NEW YORK — The WNBA is evolving, and we’re not just talking about the 36 new players — including No. 1 pick Jackie Young, fellow Notre Dame star Arike Ogunbowale and 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown — who just entered the league after being selected in Wednesday’s draft.
Coming off perhaps the greatest season in league history, the WNBA has undergone a complete rebrand — or “refresh,” as it’s been dubbed — heading into the new year. The league has a new logo (the first since 2013, and only its third ever) and a landmark, multiyear partnership with AT&T. The company will have its logo featured on the new uniforms for all 12 WNBA teams, which Nike unveiled at its New York headquarters, where the draft was held for the second consecutive year. The sportswear brand is also strengthening its commitment to women’s basketball and the WNBA by investing in female participation and coaching and by launching a pilot program to provide jobs to retired athletes.
Overall, there’s a new vibe in the WNBA. Just take a look at the league’s new commercial, titled “Make Way,” featuring some of the game’s rising stars. Yet, there’s also still a lot to be done to expand interest in the league, increase news coverage and help inspire future female athletes. That’s especially true as the league searches for its next president after Lisa Borders stepped down in October 2018 to become the first president and CEO of Time’s Up.
“We, as women, need to support each other,” retired WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes said Wednesday during a panel discussion titled “All Kids Are Made to Play” that also featured Rosemary St. Clair, Nike Women’s vice president and general manager; Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s president of social responsibility and player programs; and active players Sue Bird and Kia Nurse.
Afterward, The Undefeated caught up with Swoopes, Bird, Nurse and New York Liberty star Tina Charles, who talked about the draft, the WNBA refresh and what they hope to see from the league going forward.
What do you remember most from the day you got drafted?
Kia Nurse (No. 10 pick in the 2018 draft; entering her second WNBA season for the New York Liberty): It was like déjà vu walking in here today because the orange carpet was out. I was like, ‘Don’t fall, whatever you do.’ But it was absolutely incredible to be in a room surrounded by so many incredible athletes, so many highly accoladed people within the WNBA and the league itself. When you’re sitting there and waiting for your name to come up, it’s a little bit nerve-wracking. But I think to share that with your family members on the best day of your life is exciting.
Sue Bird (No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft; entering her 17th WNBA season with the Seattle Storm): I remember being a little anxious, naturally. I remember that there had been a lot of talk of me being the No. 1 pick. So even though that talk was happening, and people were like assuring me, you don’t know until your name is called. So even as it was building, ‘With the No. 1 pick, the Seattle Storm select …, ‘ you’re still feeling nerves. Then they finally say your name, and in a way, there’s like a little bit of a relief because people were telling me it was gonna happen, but what if it didn’t? There’s always that moment. So it was special and something I’d never forget.
Tina Charles (No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft; entering her 10th WNBA season with the New York Liberty): It was my senior year [at Connecticut]. We had just won the championship. We were in Secaucus, New Jersey, and that day, I just remember my heart beating out of my chest. There were a lot of rumors that I was gonna go No. 1, and when my name was called … it was just a dream come true. I just hope that all these women enjoy it.
Sheryl Swoopes (First player to be signed to the WNBA in 1997; played 12 seasons before retiring in 2011; first female athlete to receive a signature Nike shoe): I wasn’t drafted. When the WNBA first started, it was by appointment. Because I was from Texas and Houston had a team, they said, ‘Sheryl, you’re going to Houston.’ So I never got to live this moment that these young ladies are living by sitting there and waiting for their names to be called. But Tina Thompson was the very first player who was drafted. I remember talking to her and trying to understand her emotions and how she was feeling. Every single player since then that I’ve talked to, it’s about that moment of knowing you’re gonna get drafted. The question is just when. When you hear your name finally being called, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve put in all this hard work … and now this hard work is paying out.’ I honestly like the fact that I got appointed somewhere, but I also hate it because as an athlete, these are the moments you live for. … I remember going back to my mom and saying, ‘I’m gonna be playing in Houston.’ She was like, ‘OK.’ … But it was exciting. I can’t pretend like it wasn’t.
Out of this year’s draft class, who sticks out the most?
Bird: Probably Jackie Young. I think she’s the type of player who can have an immediate impact. I think she’s the type of player that brings a lot of tools. … She’s not just one thing. She’s someone who’s proven she can get triple-doubles, which truly just shows you can impact the game in a variety of ways. That’s why she’s my fave.
Charles: It’s hard for me to say that I have a favorite. They all stand out in their own right. And I think some of them shouldn’t think, ‘Oh, why didn’t I go top 3 or top 5?’ Because of how great this class is, it really depends on what teams need. It has nothing to do with lack of talent. They’re all really talented, so teams are saying, ‘Hey, what do we really need?’ … It’s what the WNBA needs. You’re going to get a great wave of great talent coming into the league.
Swoopes: I’m a Texas girl, so I’m definitely going to go with Kalani Brown from Baylor. I love her game, and I love the fact that she lives in herself. She’s a big girl. She’s proud of it. She walks it, she talks it. And she can play. … I love Asia Durr; she can just flat-out score. … And Jackie Young. I’ve heard some people say she’s not ready, but I love her. She has things that you can’t teach or coach, and that’s toughness. She’s gonna defend, she’s gonna shut you down, and when she decides she’s gonna be aggressive and score, she can do that too. And I think she has the body that’s ready for the WNBA.
Why is the WNBA’s rebrand so important now?
Nurse: It’s huge. Obviously, for us, we’re trying to continue to grow our game and the demand for the game so more people want to come and see it. There’s no better way to turn heads than to rebrand everything and have people see what the new logo is like, what the new jerseys are like.
Bird: It’s important because women’s basketball, women in society in general, I think we’re at a pivotal moment right now, and you can feel it. You can sense it. Everybody knows it. So what better time for a rebrand, a refresh, to really get to a point where things are representative of who we are as a league.
Charles: We need every bit of help as far as exposure and reasons why people should watch our game. Not only because of our play but also who we are as women and who we are as individuals. The rebrand is gonna push that forward.
Swoopes: It’s always important that you keep things fresh and keep things new. Where the league is right now, it was time to give people something different and get them excited about the WNBA again.
What do you like about the new logo — and which player does it most resemble?
Bird: I think it’s cool. Personally, I haven’t had a problem with any of the logos, but this one is definitely fresher, sleeker, more modern. It’s got a good look to it.
Nurse: I’ve been personally trying to figure out who it is. The WNBA put out four options of who it could be on Twitter. I was going through them, and one of them is my teammate [Kiah Stokes]. I’m like, ‘That’s not her.’ Then I said, ‘OK, she has a bun. …’ So it’s either Diana Taurasi or Elena Delle Donne. But Taurasi’s bun is quite sit-back and quite small. But Delle Donne has a bigger bun, so I’m not really sure. I’m just going crazy. Hopefully someone will tell me.
Who do you think is the new #WNBA logo?
— WNBA (@WNBA) April 10, 2019
Bird: The bun could be Diana. The actual movement, I’ve heard people say Kiah Stokes. Who knows? They’d never admit it was somebody anyway, so it won’t matter.
What would you like to see from the WNBA in the next five years?
Nurse: We need to continue to find ways to get young women and their families to come to games. Get people, in general, to games. … Visibility is everything, so finding ways to put a name and face to a WNBA player without them having to see a picture of them, that’s something that’s really important. It’s about trying to get some of us to be household names so that people are saying, ‘Let’s go see a game where Sue Bird’s playing or Breanna Stewart’s playing.’ That’s a part of our game. That’s a part of making sure that young women can look at their mom and say, ‘I want to be like her’ and not say ‘I want to be like him.’ The rebranding is part of that. It’s about reaching out to the younger market of kids that wanna come see basketball. It’s about figuring out how this league can get more and more notice.
Bird: I would love for it to grow. This is what I always say. … You hear stories of older, retired NBA players who are kind of disgruntled and mad that they didn’t make a certain amount of money. I hope I’m that person. I hope I’m that old, retired WNBA player who’s like, ‘I didn’t get to sign a $5 million contract! … When I played, it was only this!’ I hope I am. Because that means we did it right, that means we helped start it, and that means it’s in good hands. So that’s my hope.
Charles: More pay. Equal pay. That would be great. And just more exposure. More sponsorship. Seeing ourselves more and allowing more women to have more access to us.
Swoopes: I’m not gonna say salary increase, because everybody says that. And yes, I want that too. But I would love to see more teams. I would also like to see more former players involved with WNBA teams, whether that’s in the front office or coaching. I think there are a lot of fans out there that still connect to the former players. They know those players, and I think if the league found a way to get them involved with teams, I think it could help with attendance.
What made you sign with Nike?
Nurse: Growing up, I wore a lot of different things, but Nike is something I always came back to. The Nike Canada people are absolutely incredible. I work with people who make it a family atmosphere. If I ever need anything, it’s pick up the phone and let’s figure it out together. They keep my shoes fly on the court. … It’s been a lot of fun working with them and getting to know the brand. I love the grassroots stuff as well.
Bird: Coming out of college, my school was Nike. I’d already been wearing that product; I’d already had relationships with people. And it really was a no-brainer. You have to be responsible and talk to other apparel companies and see what’s what, but my heart was already with Nike. And so luckily I was able to sign with them, and since then, it’s been wonderful. They’ve always supported. And I personally subscribe to the ‘Look good, feel good, play good.’ So when I’m in Nike, that’s exactly how I feel. To have the backing of a company like that, it’s special.
Charles: Growing up, my AAU team was a Nike team, my college team was a Nike team, so it was pretty simple. The shoes are comfortable. I love the gear, I love the style, and especially what Nike is doing as far as pushing forward women’s basketball and women’s athletes.
Swoopes: There was no question. When I grew up, I couldn’t afford Nike. I didn’t wear Nike, so I had L.A. Gear and Puma and Reebok. So when Nike actually approached me and said, ‘Hey, we want to do an endorsement deal with you,’ I didn’t even know what that meant. I was like, ‘OK, what does that even look like?’ Mind you, I’m just coming out of college, so I’d never had an opportunity like that. So once I went through the process of hiring an agent, I had that conversation and they worked it all out. At that moment, there was never a conversation of a year or two down the line doing a signature shoe. I don’t even know where that idea came from, but thank God it did. And once it happened, at that moment, I was like, ‘Damn, am I that good?’ Because the only person I knew who had a signature shoe was Michael Jordan, and Michael was the man to me. So now I’m in that same position, where Nike is saying, ‘We want to do the same thing for you that we did for Michael.’ My thought was, Wow. When it all happened, I remember walking into Lady Foot Locker, seeing my shoe and picking it up. The lady in the store had no idea who I was. She said, ‘Would you like a pair!’ And I said, ‘Nah, I’m good! I got a lot of these!’ It was so special to me.