Courtney Vandersloot, Breanna Stewart introduction with Liberty marks new era in WNBA

Stars like Vandersloot and Stewart are taking pay cuts to go after arguably the most valuable commodity the league has to offer right now — championships.

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New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart and guard Courtney Vandersloot pose in front of Barclays Center before a news conference, Thursday in New York.

New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart and guard Courtney Vandersloot pose in front of Barclays Center before a news conference, Thursday in New York.

Jessie Alcheh/AP

The New York Liberty pulled out all the stops Thursday morning welcoming their new stars, Courtney Vandersloot and Breanna Stewart, to Brooklyn.

On their drive over to the Barclays Center in a private car, Stewart and Vandersloot looked at each other and asked, “Is this really happening?”

As they pulled up to the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenue, and were greeted by a swarm of photographers who snapped pictures as they both stared up at a giant welcome message beaming across the arena’s outdoor video display, their new reality began to set in.

They each had a different reason for saying goodbye to the familiar in favor of an exciting new opportunity in New York. Vandersloot’s explanation said more about the Sky and what they were unable to give her.

“The plan, the vision right away it was so clear it wasn’t dependent on this, or if this happens or this happens,” Vandersloot said. “It’s like, this is what we see, this is what we’re going to go do. We want to bring a championship, the best players here. We’re going to take care of you. It was everything that we were looking for. They’re pushing the envelope in all areas.”

According to Richard Cohen at HerHoopStats, Vandersloot signed a two-year deal worth $189,000 in her first year and $194,670 in her second, a discount from the supermax deal the Sky could have offered her. Stewart signed a one-year deal worth $175,000, also well below her market value.

Wondering why the league’s third All-Time assist leader and the 2018 WNBA MVP would sign at a discounted rate?

The answer can be summed up with one word: investment.

The WNBA’s hard salary cap attempts to keep an even playing field. What we’re seeing happen is stars like Vandersloot and Stewart take pay cuts to go after arguably the most valuable commodity the league has to offer — championships.

“What we’re setting a precedent for is to be willing to play with other great players, to want to win and do whatever we can to make that happen,” Stewart said. “It’s not my decision that the WNBA has such a hard salary cap. That’s a discussion for the next CBA.”

The discussion might not wait until the league’s current CBA is up in 2027.

Howard Megdal reported that the league is investigating the Las Vegas Aces for circumventing the salary cap. The WNBA is also investigating the Aces after Dearica Hamby accused the organization of “unprofessional and unethical” treatment due to her pregnancy. In a social media post shared by Hamby following her trade to the Los Angeles Sparks, the two-time All-Star said the treatment she received from the Aces was “traumatizing.”

According to Megdal’s report, the Aces are being investigated for offering under-the-table deals to current players and free agents. The news was met with condemnation from owners and executives alike. But accompanying their disapproval of any potential rule-breaking were sentiments supporting progressive investment by owners.

“The Dream wants to invest and are investing,” Atlanta Dream co-owner Larry Gottesdiener said on Twitter. “Our front office went from 7 people to 50 over the past two years. We just want a level playing field and to know what the rules are. If there aren’t any rules, that’s cool too. Just let us know.”

Minnesota Lynx coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve echoed Gottesdiener’s remarks.

“The Lynx have progressive owners who want to invest and have been as well,” Reeve tweeted. “Circumvention of the salary cap or violation of team travel rules isn’t an acceptable way to make the progress we all want to see.”

The Lynx was one of the organizations that both Stewart and Vandersloot met with.

The other two meetings they had in common were with the Seattle Storm and the Liberty. Vandersloot met with the Sky, but according to coach/GM James Wade, he didn’t request a meeting with Stewart.

What those three organizations have in common are progressive ownership groups, that are establishing world-class player experiences within their franchises. Liberty owners, Joe and Clara Wu-Tsai are leading the way. The Tsais were fined $500,000 for chartering team flights to away games during the second half of the 2021 season.

Chartered flights took center stage for Stewart’s free agency when she shared a message on social media asking who would support her in fighting for a deal that helped subsidize charter travel for the league. Her post garnered support from players across the league including the Sky’s Kahleah Copper, WNBA Players’ Association president Nneka Ogwumike and even Basketball Hall of Fame member Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Thursday, Wu-Tsai didn’t speak in detail about her efforts to move the needle on the issue of charter travel in an effort to avoid being fined. She did say she believes because the topic has reached a level of importance within the league and several other team governors, commissioner Cathy Engelbert will be forced to address it.

The league’s investigation into the Aces will undoubtedly propel discussions about the league’s salary cap.

Depending on their findings, either the league will make an example of the Aces, forcing teams to continue to sign top stars with benefits that aren’t limited by the CBA. Or the league will fail to dissuade other organizations from taking up the same salary cap workarounds.

One way or another, a new era is brewing in the WNBA and its cost might finally reflect the value of the athletes it’s comprised of.

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