When Stars Align
Discussing how A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart can help transform the WNBA
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Sports are defined by eras. What happens in a particular era could be the catalyst for unprecedented success in the future. When it comes to the NBA, that era was the ‘80s. In the 1980s, the league essentially built their brand around two stars: Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Two people with similar blue-collar beginnings but whose personalities and teams couldn’t be further apart. With them, the league and networks knew what they had: the two best players in the league who could lead their respective organizations to new heights. Their rivalry helped build the NBA into what it is today.
So what does this have to do with women’s basketball? The WNBA might very well have a type of Bird-Magic rivalry on their hands, and it involves the current front-runners for MVP: A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.
Every good sports rivalry needs a backstory. Wilson and Stewart have perhaps one of the best intertwined backstories. It is one of heir apparent to basketball royalty versus upstart looking to cement her own legacy. New blood versus old blood. To start, just look at their collegiate careers. Stewart chose the dynastic University of Connecticut, one of the most famous collegiate basketball programs ever. Under head coach Geno Auriemma, the program has amassed 11 national championships, 22 Final Four appearances, and has produced basketball legends and stars such as Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Tina Charles, Stewart, Maya Moore, Napheesa Collier, and many more.
Wilson, on the other hand, took a different path. Although UConn was one of the programs she considered, Wilson decided to play for her hometown University of South Carolina. If Wilson went to UConn, she would have paired up with Breanna Stewart, giving the Huskies one of its strongest squads ever. But, she decided to create her own path with South Carolina. Prior to Wilson’s arrival, the furthest the Gamecocks had gone in the NCAA Tournament was the Elite Eight in 2002. However, head coach Dawn Staley was building something special in Columbia. The program finished 29-5 and made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the season prior to Wilson’s arrival, led by Tiffany Mitchell, Aleighsa Welch, and Alaina Coates. Adding Wilson, who was considered the top high school player in the nation, was a coup.
Stewart and Wilson faced off twice in NCAA competition, with Stewart’s Huskies defeating Wilson’s Gamecocks by double digits both times. But, to be fair to Wilson, this was during Connecticut’s “reign of terror”, where the program would win four straight national championships and only lose five games total. Also, Stewart had the advantage of being older, with a more developed game, and a much better supporting cast in their head-to-head battles. After Stewart’s departure for the WNBA, Wilson helped bring the University of South Carolina its first national championship in 2017. Their careers and entrance into the WNBA were similar: both were the first overall draft pick following a collegiate career that saw each win at least one national championship, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, and consensus National Player of the Year.
The Seattle Storm drafted Stewart in 2016. She was seen as the next great Storm player, after Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. Stewart found herself in a tremendous situation, playing alongside names such as Bird, Jewell Loyd (Bird and Loyd being former first overall draft selections), and Crystal Langhorne. In 2018, the franchise won the WNBA championship, sweeping the Washington Mystics. Stewart was named that season’s Most Valuable Player, putting her on a legendary trajectory over her first three seasons.
Wilson was drafted by the Las Vegas Aces in Stewart’s third season. The Aces had recently rebranded from the San Antonio Stars and were looking to create a new legacy in Sin City. Wilson had a dominant rookie season, averaging 20.7 points and 8.0 rebounds on her way to winning the Rookie of the Year Award.
If we were to look at their careers through the lens of Bird and Magic, what’s particularly interesting are the parallels between the two. In the case of Stewart, she joined a revered team in Seattle, playing alongside a legendary point guard and budding talent (think of Bird joining the Celtics, initially playing with Nate Archibald, and having the pieces for a future championship with Maxwell, and later: McHale and Parish). Also, Larry Bird and Stewart won their first championship relatively early in their respective careers (Bird in his second, Stewart in her third). In A’ja’s case, her early career paralleled that of Magic. A’ja was drafted to an upscale city, whose nightlife is a top attraction (Magic was drafted to Los Angeles). Both Vegas and LA, although in attractive markets, were looking for their first Finals appearance in some time.
The 2020 season was the first major milestone for their WNBA rivalry. Both Wilson and Stewart put together impressive seasons, finishing 1-2 in that year’s MVP voting. Wilson took home the league’s top individual prize, matching Stewart’s MVP trophy count. In the playoffs, both players led their teams to the Finals, marking the first postseason meeting between Wilson and Stewart. Seattle ultimately won in a sweep, giving Stewart her second championship in four seasons.
As of today, each player has one MVP award, but Stewart has more championships. Stewart was the 2022 scoring leader, but Wilson was the Defensive Player of the Year (her first). As fate would have it, the two are currently facing each other again in playoff action. But what is interesting is just how much is at stake this season:
MVP awards: Whoever wins the Most Valuable Player award will surpass the other in total selections;
Finals Hunt/Team vs. Team: If Stewart and Seattle win this series, it would give Stewart her third Finals appearance in seven seasons. Winning the championship would give Stewart three championships compared to none for Wilson. If Wilson and the Aces win this series, not only would it give them retribution for 2020, but it would be Wilson’s second Finals appearance in five seasons. Winning the championship would cut the 0-2 deficit she currently has against Stewart. Considering that most of the Aces’ core are under contract until 2024 (whereas most of the Storm, including Stewart, will be free agents this offseason), the team could have all the pieces needed to repeat. That path would yield a situation where Wilson and Stewart are tied in championships.
So why is the rivalry between A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart important for the league?
The NBA was able to succeed and effectively take off in the 1980s because there were two main personas, and, depending on who you rooted for, Bird and Magic were either hero or villain. When that dynamic exists in sports, it creates engagement; engagement boosts ratings; ratings bring in new TV deals; and new TV deals bring in more money. Speaking of engagement, look no further than the social media storm (no pun intended) regarding debates on Wilson versus Stewart for this year’s MVP award. Whether it be Twitter polls, Twitter Spaces, or even regular tweets, those on either side of the aisle have vehemently defended “their player”.
Another key aspect of this rivalry/source of engagement is that it includes two major collegiate fanbases. Both UConn’s and South Carolina’s fan bases have increased in size, reach, and power upon their heightened levels of success. In some aspects, Wilson and Stewart, although in the WNBA, serve as proxies for the two collegiate coalitions. Stewart, representing the machine and establishment that has had its monopoly on women’s college basketball, and Wilson representing Dawn Staley’s new kingdom and new hold on the sport.
This level of engagement and conflict isn’t just reflected on Twitter, it’s come through in the viewership. On August 16, 2022, ESPN PR released a tweet stating that the August 14 matchup between Seattle and Las Vegas had averaged 852,000 viewers and peaked at 1.1 million viewers. According to that tweet, it was the most-viewed WNBA game across all networks since May 2008. This being Sue Bird’s last regular-season game played a part. However, this was also the last regular-season matchup between Seattle and Las Vegas and the perfect game for Stewart or Wilson to make a statement and put their stamp on their MVP case. Nonetheless, the most-viewed WNBA game in 14 years featured A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. It would be in the W’s best interest to maximize the visibility of this matchup, considering it currently involves West Coast-based teams. The game on August 14 was a Sunday broadcast on ABC at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. The benefit of a weekend afternoon time slot is that it is broadcast at a convenient time for most fans across the United States. It gives viewers the opportunity to watch high-level basketball and then continue with the rest of their day.
Seattle and Las Vegas faced off four times this season:
May 8 (Sunday): 10:00 p.m. (ET) on ESPN2
June 29 (Wednesday): 10:00 p.m. (ET) on Amazon Prime Video
August 7 (Sunday): 3:00 p.m. (ET) on ABC
August 14 (Sunday): 3:00 p.m. (ET) on ABC
Looking at the listing of games they played, most have been on a Sunday and on a major broadcast station. But, take a look at the times. Only two of those games have been at an optimal time for all viewers, namely the games on ABC (including the highly-rated August 14th game). The games in May and June were at 10 p.m. ET.
Regarding the May game, it could not have taken place at a worse time - 10 p.m. ET on Mother’s Day Sunday. Not only that, it aired after both Game 4s of the NBA conference semifinals. East Coast basketball fans were likely fatigued after two playoff games and Mother’s Day activities. Also, some would have been preparing for the following day (whether it be work, school, etc.). Considering there would be more matchups between Stewart and Wilson, fans might have had the mindset of “I’ll catch the next one”. If people elected not to watch the Storm-Aces game for any of those valid reasons, they would have missed a game in which Wilson led the Aces to a win with 20 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks. Stewart had 21 points and eight rebounds. Performances like these no doubt had fans that watched looking forward to more matchups. The game in June was also not at an optimal time or viewing location: the middle of the week, at 10:00 p.m ET, on Amazon Prime Video. Although this game did not have competition with the NBA, it was still at a nonoptimal time for East Coast fans. Additionally, the viewership of this marquee matchup required fans to have a subscription to Amazon Prime and the patience to navigate the platform. Those who didn’t see that game missed a dominant performance by A’ja Wilson: 17 points, 16 rebounds, and three assists. Those are two great games between Wilson and Stewart that fans might not have watched, two missed opportunities for the league to boost engagement.
Going back to the Bird-Magic lens, not only was the engagement behind their rivalry there, but thanks to networks such as CBS taking advantage of that, the visibility was there. To be sure, the NBA in the 70s and early 80s had its own issues with visibility, with some games (including playoff/NBA Finals games) broadcast via tape delay. Some playoff games were broadcast as late as 11:30 p.m. on the East Coast. So, the NBA’s transformation didn’t happen overnight; it was the result of carefully executing a plan that highlighted both players and their teams in marquee time slots (such as Friday night or weekend games). The NBA playoffs are structured in an Eastern Conference versus Western Conference format, and knowing that Magic and Bird would have to meet in the Finals, stations like CBS focused on broadcasting Celtics games, Lakers games, and Celtics vs. Lakers games. This increased the visibility of Bird, Magic, their teammates and their opponents, essentially putting more eyes on the league. By 1989, thanks to the growing popularity of the league, the NBA found a new network partner. In November 1989, the league and NBC announced a $600 million dollar deal over four years beginning with the 1990-1991 season, which according to the New York Times was more than triple that of the existing CBS deal. With the NBA continuing to grow, the league extended the existing NBC deal for another four years at $750 million in 1993.
Revenue from TV deals is usually a major factor for league salaries and its salary cap. According to Basketball Reference, the salary cap for the 1984-1985 season (earliest season available on the site, and in the middle of the Bird-Magic era) was $3,600,000. By the 1989-1990 season (when the first NBC deal was announced) the NBA’s salary cap was $9,802,000. By the end of the first extension of that deal, 1997-1998, the league’s salary cap ballooned to $26,900,000. From 1984-1985 to the end of the first extension, the league’s salary cap grew by roughly 647%. By bringing in new eyes on the product, the league increased its profitability during the Bird-Magic era, most notably through a new TV deal.
The WNBA salary cap for 2023 is $1,420,500, which is a fraction of the NBA’s in the 1980s. If the salary cap grew 647%, the new salary cap would be $10,611,635. Additionally, if the league’s supermax amount ($234,936 in 2023) was hypothetically able to grow by the same percentage, the new figure would be around $1,754,972. Applying those same metrics to the regular maximum ($202,154 in 2023) would render a new value of about $1,510,090. This would effectively allow WNBA players to ink deals with million-dollar base salaries. Although these are hypothetical amounts, and the WNBA may not achieve this exact level of growth, the figures show how transformational an influx of TV revenue would be for player salaries. With such a large increase, something the league may have to consider is the effect on the revenue-sharing mechanism included in its recent CBA (for more insight on that, check out this article by Jacob Mox).
Another important concept to keep in mind is the effect that substantial increased pay could have on collegiate players. It is no secret that the WNBA has one of the lowest starting salaries for rookies across all sports. The 2023 starting salary for rookies drafted between picks 1-4 (per the rookie scale) is $74,305. Per the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, the May 2021 mean estimated salary across all occupations in the United States was $58,260. Not accounting for other factors such as inflation, the starting rookie salary for lottery picks in 2023 is 27.5% higher than that. Of course, the WNBA season is roughly five months, and average Americans work year-round. Players can and often do supplement their WNBA income by playing in leagues overseas. Factoring in a hypothetical 647% increase in overall salaries, the new WNBA rookie-scale amount would be $555,058 (roughly 853% higher than the May 2021-estimated mean US salary), and just over double the current 2023 supermax. College players would be able to look forward to a situation where they could make decent starting money with the potential for millions of dollars in the future, as opposed to possibly making more through NIL deals.
Some have suggested that when it comes to the W and sourcing new TV deals, that there may not be enough “major players” in the market. This is a fair argument, considering ESPN’s sports media dominance. But, recently another U.S. based sports league, Major League Soccer (who has been an emerging sports league in its own right), inked a $2.5 billion deal with Apple TV to stream games. Per Apple, the content will be available through its own subscription-based service, exclusively through the Apple TV application. In 2021, the WNBA began a partnership with tech giant Google, with the goal of increasing engagement. With Apple, Amazon, and Google entering the sports realm, it signals to the world (and other tech giants) how profitable this space can be. Additionally, these companies are flush with cash to make strategic partnerships (like high-paying TV or streaming deals). With the right focus and plan to bring eyes onto the product, perhaps the WNBA could be next, considering its current deal with ESPN expires in 2025, per The IX’s Howard Megdal. One thing to also note there is that although the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) runs through 2027, there is an opt-out clause for both sides that could allow for a new CBA after 2025.
This is where the WNBA has to try and follow the NBA’s path in the 1980s by liaising with ESPN and its other partners to ensure that Stewart and Wilson are getting optimal time slots, whether in head-to-head action or versus other opponents. Now, some may claim the league shouldn’t engage in what might be seen as “prioritizing” two players/teams over the rest of the league. Some may feel that the coverage should be spread out. However, in the current era of sports, not all teams receive equal TV coverage. To use the NBA as an example: the Los Angeles Lakers are currently scheduled to have more national TV games than the Denver Nuggets, who have the current MVP. In fact, the Dallas Mavericks, led by the talented Luka Doncic, will also have more games. This is because the TV providers know whom to cater their primetime games to, which are the megastars of the league.
Thinking back to the 80s, although the focus was on Bird and Magic, there were other legendary veterans in the mix alongside Bird and Magic: Dr. J, Moses Malone, Alex English, George Gervin, and others. The focus on Bird and Magic didn’t hurt the profile of those veterans, as they are considered legends of the game. And as more flocked to see Bird and Magic, they subsequently saw the rise of stars who would take the mantle into the next era: Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and more. The prioritization of Bird vs. Magic helped give the NBA a foundation to substantially increase its viewership/fan-base, so it would pay off for the next generation.
The same can hold true with Stewart versus Wilson. If eyes are on their games, then eyes will be on their opponent by default. This means that as fans tune in to their contests, they are also seeing other talented players. By having this situation take place, it elevates the profile of the other star players in the league. Also, both Stewart and Wilson are relatively young (Stewart recently turned 28, and Wilson is 26), meaning they likely have a lot of years at the top of the WNBA mountain. In turn, that means more opportunities for their rivalry to grow, and the engagement behind it, bringing new fans to the league.
And this is what it all comes down to: having Wilson and Stewart be the leaders in helping increase the WNBA’s visibility for the next generation.
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