‘A long time coming’: Phoenix Mercury players rally behind ‘Unrivaled’ league as game-changer for women’s basketball

Unrivaled, a new women’s basketball league created by WNBA All-Stars Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier, offers an alternative to traveling overseas and addresses the wage gap in women’s basketball. (Photo by Grace Hand/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Morgan Bertsch’s family sent wedding invite after wedding invite. Her response was always the same: Declined. The first-year Mercury forward has missed every one of her family’s weddings to date due to a professional basketball journey that has taken her across the world. Despite becoming a third-round pick in the 2019 draft, she didn’t make a WNBA roster and played overseas for four years before playing her first season with Chicago Sky in 2023.

It’s a voyage many WNBA players endure to increase income, with nearly half the league competing in foreign countries during the past offseason, according to Front Office Sports. It’s not a matter of want but necessity, as the WNBA’s minimum salary is just over $64,000.

However, a new women’s basketball league, “Unrivaled,” aims to address those issues.

The new three-on-three women’s basketball league, founded by former UCONN teammates and WNBA stars Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier, will launch in January 2025 and progress through March. The Miami-based competition will feature six teams and 30 of the best WNBA players.

“I don’t think people realize that a lot of us, especially the ninth through 12th person on the roster, are going overseas and playing year-round,” Bertsch said. “That can take a toll on your body just never having a break or time to step away from the game, but that’s the only way we can get a living wage.

“There are exciting things that come with it, like meeting different people and enjoying other cultures, but there comes a time when you miss important dates, birthdays and family events. So this new league is an excellent opportunity to keep players home, not force players to play for 12 months, and play them what they are worth.”

Mercury forward Brittney Griner experienced the harshest reality while leaving the U.S. to play basketball in another country. She spent nine months in a Russian jail in 2022 after being found guilty of smuggling illegal drugs with criminal intent before returning to the United States as part of a prisoner swap.

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Phoenix Mercury guard Sug Sutton, who has also played overseas, believes that Unrivaled offers a needed alternative in which players remain on U.S. soil.

“This is super exciting,” Sutton said. “We don’t have that many leagues that players can stay home and play in. It’s great that this is coming, and players are making that initiative for us.”

The details surrounding media rights, TV packages and brand partnerships are still being fine-tuned, but with LED-lighted, 60-foot courts, the league is already living up to its name before its genesis next year.

During her interview with ABC anchor Robin Roberts on “Good Morning America,” the two-time WNBA champion Stewart addressed what separates this new league from every other 3-on-3 competition.

“What sets Unrivaled apart is that in the women’s world, this has never happened before, and this is the largest average salary in a women’s league worldwide,” Stewart said. “It’s not just about having the best product, but the product is also going to get what we deserve.”

To ensure long-term financial stability, all players will have equity in the league and the opportunity to sign multi-year contracts. Collier told the Washington Post that most of the money WNBA players make is off the court.

“We want to change that … to make money playing basketball,” Collier told the Post.

For Bertsch, who is on a minimum contract, an increase in potential sources of income for players brings her delight.

“I think it’s been a long time coming,” Bertsch said. “This league and these players deserve to be invested in. A lot of us have gone overseas to be able to get that amount of money. To be able to get that and stay home, it’s a great opportunity. I’m excited to see what the league looks like, and hopefully, it can grow and involve everyone. With an increase in eyes and investors this season, it’s a great time to pour into women’s sports and basketball, specifically.”

A high-profile list of investors is pouring into the vision, including 10-time NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony, soccer stars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, Hall of Fame college coach Geno Auriemma, Phoenix Suns Ring of Honor member Steve Nash, actor Ashton Kutcher, former Turner Networks president David Levy and former ESPN president John Skipper.

Stewart refused to unveil specific names of participants during Thursday’s sit-down interview with Roberts but said to expect All-Star level talent.

A limited selection of competitors motivates young players like Sutton to put themselves in a position to capitalize off the growth of women’s basketball.

“Every day, I continue to work hard,” Sutton said. “All the young players on this team continue to give everything we have. The new leagues that come continue to motivate us to do better for the team and ourselves individually. With the league coming, it’s exciting, but we still strive to be great every day regardless of whether the game expands.”

Sports Digital Reporter, Phoenix

Joshua Heron expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Heron served as a sports reporter for The Hilltop, Howard University News Service, and social-impact brand FISLL as an undergrad at Howard University. He also worked as a freelance reporter for Capital News. His interview series, “Wagwan In Life,” hosts people across multiple professions. Heron produced “Championship Culture,” a documentary highlighting the Howard women’s basketball team. He was a 2023 National Geographic HBCU Media Scholar and former My Brother’s Keeper Fellow.

Grace Hand(she/her/hers)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Grace Hand expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Hand attended Sacred Heart University for her bachelor’s degree in sports communication and media with a minor in digital marketing. Hand is pursuing a career in the NHL.