WNBA All-Stars Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart are launching a new basketball league called Unrivaled, they announced Thursday. Unrivaled currently has no set launch year.
The league will initially feature 30 of the top professional women’s basketball players across six teams set to compete in 3-on-3 and 1-on-1 game formats, all based in Miami, Fla.
According to Rachel Galligan of Just Women’s Sports, the league will “run for 10 weeks from January to March with three games played per week, and it will also feature a single-elimination 1-on-1 tournament.” Galligan added that the competition will “take place in a custom facility with a state-of-the-art LED surrounding and a shortened 65-foot basketball court, which will provide an experience the women’s game has never seen before.”
Unrivaled will serve as another option for WNBA athletes who wish both to remain stateside during the offseason and make significant supplementary income beyond their WNBA salary.
“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,” Collier tweeted as part of an eight-tweet thread on Thursday afternoon.
“Like any league, we are an entertainment commodity. The league will feature an innovative style of 3v3 played on a shortened full-court. More spacing, more scoring, & shorter games. Highly entertaining & competitive with the top talent in the world.”
Every player who competes initially in the first season of Unrivaled will receive equity ownership within the league and earn “salaries that are competitive to the WNBA,” Collier added.
The WNBA’s prioritization rules — which require players to report to their WNBA teams by the start of training camp or instead face a season-long suspension without pay — are set full effect at the start of the 2024 season. As a result, Collier and Stewart wanted to move quickly to provide an alternative to players who otherwise would’ve had to choose between making more money overseas and missing the entire 2024 WNBA season.
“It’s the ability for players to stay home, to be in a market like Miami where we can just be the buzz and create that with the best WNBA players,” Stewart told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “We can’t keep fighting [the WNBA’s prioritization rule]. It is a rule that takes away our choices, which should never be a thing, especially as women, but it is still a rule.”
Now that the two are both mothers, this venture means more to them.
Stewie & I both have daughters. It’s our responsibility to show them & 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. (7/8)— napheesa collier (@PHEEsespieces) July 6, 2023
Stewart has starred for years for overseas powerhouses in the offseason. But she told Shelburne that her wife becoming pregnant with their second child prompted her to reach out to Collier, also a young mother, about what they could do to help players with young families that would prefer to remain stateside closer to family during the offseason.
Collier’s husband, renowned NBA and WNBA skills trainer Alex Bazzell, played a key role in ideating the league concept.
“We went to dinner in New York and [Bazzell] was explaining the idea of being a part of this league where it’s like you’re on an all-digital basketball court, you’re playing 3-on-3, one-on-one, queen-of-the-court type thing where you hold bragging rights, but also make a salary that’s kind of set in stone but also can always grow bigger,” Stewart told Shelburne.
Collier told ESPN that beyond childcare and family logistics overseas, they wanted to start the new league because women’s professional basketball is “just not trending in the direction that we want.” She mentioned college players opting to stay in college because they can make more money there as a “true” narrative that she and Stewart are working to change.
“I think we’re in such a special time right now. People are really finally starting to see the value of women’s sports,” Collier added.
The idea attracted Las Vegas Aces All-Star point guard Chelsea Gray, who liked the concept of alternative game formats beyond 5-on-5.
“It takes you back to how you would perfect your craft,” Gray told ESPN. “You roll the ball out, let’s play 1s or 3-on-3 in the street, so it brings a fun environment type of vibe while you’re still making bread.”
Now, the task for Collier and Stewart will be following through and securing 27 other players to join them and Gray on the court when the league launches.
The trio are faced with a chicken-and-egg issue: increased funding and sponsorship revenue attracts more players, but more players attract increased funding and sponsorship dollars. When you add in that some stars have already signed contracts to play overseas this coming WNBA offseason, there are some hurdles that Unrivaled faces.
While two All-Stars caliber players creating a complementary micro league within their sport is a difficult task, it is one that has precedent. PGA TOUR golfers Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy launched the TGL — an innovative arena golf league with six teams of three players playing on simulators with fans sitting green-side — which is also set to debut in January, during a lull in the TOUR schedule.
Whether or not Collier and Stewart drew inspiration from that is unknown, but they will definitely be able to learn from TGL’s inaugural season this winter.
Unrivaled should be a terrific addition to the women’s professional basketball scene.
Any professional league that promotes increased and more equitable pay, and enables players to remain stateside during the offseason is a huge win for WNBA players. Not to mention it should reduce the wear-and-tear on the bodies of players who go overseas in the offseason and end up playing highly competitive basketball 12 months out of the year. Women’s basketball has never been more popular in the digital age than it is today, and the opportunity to watch the game’s elite players battle it out in a creative, engaging, and accessible way will cultivate significant fan interest that drives the WNBA forward.
The timing of the Unrivaled league is seemingly fit for W players who’re looking to stay stateside.— Jasmine Harper (@harperxxwrites) July 6, 2023
February-March: Athletes Unlimited
WNBA Training Camp: April-May
WNBA regular season: May-September/October
A key area of growth the WNBA hadn’t yet capitalized on was creating a year-round calendar that allows the league to maintain relevancy in mainstream news cycles.
The NBA does this incredibly well. Training camp opens in September; the season runs from October through June, with the draft later in June; and then free agency and Summer League take place in July. August is the only month in which the NBA isn’t a major player in the sports news space.
Collier and Stewart’s move to create a new league during the offseason will fuel all sorts of headlines when the league does tip off.
There are generally trades galore in January ahead of WNBA free agency in February, so the league will undoubtedly serve as recruiting grounds for star free agents trying to lure top talent to their respective WNBA teams. While stars frequently play together as part of USA Basketball, Unrivaled figures to include a larger player pool and a more direct way for stars to team up and get added reps together.
Collier added that the league will be “content forward on and off the court” and be “focused on creating the most enjoyable experience for fans.”
All the excitement, drama, rumors, and storylines that follow as a result of the content Unrivaled produces will only create more fan interest, online engagement, and ultimately money for players — both in Unrivaled and the WNBA — down the line. That symbiotic relationship will be fascinating to watch evolve in a never-before-seen way.
I can only imagine what it’d be like to sit in an intimate arena, hear the best players in the world competing, talking trash, playing against their WNBA teammates, and recruiting stars on other WNBA teams on live television. Similarly to USA Basketball, the league will serve as a unique vehicle for telling stories about the league’s best players, their relationships with other stars, and their personalities off the court. The advantage Unrivaled has is that it’s set to run for 10 weeks, much longer than USAB minicamps or international competitions. The more we learn about star players off the court, the more sponsorship opportunities that storytelling content can create, and the more money players can make as they build their personal brands. The best part is that because players will have equity in the league, everything will be on their terms.
There’s so much to like about what this new league can create for the fans, but more importantly for the game’s top players — who deserve better than the year-round grueling grind that separates them from their families for six months out of the year.
It’ll certainly be fun to follow the league concept as it develops, especially with Lynx star Napheesa Collier and her husband at the forefront of its implementation.