January 11, 2024 

A day with Aliyah Boston, Rhyne Howard and WNBA’s 2024 PMA cohort

Inside how the WNBA's PMA program has evolved since its inception

NEW YORK — The music is blasting and Aliyah Boston is grooving. Rhyne Howard flashes her game face and then a bright smile. Jewell Loyd is figuring out where to place her hands and then holds a color card to make sure the photog can color correct what he needs to. In midtown that afternoon the three players were bopping to tracks by Victoria Monet, Nicki Minaj and Jack Harlow while getting their pictures snapped from all of the angles. Was the WNBA season beginning already?

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Not exactly. But a new season in the WNBA’s calendar had commenced that afternoon during the league’s 5-7 month long offseason. Boston, Howard and Loyd are featured in the league’s 2024’s Player Marketing Agreement (PMA) cohort, an initiative established as part of the 2020 CBA to provide players with additional income opportunities while staying stateside.

Joining those three former No. 1 overall draft picks is Washington Mystics rising star Shakira Austin, Connecticut Sun stalwart Brionna Jones and PMA veteran in the Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale, who is back for her second straight year as part of the program.

While this a smaller group down from 10 player participants in 2023, the half a dozen players participating in 2024 all come into the PMA program with a lofty set of achievements on the basketball court. Among this year’s group are multiple rookie of the year awards winners, appearances on All-WNBA teams and even gold medals as a part of Team USA.

“It’s a smaller group, but it’s a group that’s really had an incredible impact on the league at various stages of their WNBA careers,” head of WNBA league operations Bethany Donaphin told The Next. “It’s a nice mix and a nice evolution of the program.”

The cohort features an even split of younger players and veterans with Boston, Howard and Austin as the rising stars while Loyd, Jones and Ogunbowale represent a group of players who are entering their primes as high achieving veterans with multiple All-Star nods.

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The origin and evolution of league PMAs 

While the league PMA program is in its third official season, the idea of service agreements with the WNBA weren’t a completely new concept prior to the 2021. The W has done this before but in a much less formal and structured way. According to Donaphin, former marquee players like Swin Cash and Lisa Leslie signed “service agreements” to do additional marketing with and for the league.

Prior to the signing of the 2020 CBA and prior to the tenure of Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, the league paid Breanna Stewart during the 2019 season, one she didn’t play in. The Storm suspended her contract following rupturing her achilles while playing overseas. She was designated as a “paid ambassador,” she out and about at different league events and earned what would have been her full WNBA contract while also rehabbing from a torn achilles. The one shot ambassador program for the two-time MVP Stewart laid the seeds for the PMA program, an initiative where all participants are expected to represent the league and its ideals as envoys to different companies, corporations and brands.

When the program tipped off in the fall of 2021, the first cohort was small and restricted by COVID-19. The guinea pig trio in Napheesa Collier, Dearica Hamby and Betnijah Laney were in the public eye, but maybe not as much as the league would have liked. But what year one accomplished was getting the PMA players in front of corporate sponsors and partners especially at events such as the NBA’s All-Star weekend.

But by year two, the ten players on the league PMAs were working on projects alongside corporate sponsors. Ogunbowale was featured in a State Farm ad alongside Dallas Mavericks executive Mark Cuban that aired last March, and the ad continues to get substantial air time almost a year later.

A crowning achievement of Commissioner Engelbert’s four-plus year tenure has been the introduction and involvement of the WNBA’s Changemaker program, which currently consists of six corporations (AT&T, Deloitte, Nike, US Bank, Google and Carmax) that work with the WNBA year round to invest in the league and its players and to draw on sponsorship opportunities that put the league more into the mainstream. Players who participate in the league’s PMAs have a direct line to these partners, with the goal of not only selling the potential sponsor on the WNBA itself, but selling that partner on who the players are and what their personal brands entail.

While Collier isn’t a part of the program for a third straight year, she has leveraged her relationship with W Changemaker US Bank. She got her own deal with the bank to be able to express her passion to bring awareness to financial literacy. Jasmine Thomas, also an alumna of last year’s iteration of the program, has also carried the relationships the program allowed her to make when starting up her small business. She recently partnered with longtime league partner American Express to promote her satin scarf business.

“I think it’s really heartening that we’re seeing players go on to do their own individual deals with some of our partners as a result of having had exposure throughout the program,” Donaphin said. “So it’s really meeting the objectives that we have in place when we were talking about this in 2020.”

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How the program will serve the 2024 cohort and the WNBA

The benefits of the WNBA’s PMAs are symbiotic, and they are supposed to be. This season Ogunbowale had a preference not to go overseas, and partaking in the PMA program for a second year in a row allows her to do that. But the league benefits in a plethora of ways when it has designated ambassadors to not only promote what the league itself is, but to spread its agenda.

When reigning rookie of the year Boston was doing interviews in between photo shoots and social media activations during the PMA cohort’s media day, she was asked about NIL and the recent narrative going around that going to the WNBA will result in taking a pay cut for current college players. Her answer was deemed “perfect” by a league employee, as Boston found a way to dispel a narrative that weighed on the league and the league office heavily ever since Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser brought it up on PTI.

That is just one of the many purposes of PMAs. Sure, players are networking with brands and corporations, but players are also well versed on the league that they work and play for and can rip apart some of the most short sighted of myths.

But another purpose of the PMAs is to give players an opportunity to refine, redefine or even create their personal brands. For Boston, she’s looking to refine and expand hers. She began developing her individual brand in college. She views her hair and the colors she braids it in are part of her personal brand and how people distinguish her. On the day of the shoot, her hair was ginger, a new color she hasn’t tried often. But in addition to what people see on the outside, Boston defined her brand as bubbly and someone willing to try anything.

As a rising sophomore in the WNBA, she has a much more blank canvas that she can paint and experiment with. “I think right now my brand is kind of like in the middle of some different stuff because I’m trying to figure out what I enjoy, what I like to do,” she told The Next. “So I’m really excited about that because I think there’s no better way than building your brand without actually taking the time to get to know what you as a person enjoy, what you don’t really enjoy, things you want to get into.”

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After seeing the Glossier campaign that PMA players were involved in last year, Boston’s interests definitely lie in makeup, skincare and lashes. Up until now she hasn’t had ample time to explore those interests, but that’s another benefit of the PMA program.

The same goes for rising third year Shakira Austin, who was burnt out mentally and physically from playing all-year round. Austin comes into the PMA program looking to not only rest and recover from surgery, but to dive into interests that she just hasn’t had the time to explore. Austin is a fashionista and was an absolute natural during her photo show this week. Austin has aspirations to become an entrepreneur and develop her own fashion line. She’s had a passion to create clothes for taller women like her and knows how to sew. While she’s not the best drawer out there, she uses sketching as a way to map out her designs. This is something that Austin wants to become a focus of her brand. 

Shakira Austin and <a rel=
Shakira Austin celebrates on the bench during the WNBA game between the Seattle Storm and the Washington Mystics at Entertainment and Sports Arena on July 11, 2023. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next

“Representing me is just being uniquely me,” she said on Locked on Women’s basketball.

Austin isn’t the only younger player with a sense of self-assurance. Howard, known to be one of the most crafty three-level scorers in the league, wants fans and brands to know a bit more about her personality off the court. Her sense of humor is something she wants the outside world to know more about. While on set for the photo shoot, she was telling stories about how Boston wouldn’t kill a spider that was freaking her out while they were roommates at a USA basketball event. When it was Howard’s time for the social activations, the sets of videos the league has all the PMA players record that will be released on all WNBA channels, she wasn’t afraid to let her sense of humor show. She clowned around while wearing an ASMR mic on her bucket hat. And she even admitted to the camera that she thought a pair of underwear she pulled out of a gift bag that all the players received was ugly.

But in addition to having a space where she can be intrinsically herself and a little less business-like, she’s also taking the offseason to improve her leadership skills while coaching at the University of Florida under Coach Kelly Rae Finley.

“I feel like it’s gonna help me navigate more through my team [the Atlanta Dream] and like, get to a solution easier,” she said. “And if I need to break something down, this is exactly how I need them to do something, exactly how I want it to look like while not being condescending. I can build you up and also tell you like you’re not doing something right.”

Another PMA player who is also balancing the program with coaching is established veteran Jones, who is also working for her alma mater under Brenda Frese as the director of player personnel. Where Jones differs from the rest of the group is she’s probably one of the more reserved players. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to take in all the PMA program has to offer. She sees this experience as a way to discover her interests and learn about sports marketing as a discipline. When she was flown out to the NWSL championship game in San Diego, she observed how the NWSL approaches fanfests and the overall gameday experience. The wheels were turning in her head as to how she could help make those types of activations better in Connecticut.

Similar to how she has shaped her WNBA career, Jones is approaching the PMA program with the goal of how she can improve not only her brand but the reputation of the WNBA and women’s sports. “I feel like we’ve done a great job of that as a collective in the league, and just to be able to continue to grow and create the change that we want,” she said. “Because being in it, you’re seeing all these things that could be changed or could be better or whatnot. Just being able to be able to create that growth so that the next generation doesn’t have to worry about those things.”

And then there’s Jewell Loyd, the most established and accomplished basketball star amongst the group, who is finally at a place where she wants to share as much of herself with the world as she can. She explained that for the majority of her career she’s felt like she’s been “under the radar” and not the most open to show people who she is.

Loyd has eggs in a lot of different baskets these days: she has a farm in Minnesota, she owns a Smoothie King where she wants to hire kids from her old school who have learning disabilities, she owns a major league pickleball team, and even plays pickleball herself.

And that’s not all about Loyd. She’s got an extensive record collection that includes the music her dad raised her with. Her collection includes: Lauryn Hill, Curtis Mayfield, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, and even Queen, one of her favorite all time bands. She wants people and companies to know how many other outside interests and passions she has, in her quest to come out from being under the radar.

Where the WNBA’s PMAs still have room to grow

While PMAs have become one of the primary ways that WNBA players can supplement their income while not having to go overseas, there remain challenges for players when it comes to staying in game shape for a 5-7 month offseason. One of the benefits of playing overseas is that players are training and playing in 5×5 game speed situations. For some players, working with a trainer and doing workouts isn’t enough.

Athletes Unlimited helps bridge this gap, of course, and PMA alumna Collier and Stewart are working on trying to ameliorate this issue with their upcoming 3×3 offseason league Unrivaled. But could this become a part of the PMA program — opportunities for players to maintain game-level conditioning? While Donaphin entertains the idea, at the moment, the program is focused on marketing opportunities.

“How we we showcase their on-court talents could be something that we think about in future iterations of the program, but certainly right now the focus is how do we continue to make this an effective mechanism for promoting the players, telling their stories and then collectively working together to grow the league, especially in the offseason,” she said.

And some of that growth of the league is also happening outside of the PMA program. While the program had its official launch this week in midtown, New York Liberty player Sabrina Ionescu, who isn’t part of the program, was out in Paris, France promoting the WNBA while her brother team the Brooklyn Nets were getting ready to play abroad in Europe. A league source told The Next that Ionescu was hired by the NBA to participate in a clinic for girls and in addition to appearing at a Pizza restaurant in France. This disconnect reveals the question that the PMA program poses. Is this program for the faces of the league? None of the players on the two finals teams in the Las Vegas Aces or the New York Liberty are participants in this year’s program.

Back to midtown in New York. While Boston and Loyd were taking their pictures with Howard, the two noticed that Howard wanted something to complete her photoshoot experience. One of the folks observing the shoot was wearing a furry black and gray coat that Howard wanted to pose and dance in. Howard was shy at first, but Boston and Loyd made sure she broke out of her shell and asked to wear that coat.

“Sometimes you gotta push people,” Loyd said of the moment. “I think Rhyne’s obviously a superstar in this league, the sky’s the limit for her. Sometimes she needs that extra push. Sometimes she wants to coast a little bit. So if I have a chance to push her to do something…I saw her eying it when she walked in so I was like, ‘You know what I’m going to go ahead and say it.’ It’s kind of a combination of me kind of getting to use my voice a little bit or kind of being more vulnerable to kind of ask for things, too. That can go a long way.”

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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