New Liberty stars Courtney Vandersloot, Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart ready to make impact on and off court
The Liberty’s new megawatt trio essentially orchestrated their own super-team — the result of a group chat that was started by Courtney Vandersloot, and put together with an eye toward creating a culture shift in the WNBA.
In a wide-ranging conversation at the espnW summit in Brooklyn, Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart reiterated the ways they want to promote growth in the league — something they hope will include continuing to fight for charter flights, eventual higher salaries and greater autonomy for players, who can then choose to reward owners who show a higher dedication to improving conditions. Vandersloot, who was supposed to be in attendance, could not make it as she remains in concussion protocol. The three have a long-standing connection, having played together in Russia.
“We were talking and we were making sure we would stay in contact,” Jones said of the chat, which included all three players. “We were respectful. We understood that each of us had a tough decision to make. It was going to take time and it was going to take everybody doing a little soul searching and really understanding what we wanted to do.”
Jones, the 2021 league MVP, requested a trade to the Liberty from the Connecticut Sun, and was granted one in January. Stewart, the best free agent on the market, signed with them in February, and Vandersloot followed soon after. Together, they join Sabrina Ionescu in the rare WNBA super-team, though one that will be challenged by the Las Vegas Aces.
Stewart made improving league conditions a central point in her team search, and was wooed by Liberty owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, who have been clear they’re willing to spend — the duo even getting fined $500,000 for chartering planes for their team in 2021, which is prohibited by the league. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced earlier this week that the league will expand its limited charter opportunities this year to encompass all of the playoffs, as well as back-to-back regular season games (the league will pay for the flights, though, not owners).
“It goes into people just being willing to invest in women’s sports,” Jones said. “Nobody wants to play for someone who doesn’t see the vision. When you have owners that see the vision are willing to invest and really put their money where their mouth is when it comes to women’s sports, it’s a big deal.”
Stewart said the goal was to “create a different type of momentum in this league.” The WNBA’s hard cap, though, meant both she and Vandersloot took significant pay cuts to make it happen — Stewart’s $175,000 salary makes her only the fourth-highest paid player on the team, while Vandersloot will make $189,000. This, though, does not factor in each player’s sponsorships, or their overseas salaries — the majority of their income.
“You don’t (generally) see player movement like this, but you should,” Stewart said. “Players should be in different markets …We’re at the largest sports media marketplace in the world and I think we’re happy to be here.”
Some of that’s been built into the league’s 2020 CBA, which capped the number of times a player can be denied unrestricted free agency to two beginning in 2022 (known as the league’s “core” designation).
“Before, you were seeing players getting cored, getting cored, getting cored” up to four times, Stewart said. “Even if they weren’t top players, they kept them in market. Now we do have the ability to go to different places …It’s exciting to have the ball in our court a little bit.”
If the Liberty’s new trio has any say in it, that’s only just beginning.