First thought: Breanna Stewart has a chance to go down as the best player in women’s basketball history. The Storm forward and two-time WNBA Finals MVP reinforced this idea Friday night when she scored 31 points — 15 of which came in the fourth quarter and overtime — in a win over the Liberty.
There were 10,001 people on hand at Climate Pledge Arena to witness this, a number that “Stewie” can help sustain or grow over the next decade if she sticks around and stays healthy.
Second thought: What if she doesn’t stick around?
Currently on a one-year deal, Stewart was noncommittal about coming back when talking to my co-worker Percy Allen this past week. The Liberty attempted to woo the 27-year-old last offseason, when the team’s owners and coach took her out to dinner.
She chose Seattle for a season, but when asked what this next offseason will look like, Stewart said, “More dinners.” But there’s another component to this — one fellow co-worker Larry Stone wrote about three months ago: What if Stewart’s future isn’t in the WNBA at all?
Two years ago, the players’ union signed off on a collective-bargaining agreement that would allow the top players to earn north of $500,000 per year — more than triple what they were making before. Some of this cash would come on the court (Stewart’s contract pays her $228,094 this season) and some of this would come via offseason marketing activities. It was celebrated as a landmark deal, but there was a caveat: The players better prioritize the WNBA.
Stewart’s $228,000 deal with the Storm is nice, but it pales in comparison to the $1.5 million a year she was making annually playing in Russia. Typically, WNBA players spend half their time in the States and the other half overseas to supplement their income — with the top players earning seven-figure salaries. But as a result, many miss training camp, parts of the preseason, and in some cases, regular-season games. The WNBA doesn’t like that. It wants the players here. So if they miss so much as a day of training camp next year due to overseas commitments, they get fined. And if they miss a day of training camp for the same reason in 2024? Suspended for the entire season.
Stewart spoke on this in February, saying: “It’s just hard for me, because with the prioritization, you’re cutting off one of my sources of income, and not substituting it … For me it’s: ‘Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t we find a middle ground on this thing?’ “
Which brings me to thought No. 3: Why did the players sign off on this then? After the Storm’s win Friday, I posed this question to Stewart.
“We knew that the league wouldn’t budge on anything we wanted if we didn’t have the prioritization implemented into the CBA,” Stewart said. “But it is pretty frustrating because you’re making people choose, and a lot of people are choosing overseas. So what’s going to happen?”
Right, but ultimately you guys did agree to it.
“No, I know, we did agree to it,” Stewart said. “And I think that that was something that it’s kind of like — we wish we hadn’t.”
Uh oh. The WNBA is where players carve out their legacies. When we talk about the all-time greats — Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, etc. — we look at what they accomplished in the most competitive women’s basketball league in the world, not what they did overseas. However, overseas is where players — at least the ones at the top — stack up the cash that gives them generational wealth. That’s not an easy choice to make.
Stewart said that she’d like to stay home, but that she also has to take advantage of her basketball window and do the smart thing financially. So her plan is to sign a new overseas contract. And as Storm coach Noelle Quinn said Friday, if that’s Stewie’s plan, a lot of other players are likely thinking the same thing.
Maybe this won’t end up being an issue. Maybe the WNBA and overseas leagues will make adjustments to their schedules to ensure that both get the best talent possible. But that’s nothing close to a guarantee.
My guess is that a lot of WNBA players are going to keep playing overseas. And if the money is sweet enough, they will risk suspension if they aren’t back on time.
Is this a little bit of a game of chicken? I asked Stewart.
“Yeah,” she said, “I mean, you gotta see what’s going to happen.”