Evil Empires: The Rise of WNBA Super Teams
The Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty have gone all-in on elite talent, and have provided the game of women’s professional basketball more intrigue than it has ever had before
If I told you that a professional basketball team in one off-season added two four-time All-Stars (one of which was once named league MVP) via free agency, traded for another four-time All-Star and league MVP while retaining the league’s best young player who is also an All-Star would you believe it? What if I told you in that same off-season, that the reigning champions would add a two-time league MVP and seven-time All-Star to a team with two All-Stars in their prime (one of which is a two-time league MVP)? It sounds unbelievable, but it happened this month in the WNBA.
The New York Liberty added Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, and Jonquel Jones to play with young phenom Sabrina Ionescu. The Las Vegas Aces, last year’s WNBA champions, have added WNBA legend, Candace Parker to a stacked roster that features Kelsey Plum and A’ja Wilson. These two teams are loaded with talent and seem to be on a collision course to meet in the WNBA Finals this fall. The super team concept is not a new idea in the NBA but is a bit foreign in the WNBA game which has seen 4 different teams win the league title in the last four years. And for a league that struggles financially, this is probably the best thing that could happen and isn’t too unlike the NBA in the late 1970s. The Liberty and Aces are set up to create the WNBA’s version of Lakers vs Celtics, which is great news for women’s professional basketball.
The WNBA Today, The NBA in the 70s
When we look at the NBA today we see a league that is successful and profitable with players and brands that are marketable. Three NBA teams (Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, and New York Knicks) are in the top ten on Forbes’ most valuable sports franchises in the world list. But it was not always this way. Back in the 1970s, the league was a mess. Games were on tape delay, there was rampant drug use among players, and racial tension for a league that was predominantly black on the heels of the Civil Rights Era.
The late 70s in particular featured teams and players that have largely been forgotten today like the 1976 Phoenix Suns led by Alvan Adams or the 1979 Seattle Supersonics led by Gus Williams and Jack Sikma. Basketball has always been a game of stars and star power, and the league lost that in the late 70s. That was until Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league in 1979 and started the well-documented rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. Their rivalry made the NBA interesting again with rosters that were full of Hall of Famers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. This created the mold of iconic teams that we would see in later years with Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, and Steph Curry’s Warriors. The league needed a spark, and the rivalry between two teams on opposite sides of the country with marquee talent was exactly what the doctor ordered.
And this seems to be the formula that the WNBA may be taking. In the New York Liberty, they have their version of the Celtics. An east coast team in a huge media market, a legacy franchise that has been involved in the league since its inception with a do-it-all young talent in Sabrina Ionescu, who some scouts called a “transcendent guard”. They have added two former MVPs Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones who are still in their athletic primes. On top of that, they added Courtney Vandersloot, a veteran point guard that is considered by many to be one of the best point guards in league history. This team by itself would be must-see television, but then you juxtapose them with the Las Vegas Aces and you have something fascinating.
The Aces are on a high, having won the championship last year under the guidance of first-year head coach and former WNBA six-time All-Star Becky Hammon. The Aces, already a great team, have added perhaps the most decorated modern-era women’s basketball player in Candace Parker, akin to when the Lakers acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Parker, a seven-time All-Star and two-time MVP, joins guard Kelsey Plum and forward A’ja Wilson to form a formidable big three in Vegas. They are the west coast team in this equation, and an equally captivating prospect to think about. These two teams are on track to meet multiple times in the Finals over the next few seasons, and that is exactly what the WNBA needs at this moment.
The State of the WNBA
If you ask WNBA players what needs to change for them as compared to their male NBA counterparts, you will likely receive two answers. The first is the pay scale. The average WNBA salary is $128,000 per year. By contrast, the average NBA player’s salary is $9.6 million. If you averaged that out on a per-game basis, the WNBA player makes $3,200 per game while the NBA player (in a more extended 82-game season) would make $117,000 per game. The second is charter planes. WNBA players travel commercially whereas NBA teams have private planes to get them to different cities across North America. But if we look back at the NBA in the 70s and 80s we see some interesting similarities.
In the 70s, NBA teams also flew on commercial airlines, something that Charles Barkley has talked about before. The average NBA salary in 1979 was $173K (which is $750K in today’s dollars, meaning that WNBA players have a legitimate beef in terms of salary), which is a far cry from the millions that they make today. This changed in the late 1980s with the introduction of signature basketball shoes, led by Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan sub-brand. The Air Jordan was launched in 1985 and if we look at NBA player salaries from 1991 and on, we see a spike. This is no coincidence, the signature shoe brought brand names to players which led to the teams and the league gaining mass appeal.
There are currently 22 NBA players that have a signature shoe, and almost all of them are star players. Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James are represented by Nike. Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic are represented by Jordan Brand. And Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell are represented by Adidas. The WNBA has only recently seen the explosion of signature shoes for its players. In 2021, only 9 WNBA players ever had a signature shoe and only two of those players (Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi) were recent players. This has been changing as Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart of the New York Liberty are set to have signature shoes this fall. Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics also has a signature shoe with Nike that is dubbed as the world’s most inclusive basketball sneaker.
The importance of sneaker culture cannot be overstated in the world of profitability for the sport of basketball. The sneaker industry is projected to top over $100 billion in revenue by 2026, and WNBA players should be a part of this equation. In the NBA, getting a signature shoe means that you have arrived and that you are a star. Players are known because they get the exposure that high-profile sneaker brands afford them. If WNBA players were to start getting the same treatment we could see these players become household names which would increase the valuation of the WNBA. The NBA has experienced this in the last 20 years, as player brands become money makers for teams and valuations of franchises skyrocketed. If the WNBA establishes elite brands with elite players they could be following the blueprint of their big brother.
Just What the League Needs
If you wanted to immerse yourself in the WNBA this coming season, you can get WNBA League Pass for $25 for the entire season (compared to $250 for the NBA’s equivalent). This has long been one of the best bargains in professional sports but this coming season it comes with added intrigue. This season is likely the most anticipated in the league’s history. With the two super teams in Las Vegas and New York, there is curiosity surrounding how they will do and whether they are destined to meet each other in the WNBA Finals.
As much as many sports fans and talking heads like to champion parity in sports, the rules do not necessarily apply in basketball. The 1990s were a great time for the NBA because the Chicago Bulls were so dominant. The sport of basketball is made more fun when there are dynasties, this is why the late 70s NBA is largely forgotten. From the Bulls, we transitioned to the Shaq and Kobe Lakers with Tim Duncan’s Spurs mixed in. They eventually made way for the LeBron James versus Golden State Warriors rivalry of the last decade. Basketball is simply better when great players on great teams show their dominance from a rating perspective. The WNBA now has that with two loaded teams in the Aces and Liberty.
These rosters create intrigue. How will Candace Parker and Kelsey Plum mesh in the backcourt? With three capable scorers in Jones, Stewart, and Ionescu can the Liberty find some chemistry? These are the types of questions we ask in the NBA off-season that builds up hype for the next season. And it is something that the WNBA has been missing for many years. It now has a rivalry, with two teams filled with future Hall-of-Famers. If this succeeds, we may see an expansion in the league much as we saw in the late 80s in the NBA when seven new franchises entered the fold, expanding the reach of the league into untapped markets. All of this future awaits the women’s professional game, and it all starts with the intrigue of two super teams on opposite coasts. As much as fans may hate the term, super teams may be just what the WNBA has needed to explode in popularity.