Two-time WNBA Champion Breanna Stewart and superstar Napheesa Collier are launching a stateside, player-led league for WNBA players. This league, called Unrivaled, would complement Athletes Unlimited (AU)—a five-on-five weekly redraft league entering its third campaign this coming winter—as another domestic basketball league for women athletes.
As of late, the WNBA has been rife with controversy, from higher pay and improved scheduling, to charter flights, player safety, and prioritization. Though players were initially pleased about revisions to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) after re-upping it ahead of free agency in 2020, players have begun to voice their displeasure with how certain policies are panning out. Fully-guaranteed contracts for maternity leave was a major win, but the realities of prioritization and limited contracts slowly reared their ugly head.
The WNBA’s prioritization rule requires its players to build their overseas commitments around the W’s schedule, enforced by strict penalties. Effective in 2023, players with three or more years experience were required to report to their WNBA teams by May 1, or they would be fined. Failure to report by the start of the WNBA season resulted in a suspended contract for the year. Starting in 2024, players will be suspended for the entire year if they do not report to their WNBA teams by May 1 or the start of training camp, whichever is later. Some international leagues have adjusted their schedule to offer athletes flexibility, but not all; France, for example, forced late arrivals from players like Marine Johannès and Gabby Williams.
Gabby Williams answered my question today on whether her working out a deal to play in the #WNBA in 2023 gives her hope that she’ll be able to get deals done in future seasons. Her answer was very candid. #TakeCover pic.twitter.com/ARdjNZWHeL
— Storm Chasers (@WNBAStormChaser) July 5, 2023
This has been a longstanding issue, as other leagues have often struggled to coordinate with the WNBA’s schedule. Oftentimes, WNBA players play internationally both to gain more experience and bridge the salary gap during the offseason. Some players, too, earn larger paychecks playing for overseas teams. According to The Athletic, multiple WNBA agents say that fewer than five players are paid over $500,000 overseas, and the average pay-range is between $62,000 to $235,000. Though these salaries are similar to the WNBA, players participating in both leagues are able to supplement their WNBA income while remaining in shape and competitive year-round.
We remain committed to the WNBA, however there’s a problem that exists, which is players having to choose whether to play overseas to maximize earnings in the winter or stay home with family. We’ve decided to create our own solution. (2/8)
— napheesa collier (@PHEEsespieces) July 6, 2023
With prioritization now in effect, the league has made a statement: show up on time. Ahead of the 2022 Finals, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert mentioned the investment owners are making to offer players more pay with the new rule.
“As everyone knows, the owners really stepped up on the compensation side for the players in this collective bargaining cycle, and I think the quid pro quo for that was prioritization—showing up on time for our season. Quite frankly, after 36 years in my working world, there was never once where I wasn’t required to show up on time. So I think the owners were very steadfast in their commitment.”
Some players have pushed back on this perspective, instead believing that they are, in fact, more than their career. Unlike many other jobs, professional athletes are also a brand, and so much of the WNBA’s identity comes from the performance of its players. In the last year or so, Stewart has been among the most outspoken—and the biggest star to speak out—regarding the limitations of prioritization.
“Unrivaled can create an opportunity for some of the world’s top talent because it’s not not dealing with prioritization; you know, not being overseas,” Stewart told Winsidr. “Obviously, it’s going to be done [before WNBA training camp starts]. It goes from January to March, I believe, and [offers players]the ability to avoid dealing with prioritization. It’s still something that is really frustrating, but right now, with the current CBA the way it is, there’s no way around it.”
As Stewart mentioned, the inaugural season of Unrivaled will begin January 2024 in Miami, Florida, and will house the top 30 professional basketball players on six teams. Instead of the traditional five-on-five format, games will be played three-on-three or one-on-one. Stewart and Collier assembled a group of top business and sports leaders from companies like Twitter, DAZN, the WTA, and WWE to help launch the league.
In recent years, we’ve seen the three-on-three format grow in popularity. It’s nostalgic for every hooper who grew up playing pickup in parks. And it’s fast, too, with so much appeal coming from its pace. That, according to Stewart, is the biggest challenge, the conditioning required to compete. “It’s making sure you’re in great shape, because it is nonstop,” she said. “You rarely check the ball. So, it’s being ready for that and the ability to keep going.”
Compare & Contrast: Athletes Unlimited
Athletes Unlimited has been growing as a stateside option for women’s basketball players. One reason both AU and Unrivaled can coexist is because of the vastly different styles of play. The full-court redraft style of AU will appeal to a different type of player than that of Unrivaled.
“It’s not competitive, [as to]who’s going here versus who’s going there,” Stewart said of the two leagues playing at the same time. “But, in a sense, it also is. If we’re gonna raise the salaries, then hopefully they will be able to, too, and then more people—more brands and investors—are going to sponsor AU and Unrivaled. In the WNBA, there’s a lot of red tape for people that aren’t league partners.”
AU has also carved out a lane for hoopers from all different career trajectories: young W players with a year or two under their belt, journeywomen that have played overseas for a majority of their careers and want to be back in front of their families, and WNBA free agents playing for a contract opportunity. Current WNBA All-Stars Allisha Gray and Kelsey Mitchell have also competed in AU, showcasing the range of talent in the league.
Megan Perry, AU’s new head of sport, championed the addition of Unrivaled as a stateside league for WNBA players.
“I think the future is bright. The more opportunities they have to play, the better it is,” Perry said. “I don’t think we could be anything but excited about the new opportunities that exist domestically for women’s basketball. You look at the overall landscape of women’s basketball in the global community—it’s good for the game and speaks to the demand that exists. There’s room for everyone at the table.”
A source from a WNBA team told Winsidr that one adaptation they’d like to see from AU in 2024 is to move up the start date, so that rosters aren’t already near-full before the free agents showcase their talents in competitive play. Several players, like Lexie Brown, Jordin Canada, and Lexie Hull, have built confidence going into their following campaigns off their success at AU.
One major contrast between the two leagues: the caliber of talent. While AU is absolutely filled with professional women’s basketball players, Unrivaled is looking to draw in the best of the best. Stewart said recruiting had not yet started, because so much about Unrivaled leading up to its announcement was cloaked behind NDAs. Within a day, though, she had her first bites. “I’ve had some people reach out to me already—Jewell [Loyd], Kelsey Plum. They’re more curious about it.” She expects there to be “tons of conversation” at the All-Star game, which is another indication of the expected participant pool. Unrivaled is aiming for the top of the top, and in doing so, they hope to attract deep-pocketed investors.
Weighing It Out
While Unrivaled is new, interesting, and certainly has everyone’s attention, it’s important to weigh some of the league’s pros and cons.
Myles, Pro: Anything that keeps the WNBA’s top talent both stateside and in the conversation year-round is a win, in terms of continuing to grow women’s sports domestically. I also appreciate the unique format, which will help Unrivaled find its own lane while not encroaching on the W’s style of play. I’m also excited about the potential free agency collusion, because this could turn into another avenue for player empowerment.
Jasmine, Pro: I really enjoy the idea of having an invite-only league where we get to see some of the best players compete game after game. It’s similar to the All-Star game, where you have the top-rated players participating, only this time there’s money and a higher level of competition involved. I think we’re going to be surprised by some of the players we see there, too, and I won’t miss the chance to see elite talent going bucket for bucket. Additionally, while I understand some fan’s gripe that Unrivaled conflicts with AU, I don’t think that will be the case. A lot of top players—like A’ja Wilson or Jewell Loyd, who took a break from overseas play—don’t participate in any leagues during the offseason. So, this opportunity allows us to put eyes on players who we generally don’t see during the offseason.
Myles, Con: I’m super loyal to Athletes Unlimited, having attended each of its first two seasons, and I absolutely love what they’re building there. No, I don’t believe that women’s hoops is oversaturated, even though AU and college basketball will be happening simultaneously to Unrivaled, but this does set up a potential battle for viewership. After ignoring it in season one, the W partnered with AU in its second campaign, adding games live to WNBA League Pass. I’m hoping that the star-studded names at Unrivaled don’t push AU to the side, because the basketball on display there is incredible, and it’s an extremely necessary resource for young hoopers, in my opinion.
Jasmine, Con: The spotlight is back on the WNBA, for not having or allocating resources to grow a better-supported league. A majority of the WNBA masses understand the league’s subsidization under the NBA and the restrictions placed on the league. But when players feel like they have to take matters into their own hands, and when they do, are actually getting things done, the league has to take notice. From Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia, to Gabby Williams lamenting her return to the WNBA, the league can only watch from the sidelines this round. Players have been very outspoken about issues surrounding travel—including the most recent incident with Griner and the Phoenix Mercury—player safety, the prioritization rule, and salaries. Unrivaled combats a lot of those issues, while also putting eyes back on the WNBA’s lack of cohesion with its players.
Paving a New Lane
All in all, Unrivaled offers players another option for staying in the States to compete during the lengthy WNBA offseason. It will also give its inaugural players a piece of the wealth, providing equity ownership in the new league. Supported by private funding and scholarships, Unrivaled is looking to contend with WNBA salaries, provide a central location for players to avoid traveling, increase the level of competition on court, and a choice to continue playing at home.
“I’m a homebody by nature. I love being home for the holidays,” Collier told ESPN. “Being away from your family for six months, it’s not easy. Then the idea of having a family trying to figure out child care overseas. That was kind of the main reason [for founding a new league]. But secondly, just the narrative around where the game is going right now. You have a lot of people, especially college players, saying that they would prefer to be in college than come to the league.”
This league brings a refreshing and exciting change for WNBA players, and is sure to garner loads of support in its inaugural season, especially with shortened full courts that allow more spacing, shorter games, and more scoring. It will be fast, fierce, and filled with fun, not to mention Miami’s lovely winter time weather.
During the WNBA All-Star break, many players commended Unrivaled and its goal of offering competitive stateside pay and competition, including Brittney Griner.
“Well, I’m never going overseas again, so I think I’m free,” Griner said with a laugh. “But I think it’s amazing what they’re doing. Whether I play in it or not, I’m definitely going to be there and watching. So I’m going to have to go ahead and hop on—not one-on-one though, I don’t know about that one.”
Unrivaled is a win for the women’s game, as WNBA players are noticing the gap between the college and professional game, among other league-wide issues, and are willing to put themselves at the forefront of change. As more details unfold about the new South Florida league, one of the biggest takeaways from this state of affairs is taking charge. With continued conflict between the WNBA and overseas leagues, and prioritization as a bigger curveball, it is admirable how two players with similar ideals came together for a larger purpose.“Stewie [and]I both have daughters,” said Collier. “It’s our responsibility to show them [and]every young girl that looks up to us that sometimes you don’t have to wait your turn. You can either beg for a seat at the table or you can build your own table. We’re building our own table.”