July 30, 2023
How WNBA players are reacting to Unrivaled, Stewart and Collier’s new offseason league
While some WNBA players enjoy going overseas, many have embraced Unrivaled as another offseason option
They are tired of having to supplement their incomes by playing overseas and are not fans of the WNBA’s prioritization policy that is set to expand next season. So the pair is co-founding a three-on-three women’s basketball league to give WNBA players another option to play domestically in the offseason alongside Athletes Unlimited.
The league, called Unrivaled, will run from January through March, featuring 30 of the top women’s professional players on six teams. The teams will play three-on-three and one-on-one games at a soundstage in Miami.
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Combined with Athletes Unlimited, options for playing domestically during the offseason are increasing. Between the two leagues, as many as 77 of the WNBA’s 144 players now potentially won’t have to go overseas during the offseason. While some players enjoy the overseas experience, many have embraced domestic options, too.
“I think it’s great,” said Seattle Storm guard Kia Nurse in early July. “Options are important for us to have in the offseason. I know that Phee and Stewie have the best resources and platforms to build something like this, so I think it’s a great idea for many players who will potentially be home and not overseas in the offseason.”
There’s also another positive effect of creating Unrivaled.
“It also builds excitement around our game,” Nurse said. “I know growing the game, especially here in the States, is also something they are focusing on, which is good. Visibility is important. Our league is on TV more often, and now you can follow your favorite players where they’re now household names. Sitting at the dinner table and having young girls say, ‘Did you see what Napheesa and Breanna did today?’ is important in the same way as you would say, ‘Did you see what LeBron James did today?'”
Collier and Stewart have gathered the necessary investment from leaders in the business and sports industry to start Unrivaled. And the positive response from potential players has been a source of optimism.
“It’s always dope that we are creating spaces for others to come and join us in this professional lifestyle to have fun and not go overseas,” Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes said during a postgame press conference on July 11. “This league is creating more opportunities and doorways while providing a different look. Not everybody is a five-on-five type of player. Some people are great at three-on-three and one-on-one, so now those people are highlighted, get some shine, [get] some love and get some money while expanding women’s basketball into different areas.
“[Fans] might not get to a five-on-five game, but they can see a three-on-three game. Also, three-on-three games may be able to travel deeper into some places where we can’t get to.”
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While the impetus for WNBA prioritization rules — pushing players to prioritize the WNBA over international leagues — is reasonable in theory, WNBA salaries aren’t enough to make that easy for most players to do.
“I would love to be in the WNBA because it’s the best league in the world for women’s basketball, the most competitive, the highest skill level, and it’s not even close,” Seattle guard Gabby Williams told The Next. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay the most. So I am happy to have other options to provide for me and my family.”
In 2023, players faced fines for missing time during training camp and were required to complete their offseason playing obligations before the first day of the regular season. In 2024, the consequences will get even harsher: Players with three or more years of service will be suspended for the whole season if they do not join their WNBA teams by May 1 or the start of training camp, whichever is later. Players who are unsigned and still fulfilling offseason playing obligations at that time will also be barred from signing a contract.
While the WNBA has made significant strides under commissioner Cathy Engelbert, compensation still has a ways to go before prioritization becomes an easy choice for most players. That’s part of the draw of leagues like Athletes Unlimited and Unrivaled. They help provide additional wages for players without the burden or time investment of moving overseas for the offseason.
Williams’ return to the WNBA requiring such unique circumstances — with her eligibility to sign for 2023 coming down to the wire on a technicality — spotlighted the difficulty of maneuvering these rules to supplement a WNBA salary, even for a player with such deep international roots.
“Being half-European, I am more comfortable in Europe than most Americans,” Williams said. “… It’s easier for me to be overseas because I have those roots. These [domestic] leagues are a great opportunity to supplement [WNBA players’] salaries. I am in full support.”
The risks of needing to go abroad to supplement a WNBA salary were magnified in real-time during the nine months Brittney Griner was detained in Russia in 2022.
Nurse, who was Griner’s teammate with the Phoenix Mercury, shared her experience throughout Griner’s detainment. “We lived it in real-time, like everybody else in the league,” Nurse said. “We lived it with her not being in our locker room. We were scared, nervous, sad, angry and had a lot of different emotions that came up. You want her to be OK and be safe. We’re all so grateful that she’s back here now. It sheds some light on the realities we face as women’s basketball players, like the necessity to go overseas in the offseason. It shed some light on why she was there in the first place. Tough every single night worrying about her.”
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Washington Mystics forward Tianna Hawkins played in Australia this past offseason. With her eight-year-old son, Emanuel, to care for, Hawkins has additional concerns while playing overseas.
“I always have to find someone willing to go with me for an extended amount of time and having a backup plan in case that person can’t go or in case they run into an emergency or go back stateside,” Hawkins said. “It’s a lot of pieces in play, especially when you have a young kid traveling with you. My family has been good at sticking it out with me. One of those things I don’t want to keep doing is that I want to avoid pulling him out of school and having him in many different environments as my son gets older. It’s just a lot. He loves it. I love it. I prefer stability.
“My son came with me. I ran into an issue where he had to return home, but I couldn’t get back there. You have to work through it and push through it. It’s something I don’t want to go through again. It’s the longest I’ve been away from my baby. It’s one factor I must consider when being overseas.”
One of the reasons why Collier and Stewart are creating Unrivaled is to increase playing options that offer value for current WNBA players. The hope is that players don’t have to worry about money, leaving their families and logistical hurdles that playing outside of the United States can bring.
“It’s cool to have an opportunity to stay stateside and play basketball during the offseason,” Hawkins said. “Uprooting my family and going overseas to play is a huge sacrifice. It’s a lot of wear and tear on the body, so having the option to play Athletes Unlimited or in [Unrivaled] is excellent for the game. It’s a great thing. When I came into the [WNBA], it was like you played the season and had to prepare for overseas. Having not to worry about leaving the country and staying stateside, it’s good to see that come to fruition.”
“I am so proud of Phee and Stewie,” Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said. “I don’t think people realize how much they must take on their shoulders to start that league. I felt that a little bit when we began Athletes Unlimited as well. Everyone here in the W — and you can ask anyone — we want to leave the game here better than we found it. This is about advancing women in sports and ensuring the next generation has resources and opportunities we didn’t necessarily have when we first came into the league.”
Once the WNBA season ends in a couple of months, fans can look forward to more action. They will be able to see more players competing against each other at home, while also growing the game and earning more money.
Written by Rob Knox
Rob Knox is an award-winning professional. A member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame, Knox currently serves as the Senior Director of Strategic Communications for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by SI.com, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.