Caring Is A Competitive Advantage
9:59 AM EST on February 6, 2023
The story of the WNBA offseason is that professional basketball players acted like—and were treated like—professional basketball players. They took meetings. They weighed offers. They conspired. They were wooed. In late January, a delegation from the New York Liberty, one which included owner Clara Tsai, flew to visit free agent Breanna Stewart in Istanbul, where the two-time WNBA champion plays in the offseason. The Liberty, eventual winners of the Stewart sweepstakes, had actually launched their recruitment campaign a year earlier. Last offseason, when Stewart was first a free agent, Clara and Joe Tsai wined and dined her at a Los Angeles restaurant, a meeting complete with a PowerPoint presentation. This landed as strange news. No one had expected her free agency to be eventful or to yield any result that wasn't a long-term deal with Seattle, the team that drafted her. Stewart would go on to sign a one-year contract with the Storm after meeting with the Tsais, but as she told the Seattle Times afterward, "It’s great when people take you out to dinner.”
The All-Star point guard Courtney Vandersloot announced on Thursday that she plans to sign in New York, too, after 12 seasons with Chicago. Stewart and Vandersloot join Jonquel Jones as offseason additions to the team; ESPN reported that the former MVP Jones requested a trade specifically to New York from Connecticut. After that trade, the Liberty posted a video of Jones touring the facilities at an introductory press conference event. "This is what a professional locker room looks like," Jones says, eyebrows raised. The offseason moves have shaken out so that two teams now share six of last year's 10 All-WNBA players. Shortly before the free agency signing period began, Candace Parker announced her plans to sign with the Aces, another franchise with a reputation for pulling out all the stops.
Michelle Smith, a longtime women’s basketball writer and someone whose work I admire, wondered last week about the “optics of the two richest owners in the league building ‘super teams’ before everyone's eyes.” I’m not sure I understood Smith's tweet, which gestured at questions without posing them. Mostly the inaccuracy caught my eye: Mark Davis isn’t one of the two richest owners in the league. By net worth, I suspect he isn’t one of the three, or four, or five richest owners, either.
If he seems like he is, it's because he acts that way. He hosts celebrities courtside at Aces games, put a million-dollar head coach on his payroll, and announced plans for a new 50,000-square foot Aces practice facility shortly after buying the team in early 2021. "What I noticed being a fan was that what they didn't really have was a real home," he said then, describing the team's scattered practice and office arrangements. "I felt that for a successful operation, they would have to have a home as well." This level of engagement, which wouldn't seem out of place in a major men's league, here lends him an air of unmatched wealth. One of his best-received moves since buying the Aces is something he cribbed from the Raiders: an "alumni initiative" to bring back former players for a few games each season. It can't cost much—just tickets, a hotel room and the flight—but in the WNBA, effort looks a lot like extravagance.
Mark inherited his father's wealth. But crucially for the Aces, he inherited Al's ownership zeal, the belief that a team must be obsessed over and carefully watched. Whenever I write about the Aces, I comb through wire photos of the games. It seems like all of them feature Mark Davis courtside, having the time of his life. The one thing the rich are good for is psychoanalyzing, and it makes sense that this investment brings him such joy. A few nights a month, he parties in a country with a weak currency. Consider the two coaching hires Davis has made in the last 18 months: One vastly outearns the other, but as respective league media tells it, Josh McDaniels’s contract attests to Davis’s relative poverty, and Becky Hammon’s to his largesse.
Interest and effort, not just wealth, have always separated the WNBA's better owners from its worse ones. Recall who last owned the Liberty: James Dolan, a billionaire, could have provided the team the same amenities and resources Tsai has. Instead, he kicked the team out of Madison Square Garden and treated them like crap. Meanwhile, the most successful WNBA franchise belongs to maybe the league's poorest owners. Four Seattle businesswomen bought the Storm to keep Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird around when the Sonics left Seattle; the group is exclusively in the women's basketball business. And even they can't be held up as some mom-and-pop concern unable to keep up with the big boys: Last summer, the team announced plans for a new $60 million practice facility.
Players can tell the difference. Parker's departure from Chicago began a mass exodus. Having now lost most of their 2021 championship roster, the Sky will need to rebuild. The Chicago Sun-Times' Annie Costabile explained why that might be hard, putting some blame on management but also on "ownership, which failed to invest in the franchise in a way that made it a destination for the best players." In a separate story, she wrote:
Other than a banner hanging in the rafters, you’d have no idea that it was a championship franchise. The fan experience, according to some, has felt corporate and lacks the energy and culture that’s reflected in the city.
Multiple players, past and present, have expressed that one change they would love to see is the team plant roots in the city. Instead, it practices at a public recreation center in Deerfield.
When he made Becky Hammon the highest-paid coach in WNBA history, Davis invoked the AFL and Joe Namath, whose $400,000 contract "sparked the imagination of everybody that 'This league is real.'" Behind the Aces' record-setting contract was the same idea, he said. "Giving Becky Hammon the million-dollar contract says there's value here."
Davis is right. Just treating something like it's valuable confers value, particularly in an industry whose realities are so shaped by perception. The WNBA's hard salary cap limits how much players can be valued in a monetary sense, so the owner who cares must demonstrate that care in other ways: spending on facilities, hiring quality coaches and staff, being an attentive supporter. The cap structure also incentivizes players to seek income streams beyond WNBA salary, which only makes those perks matter more.
The reverse holds true, too: Treating something like it doesn't matter tells everyone it doesn't matter. Howard Megdal's March Sports Illustrated feature on the state of WNBA ownership described a schism within the Board of Governors. One group, which includes the league's newer owners—Tsai, Davis, Marc Lore in Minnesota, and Larry Gottesdiener in Atlanta—sees its teams as attractive investment vehicles. A second group considers them accounting conveniences or charity cases; to the owners in this group, a WNBA team is simply resigned to losing money. "One WNBA owner proudly proclaims the value of the WNBA team to be zero, according to multiple league sources," Megdal wrote. "And thus all he spends on his team is effectively a contribution toward the greater good of women’s sports."
The warmed-over parity debate is coming for the WNBA, and it will be frustratingly abstract—Smith's tweet won't be the last time we come across the word "optics." There isn't much debate to be had, though, because it's almost certainly better for the league that investing in the business that you own is seen as normal and crucial, and not some kind of outré behavior. I can't accept owners spending money as cause for concern. Indifference has always been the league's greater threat.