WNBA

Unrivaled basketball league set to feature serious salaries and has the backing of some major names

Unrivaled basketball league set to feature serious salaries and has the backing of some major names

Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier is an early MVP candidate and has big ideas for Unrivaled. (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Unrivaled, the women’s 3×3 basketball league founded by Napheesa Collier and Breanna Stewart, will pay a minimum six-figure salary and offer the highest average salary in U.S. women’s professional sports when it launches in January 2025, the league announced Thursday.

“The principle of our league is that it's the top talent, and women need to be paid accordingly,” Collier told Yahoo Sports ahead of the announcement. “We need to be treated as professionals, and so that was a huge thing, is making sure that this is transformative, and something that’s new is we’re going to be paying players what they should be paid.”

Plans for Unrivaled, which was originally slated for an optimistic January 2024 launch, were made public ahead of the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game as an answer to the prioritization clause, a controversial requirement in the collective bargaining agreement that went into full effect this spring. It requires players to arrive at training camp on time or else be suspended for the entire season. Players who historically made significantly more money overseas in leagues that can extend into the WNBA season aren’t happy with the restrictions.

As an alternative, Unrivaled offers the WNBA’s best players the option to play in a three-month, 3×3 league held in Miami that does not overlap with training camps and gives stars ample time for offseason recovery. Women’s players often play year-round, though fewer are doing so with the increase in sponsorship deals and WNBA league marketing deals available.

The new league is spearheaded by Collier, an early MVP candidate for the Minnesota Lynx; Stewart, a two-time MVP with the New York Liberty; and Alex Bazzell, a WNBA/NBA skills coach and Collier’s husband. Unrivaled said it has agreed to terms with 10 All-Stars, but is not announcing any until this summer. A committee that does not include Collier or Stewart considered participants based on WNBA accolades and collegiate success for younger players, Collier said.

“Any person that you can think of, that is the best in the [WNBA] that you think is a great player, we've gone after them,” Collier said. “That can give you a little bit of an idea.”

The league did unveil its star-studded list of investors Thursday, including U.S. women’s national team soccer champions Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, NBA stars Carmelo Anthony and Steve Nash, LPGA winner Michelle Wie West and business mogul Gary Vaynerchuk. UConn women's basketball head coach Geno Auriemma and actor Ashton Kutcher are also early investors.

John Skipper, Meadowlark Media co-founder and former ESPN president, and David Levy, Back Nine Ventures founder and former Turner president, are also investors who will lead Unrivaled’s media rights and sponsorship sales.

“It took time, but I think there's always that inflection point and I think this is where it's happening is you have some real stars [and] real brand names that are attached to this particular league,” Levy told Yahoo Sports. “If you closed your eyes, and you said this is an NBA product. And you said LeBron James, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and just go down the list — [Jalen] Brunson if I want to put a Knick in there myself — and you [ask] would you watch that? Of course you would, right? I mean, that's the best of the best in the NBA. This is the best of the best in the WNBA.”

Unrivaled said it will announce the minimum and average salary figures later in the year, but it will eclipse the marks of the 28-year-old WNBA and 12-year old NWSL. At a minimum of $100,000 to each player, the total salary payout would be $3 million. But Unrivaled’s minimum will likely be much higher.

WNBA salaries range from $64,154 to $241,984 for the 2024 season and average approximately $122,000. Athletes Unlimited’s basketball league pays an average base salary of $20,000 for a five-week season. Each league offers various bonus opportunities, and the WNBA signs certain players to team and league marketing deals. Collier previously signed a league marketing contract.

The minimum NWSL salary under the new collective bargaining agreement is $37,856 and teams are signing elite players to record deals worth more than $400,000 annually using allocation money. The Pro Volleyball Federation launched in January and pays a minimum $60,000 base salary. Top players will earn up to $175,000 in the 2025 season.

The 30 players participating in the first Unrivaled season will receive equity for at least the first year and the founders are looking for other ways to pay players outside of salaries, Collier said. Brand and sponsorship deals will be part of that.

“It's trying to build that generational wealth for these women,” Collier said. “We deserve it. We've worked so hard to get to this point. People before us deserved it, too. We're just now in an opportunity where we can actually execute it and give it to players more than ever before.”

Unrivaled offers a structure that’s “unique and different,” Levy said. It will be a different style of game than a traditional 5-on-5 basketball league while also varying from Athletes Unlimited, a fantasy-sports style league that runs in March and names a champion based on individual stats.

Six teams of five players each will compete in 3×3 games held in Miami on a court two-thirds the size of a regulation court. The game is booming in popularity globally for its fast pace and short run time. The U.S. women’s 3×3 team won the sport’s first gold at the Tokyo Olympics.

It will be a standard season format with standings based on records, a postseason schedule and a championship game.

Collier told Yahoo Sports exclusively there will be a break in the middle of the season akin to an All-Star hiatus that will feature a 1-on-1 tournament. They might relocate to a different location for the festivities, Collier said. The details have not been ironed out.

The January start in the sports calendar is purposeful and fills one of the gaps Collier said players view as an issue in the WNBA. The WNBA runs May through October, which is when most people want to be outside. That works for arena scheduling and boosting TV viewership numbers around the NBA when the league was new, but the traditional basketball season is in the winter.

“We really feel like we're in a perfect time where it's an exciting thing in the middle of kind of a dead spot and the winter season,” Collier said.

She said Skipper advised them to hold the league in January. The NBA is in midseason gearing up for April and the start of the postseason, and college basketball is entering conference play before the tournament in March and Final Four in early April.

“When you take the best of the best, I think you compete on any table,” Levy said. “And I think that's what makes it very interesting is that these women don't have to disappear in January, February, March and go overseas and play overseas and not be able to brand themselves.”

It will also help players’ already existing sponsorship deals and their ability to sign new, larger ones. Brands and advertisers are “shifting real dollars into this space,” Levy said, but are unable to activate with athletes in the pivotal basketball months because they aren’t physically playing or in the U.S. to participate.

Levy said he wanted more women’s sports in his portfolio as co-CEO of Horizon Sports & Experiences because of the same rise in metrics everyone else is seeing. Viewership, attendance, sports betting and brand investment are all sharply rising. The sports marketing agency announced earlier in 2024 the Women’s Champions Classic college tournament that will feature UConn, Iowa, Louisville and Tennessee at Barclays Center in New York this December. A women’s soccer-related announcement could happen soon.

Levy’s connections with Vaynerchuk led him to a meeting with Bazzell, and he learned Skipper had been involved over the past handful of months. Collier said when pitching to investors, Bazzell handles the business side and she and Stewart handle the player experience side. It’s been a “pretty easy sell” because they’re business people who see the dollar signs.

“The people in women's sports have known for so long how special it is and how profitable it can be and how it could be what it's starting to be now,” Collier said. “That's why we made this league in the first place. And I think it was just perfect timing for [interest] to blow up, and [for] everyone else it's now on everyone else's radar at the perfect time.”

Levy and Skipper will begin taking Unrivaled to market for sponsorship deals and media rights deals now that the announcement is public. As heads of Turner and ESPN, the duo brokered the 2014 NBA rights deal that included WNBA games. Media rights deals are pivotal in higher player salaries and amenities.

“Media companies want to put more hours of not just any women’s programming, but quality women’s programming on their air because they see the demand on the brand side and the advertising side,” Levy said. “And they also see the ratings growth.”

Even with the growth, women’s sports rights are a steal compared to longer-established men’s leagues. The NBA is currently negotiating its rights deal at a total price tag of more than $7.5 billion annually that reportedly includes WNBA content. The NWSL signed a historic $60 million annual deal in November.

“It's like buying, I'd say, a penny stock that you know is going to be a $10 stock over time,” Levy said.

Collier and Stewart said last summer they want to work in parallel with the WNBA, while also creating a league that remedies their qualms with the oldest professional women’s league in the U.S. A significant media rights deal signals worth immediately, a contrast to how the WNBA spent much of its existence fighting for legitimacy in the larger sporting world’s eyes.

“The W has had a certain narrative for the past 30 years that it's been running,” Collier. “And so we're coming from kind of a fresh, new perspective where we get to start from zero and we get to create our own narrative while on the other hand, the W, it’s changing, but it has been one way for so long. I think that gives us a unique opportunity.”

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