Breanna Stewart chose New York in part because of the organization’s commitment to elevating the league. Now that she’s signed, what happens next?
Breanna Stewart made a statement when she announced last week that she would sign with the New York Liberty.
It was about more than moving closer to home, creating a super-team, and letting us all tweet #StewYork. Stewart made it clear that the Liberty‘s commitment to moving the league forward was a major factor in her decision. She’s been a vocal advocate for chartered flights in the WNBA, hoping to chip away at everything inhibiting players from reaching their full potential.
New York is a perfect match, considering the franchise paid a $500,000 fine last season for chartering flights for their team, contrary to the league CBA.
But now that Breanna Stewart is officially on the Liberty, where does the movement go from here? She made her statement, but it didn’t end Thursday when she and Courtney Vandersloot were introduced to the New York media at a press conference at Barclays Center.
Setting an Example
The New York Liberty are the only remaining original WNBA franchise without a championship. This year, however, they’ll trot out a bona fide super-team, complete with Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, Jonquel Jones, and Sabrina Ionescu.
There’s no question that the Liberty will enter the 2023 season as prime title contenders along with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces. The importance of the on-court portion of this player-led movement cannot be understated.
Owners who see stars flocking to teams that take care of them will, in turn, also want to do more. As more momentum builds around certain issues — chartered flights just being the most talked about — opportunities expand. As Stewart said, it starts with turning a no into a maybe.
“We’re never gonna stop working and trying to be better,” she said. “We wanna make sure that when I’m done playing — which hopefully isn’t for a while — and Sloot’s done playing — which hopefully isn’t for a while — that the next generation that comes in and the waves after that, they’re gonna be set up to have success and not have to worry about tedious things.”
It helps that the organization that made waves for defying the CBA plays in New York, where the limelight never dims. That reality isn’t lost on Stewart, either.
“When you’re playing basketball in New York, you’re automatically in the spotlight,” she said.
The press conference itself seemed to prove her point, with local and national print media as well as TV all jockeying for time with New York’s newest stars. Team co-owner Clara Wu Tsai also pointed out that compared to this time last year, the Liberty’s season ticket sales are up over 50% — and the team hasn’t even been able to market Stewart or Vandersloot until now.
Promise for Progress
Tsai knows there are limits to her power. She can’t promise chartered flights to free agents, but she can promise a commitment to progress.
“I think that the fine we took and the actions that we made pretty much spoke for themselves,” she said. “And I’m a person that is about actions and not words. We had a lot of time, really, to talk about a lot of things. And hopefully, they understood that it really isn’t just this one issue, but it’s a number of things that we’re moving forward. And that’s what I was hoping to convey to [Stewart and Vandersloot] during this recruiting period.”
For Stewart’s part, she’s not going to stop talking about it any time soon. She said that specifically, the chartered flight issue is important to her because it contributes directly to player health and wellness. Making strides to improve player health, naturally, has a direct impact on the on-court product, and as a professional athlete, it is her responsibility to do what she can to make sure it’s the best it can be.
“We wanna play our best to win,” she said. “But we also wanna play our best to be in front of new fans, season ticket holders, things like that.”
That goes beyond air travel. As Tsai pointed out, the Liberty have invested heavily in keeping their players comfortable at home, renovating their Barclays Center locker room in tandem with the Brooklyn Nets’ as the team moved into Barclays Center in 2021. The 6,000 square-foot locker room and lounge includes new lockers, expanded space for dressing and makeup, and new recovery facilities.
General manager Jonathan Kolb pointed out on Thursday that the Liberty have also invested heavily in performance staff. Knowing that many players also go overseas, making them active year-round, players may come to training camp at different levels of condition or with different injury concerns. The priority is to have everyone healthy for game one and to keep as many of them that way for as long as possible.
For now, the Liberty can enjoy their state-of-the-art locker room at home, but when it comes time to travel, they’re still flying commercial. In addition, while Stewart is worth significantly more than the one-year, $175,000 contract she signed, she found it worthwhile to take a pay-cut to join a team as stacked as the Liberty.
It’s clearly not fair that one of the best players in the league would have to sign a contract worth so much less than her actual value, but such is the reality of playing in a league with a salary cap — particularly one with a cap number that is still far too low compared to the revenue and popularity of the league.
As Richard Cohen of Her Hoop Stats points out, prior to signing Stewart and Vandersloot, the Liberty had $364,514 of cap space. They gave that duo a combined $360,000.
While we can’t say for sure, the assumption would be that after this season, the Liberty will have some money come off the books, at which point they can give Stewart the core designation and the supermax 2024 salary that comes with it.
“It’s not my decision that the WNBA has such a hard salary cap,” she said. “But that’s a discussion for the next CBA. We wanna make sure everyone here is feeling appreciated.”
Vandersloot, for her part, is set to make $189,000 this year and $194,670 next, according to Cohen. Jones is also on a two-year deal, and hers is worth an average of $208,075 per year. The WNBA salary cap for 2025, when that trio and Sabrina Ionescu may all be free agents, will be $1,507,100, up slightly from $1,420,500 this year.
That could make retaining this super-team difficult, but that’s a worry for another day.
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