Breanna Stewart, Napheesa Collier to start U.S.-based league in WNBA offseason

New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart and Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier told ESPN they are founding a new women's basketball league to give the top WNBA players another option for playing domestically in the offseason once the league's new prioritization rules go into full effect next season.

The new league, called Unrivaled, would run from January through March and feature 30 of the top professional women's players on six teams, playing games of 3-on-3 and one-on-one at a soundstage in Miami.

The goal is to raise enough in private funding and sponsorships to provide the players commensurate pay with what they make during the WNBA season. That would help offset the lucrative contracts they'd be giving up overseas because of new league rules requiring players to return from international commitments by the start of WNBA training camps.

"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. "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."

The WNBA supermax salary for the 2023 season is $234,936, though Stewart agreed to far less to join the Liberty, as previously reported.

The WNBA's prioritization rules, which were part of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, mandate that players return from overseas by the start of training camp to be eligible for the season. The overseas season often runs through mid-May, which conflicts with the start of the WNBA season.

Stewart played for the Turkish club Fenerbahce last offseason and said she has always enjoyed the experience of playing overseas. But with her wife, Marta Xargay, expecting the couple's second child this fall, she'd already been thinking about whether she wanted to continue playing overseas.

That's when Stewart started talking to fellow UConn star Collier, and her husband, Alex Bazzell, about the potential of founding a women's league in the United States during the WNBA offseason.

"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 said.

"We've all been talking and realizing that we're missing a moment, having a lot of our players be overseas or not playing basketball [during the offseason]. ... I think top players, they want to be playing, right? They want to be home, they want to be playing, but it has to make sense. It has to be right and the money has to be right. And I think that's what Unrivaled is trying to do."

Stewart says she has already taken part in numerous calls with potential business partners for the new league.

"I feel like I'm breaking down the same thing over and over again to companies," she said. "But it's like people need to be shown how to watch us and how to see us and then from there they'll kind of continue to be invested and be like, 'Oh, I do like this. Who is this player and how can I watch them more?' ... And then follow them in the WNBA.

"It's just trying to be proactive and create initiatives for what we can do in the WNBA offseason besides league marketing agreements and team marketing agreements. What can be player-led?"

Collier stopped playing overseas when she gave birth to the couple's first child in 2022, but says that was only part of the reason she stepped away from the international game.

"I'm a homebody by nature. I love being home for the holidays," Collier told ESPN. "Being away from your family for six months, it's not easy. Then the idea of having a family trying to figure out child care overseas. That was kind of the main reason [for founding a new league]. But secondly, just the narrative around where the game is going right now. You have a lot of people, especially college players, saying that they would prefer to be in college than come to the league.

"And women's basketball's kind of the only place that that's happening. It's just not trending in the direction that we want. We've come so far. We want to obviously go a lot farther. So, having that narrative is just really harmful. And it's true right now. So we definitely want to try to change that. I think we're in such a special time right now. People are really finally starting to see the value of women's sports."

Stewart and Collier said they've assembled a team of business and sports industry leaders from companies such as Twitter, DAZN, the WTA and WWE to help launch the league next January. The players they've approached so far have shown enthusiasm for the idea, provided Unrivaled can deliver on the promised salary and vision for the single-site league.

One of those is Las Vegas Aces point guard Chelsea Gray, who has either played overseas or done broadcasting during her offseasons.

"I've never had the chance to be here and not do anything, but just hoop," Gray told ESPN. "You get to see our faces throughout the year and it's a chance to just grow women's basketball. It's not necessarily to take away other opportunities, but it's just a way for players to keep competing, to make money, and to bring fans and bring people close together."

Gray said she's also intrigued by the idea of playing 3-on-3 and one-on-one instead of the traditional 5-on-5 game.

"It takes you back to how you would perfect your craft," she said. "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.

"But you've got to be in a different type of shape for 3-on-3. I've got to start training for this. There's more space and more scoring. It's the top players in the world. You're on an island sometimes you can't be relying on help side. [On the Aces] if I get beat, I know A'ja [Wilson] or Candace [Parker] is back there. Now I have to think of this 3-on-3 a little bit differently."

Unrivaled would join Athletes Unlimited as newly launched professional women's leagues trying to take advantage of the long WNBA offseason.

Athletes Unlimited held its first season in Las Vegas from late January to late February 2022. Former No. 2 overall draft pick NaLyssa Smith was its individual champion in 2023.