Players grapple with what it means to be ‘the face of the WNBA’ as legends near retirement

CHICAGO – After two decades at the forefront of all things WNBA, including the financial, cultural, social and literal growth of a 26-year-old league that’s the most successful in women’s sports history, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles are ready to pass the torch to the next generation of stars.

The leading candidates to carry the league into the future are on display this weekend in Chicago at the WNBA All-Star Game, which will be broadcast at 10 a.m. Sunday on ABC and features 22 of the greatest players in the sport.

Bird and Fowles — who combine for 21 All-Star appearances and six WNBA titles — are retiring after the season and their exits represent a changing of the guard for a league that is undergoing a renaissance of young stars.

“I think the foundation has been set with a lot of great players,” Fowles said. “Unfortunately, you got to see some of those leave at this point, but I think we have a young group of talent that’s willing to do what’s needed to be done that’s not going to shy away from the things that they want and the things that they believe in.

“And so, I’d say just piggyback. Piggyback off these girls. Listen to their thoughts and see how we can make this thing grow in the next 25 years.”

The void of recognizable, established WNBA stars will become even more apparent if Phoenix Mercury great Diana Taurasi, the league’s all-time scoring leader, and two-time MVP Candace Parker do not return next season. Both have been peppered with retirement questions.

On the eve of her last WNBA All-Star Game, Bird believes the league is in good hands with Storm teammate Breanna Stewart and Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson poised to take over.

“These two have been neck-and-neck for the MVP race in the WNBA, neck-and-neck for the MVP even as teammates with USA Basketball,” Bird said. “I think they’re really starting to establish themselves as players who can be the names for this league, players who can represent this league, players who are going to set the bar in terms of what that MVP player looks like, like what it means to be consistent every year. That’s how I would describe those two.

“I’ve talked to Stewie about it, as well. It’s not lip service. They are really the future.”

There’s no question the 27-year-old Stewart is a transformational star.

On the court, she’s won a WNBA MVP, two WNBA Finals MVPs and is making her fourth WNBA All-Star appearance. And off the court, Stewart has had an equally significant impact as a staunch social justice advocate and burgeoning cultural and marketing icon who is the 10th player in league history to secure a signature shoe deal.

Stewart credits Bird’s tutelage for helping her rise to the top of the league.

“Just understanding all that Sue has done for the game and appreciating that and also sharing these moments with her,” Stewart said. “And being genuine and making sure that as we continue to strive for more in the WNBA and more for women, women in sports, things like that.

“That we are honest with who we are and what we do, and at the same time putting the league and endorsements and companies in uncomfortable positions that maybe they haven’t been in before where they need to get to, so then we can set the standard for something new.”

A recent ESPN the Magazine story on Connecticut Sun star Jonquel Jones posed the question: “Who gets to be a WNBA superstar? The player who scores the most points? The one who collects the most championship rings? The one who sells the most jerseys? Or, are factors beyond the court at work in the WNBA?”

Erica Ayala, founder of Black Rosie Media, which is an online platform for Black women in media, said the WNBA has shifted strategies on which players are promoted since the league started in 1996.

“Take, for instance, Diana Taurasi and when she was coming up, there was an expectation that she had to fit a mold that the WNBA at the time needed and that’s not who she is naturally,” Ayala said. “At the time it was trying to hit sex appeal and not necessarily be open to the LGBTQIA+ community. We’re in a different time. She’s had that longevity to see changes.

“The next change is for the WNBA, which is 80% Black, needs to embrace that fully and lean into that as opposed to accepting what the greater we of society believes to be marketable.”

With the exception of Parker, who Forbes ranks as the richest WNBA player in 2022 with a net worth of $5.7 million, there is a noticeable absence of Black WNBA players in nationwide commercials and advertisements.

Wilson believes she knows why.

“I can be the face of this league, but I don’t have to be the face of this league,” said the 25-year-old star who was the top fan-vote getter in this year’s All-Star balloting. “You’re going to get A’ja regardless and that’s the beauty of it. I think without saying it we all know why that is. But at the same time, I just play my part and have fun while doing it.”

Wilson said it’s incumbent on the decision-makers on Wall Street, in Hollywood, media and the league office to do better and make decisions that are inclusive to segments of the population that have been historically underrepresented.

“When you look at young girls that want to be in this league, it’s nice to have someone that looks like you doing what you want to do,” she said. “And that’s something that you don’t see always, especially when it comes to Black women. She’s swept underneath the rug and is the person that you really don’t ever think about.

“And when you’re in a league that’s predominantly Black, it’s always good to have that face there to tell those young girls, those … young A’jas that your dreams can come true if you just stick to it. You don’t have to sell yourself short because of the color of your skin or because of the way you talk or because of your sexuality. It’s very important for that. I would love to be the face (of the WNBA). I think I’m the face (of the WNBA) just being who I am.

“It doesn’t have to be a face. We have multiple faces that can represent this league. It doesn’t have to be one because we’re all different. We’re one of the most diverse leagues ever, that I’ve ever seen and been a part of. It’s just wanting to do it.”

Bird echoed that sentiment.

“Usually, people use the metaphor of the pie, and women we only get maybe 25 percent of the pie,” she said. “What happens in that 25 percent is we’re all stuck in that kiddie pool of fighting each other for the marketing deal and TV commercial when the reality is we need more of the pie because when you get more of the pie then everybody can have pieces. That to me is where the fight has to be focused.

“Years ago, people said I was the face of the WNBA or Lisa Leslie or different players like Tamika Catchings. When the truth of the matter is, there’s a face for everybody. Everybody can latch on to a player and there’s a face for everybody.”

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