A’ja Wilson. Parker will join a star-studded starting five of Wilson, finals MVP Chelsea Gray, MVP-finalist Kelsey Plum, and All-Star starter Jackie Young, giving them four former No 1 overall draft picks and four MVP trophies. There have been hiccups though: this week the team were docked a 2025 first-round draft pick and head coach Becky Hammon was given a two-game ban for “impermissible player benefits and Respect in the Workplace policies”.
Meanwhile, after selecting star guard Sabrina Ionescu first overall in 2020 and losing in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, the Liberty have joined the Aces as the clear betting favorites to win the 2023 WNBA championship after remaking their starting five. The Liberty traded for center Jonquel Jones before signing last year’s scoring leader and MVP runner-up, Stewart, adding two former MVPs. Courtney Vandersloot, the league’s active all-time assists leader and a former overseas teammate of Jones and Stewart, joined the picture too.
The WNBA was already seeing immense growth without any high-profile superteams or rivalries, with the 2022 WNBA season being the most viewed since 2006. Meanwhile, the WNBA is in the process of making games more accessible to viewers, signing a new TV deal with Scripps to televise Friday night games this season. And women’s basketball is growing, with this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament having its highest viewership ever, with the title game between Iowa and LSU drawing 9.9 million viewers.
But sports leagues are top-down structures. As much as the WNBA was growing organically, it needed a push to reach its full potential. After all, fans are often drawn by the biggest markets and best teams and go from there. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that the rivalry between Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers saved the NBA in the 1980s. While the four-year stretch between 2015-18 when LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors met in the NBA finals featured the highest NBA viewership of any span since Michael Jordan’s run in the late 1990s.
The WNBA has all the momentum in the world right now, and its new superteam era should bring in more casual fans.
“We’re trying to elevate the level,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said. “We’re trying to promote our game and create those rivalries. I think that’s great for the WNBA. Hopefully more fans can come and watch us, and we’re selling it… We think we got some pretty special players, but you know Vegas got some special players [too].”
“I think that’s what it was going to make us work really hard and get up in the morning,” Liberty co-owner Clara Wu Tsai added. “Is to be able to beat that team in the West.”
But superteams don’t only help bring in casual fans to a league that has struggled with attendance and needs extra revenue if it is going to expand beyond 12 teams by its stated goal of 2025 – they also help elevate the standard of play. And there is no better proof of this than the fact that both Parker and Stewart are the MVP-caliber players they are today because they were inspired by past superteams.
“I would say watching the Houston Comets play [inspired me] for sure,” Gray recently told the Guardian. “It was a first of its kind, and you’re always looking to see the first one to do something … we were watching it, kind of aspiring to be in that position.”
“Yeah, I raised the roof for sure,” Parker added, referring to Comet’s guard Cynthia Cooper’s famous celebration. “And I definitely tried to go out and shoot like Tina Thompson. You know, shoot a runner and Euro [step] like Cynthia Cooper.”
Stewart was busy winning four straight national championships at the University of Connecticut during the height of the Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks rivalry, saying: “It was intense. That’s what I think of. And especially the players on both teams, the way that they had so much talent and they were able to play well together, I think that that’s what I remember about those two … When you’re a basketball player, you want to play with other great players.”
But players like Parker and Stewart never really had the opportunity to be “surrounded by greatness,” as Stewart put it, until now. By limiting the amount of times a franchise can “core” a player and lock them up from as many as four one-year periods down to just two with the new CBA, the WNBA has empowered players to make their own decisions.
“I think what you’re seeing is the player empowerment era, if you want to call it that, where players are getting to choose the location of their legacy, and I think that’s really important,” Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb said.
Stewart is the vice president of the WNBA Players Association and has used her platform to push the league forward. “I think that as far as player movement, it’s something that the league needs,” Stewart said during Liberty media day.
“And you’re gonna see it happening a lot more and that means just player movement, fan engagement is going to go from one team to another team. It’s just gonna make it more exciting, make things more spicy,” Stewart added, admitting that she used emojis on Twitter to create a buzz around her own free agency, helping the WNBA become a 12-month a year league like the NBA. “But it’s what the league needs to continue to kind of grow the way that we want it to and the way that it should.”
Despite being at different stages of their careers, 37-year-old Parker and 28-year-old Stewart made their free agency moves for ostensibly the same reasons: In addition to having familial ties to the regions and wanting to play with other great players – both taking pay cuts to do so – Parker and Stewart were tired of sacrificing their own desires and well-being for the betterment of the league.
It was time to prioritize themselves, and specifically their health and their bodies. In fact, Parker and Stewart both spoke about their desire to maximize the rest of their careers and to be treated well by franchises with ownership groups that have shown a willingness to go above and beyond for their players. So they each left smaller markets for the richest ownership groups and biggest markets in the league.
Given the WNBA’s historically lackluster treatment of athletes, it makes sense.
Parker has never had her own locker in her 15 year career. She came into the league during a time when teams had to work around NBA schedules and switch facilities constantly, and she has never had the ability to get up shots at a dedicated practice facility whenever she wanted to because it was always shared with other teams. Plus, like most WNBA players, she has also had to play overseas to supplement her salary until a recent media gig with Turner Sports has kept her in the States. And, again, we are talking about one of the greatest players of all time.
“That’s just a part of the grind. That’s a part of growing it,” Parker said about her past experiences in Los Angeles and Chicago. “But at the end of the day, I think the reason why I’m here is because I feel like we deserve this at some point.”
Parker joins an Aces team with a brand new, 64,000 square foot, state-of-the-art practice facility – the first of its kind in the WNBA. It’s complete with a weight room, training room, hydro tread, infrared sauna, nutrition bar, a hyperbaric chamber that Parker has already napped in, and a hot and cold tub she uses every day. The Aces are owned by Mark Davis (who also owns the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders and is worth a reported $2bn) and Tom Brady. They play at the Michelob Ultra Arena, a 12,000-seat arena on the Las Vegas Strip, where they had average crowds of 5,607 last season and will have seven nationally televised games in 2023.
“I think it factored into my decision a lot,” Parker told the Guardian about ownership’s willingness to spend money and treat players right. “I think as a 37-year-old player, as a vet, taking care of my body is first and foremost. So to be able to have access to not just a locker but a facility that you can go and rehab and have the latest machines … that can help my body be as prepared as it can be going into year 16.”
Stewart still plays overseas each offseason because that is where she makes the majority of her salary. She does so despite what happened with former overseas teammate Brittney Griner, who was detained in a Russian prison for 10 months after bringing hashish oil into the country. Griner’s ordeal has forced other WNBA players to reconcile with their decisions to play overseas and to push the WNBA for a more livable salary.
Considering that Stewart plays basketball year-round and returned to the United States just days before the start of Liberty training camp, her body and health were top of her mind when making a decision to leave the Seattle Storm for the Liberty this offseason.
Like the Aces, the Liberty have invested in their facilities in recent years. The team’s owners, Joe and Clara Tsai, are estimated to be worth over $8bn, significantly more than any other WNBA team owners. That has allowed them to move the team to the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn, a 17,732 capacity arena that they own and that is also home to the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. There the Liberty have created their own modern practice facility. They have also heavily invested in their performance team in order to improve their athletes’ mental health and wellness, as well as recovery.
“I think one of the most neglected areas in this league for a long time is player health,” Kolb said. “Especially when you have players going overseas, they’re coming back, we have a camp, and they’re all in various states of condition… We want to have the best performance team period. And that’s what we’re committed to doing because that’s what these players deserve.”
Stewart told the Guardian that those investments were “very important” in her free agency decision. Adding: “They want to make sure that this team is getting everything that they need. And you realize that the moment that you walk in: You walk in, there’s breakfast, and then there’s treatment, and then there’s the weight room, and then there’s the court, and there’s all these people around who are trying to help you.
“The WNBA should have teams that have a one-stop shop. I shouldn’t have to travel all over the place to get everything I need. And here in New York, you can get that right here. So, to be able to come in and have that is amazing because what I just touched on before is: I want to be my best and I want to be able to do everything I can to get that and that means the resources, and here we have all the resources.”
What has become clear during the 2023 offseason is that the best players in the world are tired of sacrificing their bodies and well-being for the betterment of the league, and that it is the WNBA’s turn to meet them where they deserve to be met.
The hope is that Parker and Stewart’s decisions will reverberate throughout the league and accelerate growth, pressuring the other 10 ownership groups to invest in similar resources so that the biggest markets don’t always have a competitive advantage, and so that the standard of the entire league is elevated.
“Pressure might be a strong word. I’m sure everybody’s aware, at least on some level, of what everybody’s doing,” vice president of basketball operations and assistant general manager of the Dallas Wings, Travis Charles, said over the phone. “…I think new things like a practice facility and all of that stuff, I think will be the norm sooner than later.
“I believe the majority of the teams were heading in the direction of enhanced player care regardless of whether it was forced by the CBA or not. I think just time and commitment and the new wave of owners has vowed to do things specifically here for our players that we weren’t able to before … So I think it might hasten or quicken what was already going to happen.”
After all, the WNBA is still relatively young, with practice facilities, bigger arenas, expansion, and charter flights the most likely next dominoes to fall as the league continues to grow and improve.
“I hope that this has inspired others to kind of step up the game because I know that’s how it is with ownership: It’s a competition,” Parker said. “So now, who’s going to be next?”
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