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New basketball league Unrivaled lands star-studded investor lineup, aims to pay highest average salary in women's pro league sports

New basketball league Unrivaled lands star-studded investor lineup, aims to pay highest average salary in women's pro league sports
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Napheesa Collier #24 of the Minnesota Lynx shoots a free throw during the game against the New York Liberty on May 25, 2024 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Jordan Johnson | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

A new women’s basketball league has attracted a star-studded roster of investors from the media and sports world at a time when ratings and general interest in the WNBA and other professional women’s leagues is rising.

Unrivaled, the pro women’s basketball league founded last year by New York Liberty’s Breanna Stewart and Minnesota Lynx’s Napheesa Collier of the WNBA, said Thursday that it had closed on a seed funding round ahead of its January launch.

Athletes will be given equity in the new league, and Unrivaled said it will also feature contract opportunities that will offer the highest average salary in women’s pro sports league history.

The lengthy list of investors include media executives such as former ESPN president John Skipper, ex-Turner president David Levy, and former Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff, as well athletes including NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony and others who invested through the venture capital firm led by U.S women’s national soccer team captain Alex Morgan.

“I believe it’s a good investment … that David and I and the other group of investors have the chance to be on the ground floor of something that I think is going to be quite impactful,” said Skipper, who is also the co-founder of Meadowlark Media. “It’s a rare opportunity where we can create something … and don’t need to disrupt something else.”

The league — which will run in the months before the WNBA season and work in a new format — aims to offer athletes another option to play basketball in the U.S. during the offseason, as well as help boost salaries for pro women basketball players.

“It’s trying to fill a gap in the calendar for these players. It’s extending the runway of professional basketball,” said Alex Bazzell, Unrivaled president and Collier’s husband.

Stewart and Collier announced plans last year to form Unrivaled in response to the WNBA’s new prioritization rules as part of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Those rules require players to return from playing internationally by the start of training camp, which means they might lose out on lucrative overseas contracts. Many female athletes play in other countries when the WNBA season ends to boost their earnings potential.

“For a long time, going overseas was the only option that people had in their offseason, and so this is kind of changing the narrative around that and giving another option,” said Collier. “Overseas is a great option for some players, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you can do to make money and play basketball and get better.”

Unrivaled’s season will run from January to March and feature 30 of the top women’s basketball players across six teams for a 3-on-3, compressed full court style of play on a soundstage in Miami.

Although 10 players have signed on already, they have yet to be formally announced.

The league is building its own facility in Miami. It has two baskets, but it’s about two-thirds the size of a regular court.

“So it’s shorter, but that really allows you to have that space for athletes to showcase their skills and go head to head every night and not have those extra four players on the court to kind of bog you down,” Collier said.

Unrivaled investors

New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart (30) and Las Vegas Aces forward Alysha Clark (7) in action during game 4 of the 2023 WNBA Finals between Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty on October 18, 2023, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. 

M. Anthony Nesmith | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

The investor roster shines a light on the variety of people looking to invest in women’s sports, as well as the potential for the league. The size of the seed funding round — which was oversubscribed — is undisclosed.

Through Morgan’s venture firm Trybe Ventures, other top athletes and sports figures invested in Unrivaled include NBA all-star Steve Nash, LGPA champion Michelle Wie West, Olympic gold medalist Megan Rapinoe, and Koby Altman, the general manager of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. The NCAA University of Connecticut women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma and the NBA’s Tyrus and Tre Jones are also investors.

Other investors with a stake in Unrivaled include Richard Sarnoff, chairman of media at private equity firm KKR; actor Ashton Kutcher; Moira Forbes, the executive vice president of Forbes; Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerMedia; Desiree Gruber, TV producer and founder and CEO of Full Picture; Dan Rosensweig, executive chairman of Chegg; Andor Capital founder Dan Benton; and Range Group.

While Skipper has been on board since last year, Levy — who is also the co-founder and co-CEO of Horizon Sports & Experiences — learned about the opportunity to invest in recent months and jumped on board.

“Part of the vision of this agency [HS&E] was to get involved in women’s sports, and grow women’s sports and put our money where our mouth is,” Levy said.

In addition to investing, Skipper and Levy will negotiate the media rights deals for Unrivaled. Lucrative media rights deals and fees help drive sports’ leagues finances and player salaries. Sports rights have become a particular focus for media companies in recent years as live sports draws outsized audiences.

The duo said media rights negotiations have yet to start, but an important part of the conversation will be getting the games as much viewership as possible.

“We want to make sure that people can see the product,” said Levy, adding that a key component is the one-hour length of the Unrivaled games, which is a plus when trying to fit programming schedules.

The league also plans to line up sponsorship opportunities, which Levy’s HS&E will also be involved in. Bazzell said a few brands have already committed to Unrivaled, but announcements are to be made at a later date.

Heightened interest in women’s sports

Caitlin Clark poses with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being selected first overall pick by the Indiana Fever during the 2024 WNBA Draft.

Sarah Stier | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

Unrivaled comes at a time when interest in women’s sports has been growing — from viewership to investments.

Levy noted that it takes time for growth and interest in sports, with the WNBA only being a few decades old in contrast to longstanding leagues like the NFL, the NBA, MLB and the NHL.

“I am very excited that every player will have equity,” Collier said. “That was a huge thing for us, just creating that generational wealth for these athletes.”

There’s been renewed scrutiny on the salaries of professional women athletes in light of WNBA rookie Caitlin Clark, who recently exploded onto the sports scene.

Clark was the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer for both men’s and women’s basketball and has attracted record TV viewership numbers. The former Iowa star was drafted No. 1 in April by the Indiana Fever, a show that broke the league’s record for draft viewership.

However, despite the bright spotlight on her, Clark’s rookie salary contract will be $338,056 over four years, according to the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement. This is in stark contrast to the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick last year, Victor Wembanyama, who signed a $55 million four-year contract with the San Antonio Spurs.

Even President Joe Biden weighed in on the matter, saying on social media that “Women in sports continue to push new boundaries and inspire us all. But right now, we’re seeing that even if you’re the best, women are not paid their fair share.”

While Clark has secured numerous sponsorship deals with companies like Nike and Gatorade, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert recently told a CNBC summit that a “false narrative” is circulating around Clark’s expected salary.

Engelbert compared Clark’s earning potential to how C-suite salaries work, adding that in addition to endorsements, Clark “has the ability to make up to a half a million dollars just in WNBA wages this year.” She noted the focus has been on Clark’s base salary, which is collectively bargained and low.

Game Respects Game with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert

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