New WNBA owners are shaming others into treating their players better. Good.
Treating women's sports like charity projects will no longer fly, thanks to some owners who recognize the value of their franchises.
It’s welcome news the Chicago Sky are taking steps toward getting a practice facility of their own.
It’s also an embarrassment.
The WNBA is now in its 27th season – that’s more than a quarter of a century – and the Sky have been around for 18 of those. They won their first WNBA title two seasons ago, and their roster the last few seasons was a Who’s Who of the league.
Yet their "team facility" is a public rec center in Chicago’s northern suburbs, as far removed from acceptable accommodations for a professional franchise as it is the downtown arena where the Sky play their games. Catch a glimpse of professional athletes on your way to Zumba! Use the same weight machines as a WNBA All-Star!
"It’s an evolution that teams go through, and the league goes through," Sky principal owner Michael Alter told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Now is the right time."
No, the right time was years ago, before the Sky and other franchises had to be shamed into treating their players like the professional athletes they are by WNBA owners who don’t consider women’s sports to be charity projects. Make no mistake: the Sky are finally taking steps to do right by their players because the owners of the Las Vegas Aces, New York Liberty and Seattle Storm are forcing them to.
Ahead of this season, the Aces opened a 64,000-sqaure-foot team facility in the complex they share with owner Mark Davis’ other team, the NFL’s Raiders. It has two practice courts and a training room that includes an infrared sauna and a hydrotherapy treadmill, and each of the player’s lockers is equipped with a TV and a mini computer.
The Storm is building their own facility, expected to open before next season. The Liberty revamped their locker room after their move to the Barclays Center two seasons ago, and it includes a spacious training room, a separate lounge and a “shoe wall” to display sneakers in each player’s locker.
No surprise, the Liberty and Aces were the big winners in free agency this offseason. The Aces picked up Candace Parker, who spent the last two seasons with the Sky, while the Liberty lured another of the Sky’s mainstays, Courtney Vandersloot, along with Breanna Stewart.
"I have not had a locker in my entire career,” Parker said in a March appearance on Draymond Green’s podcast. "I’ve been in the WNBA for 16 years and I have not had a locker where it has my name on it and I can leave my (stuff) and then come back and know my (stuff) is going to be there. I have not had that. That’s my own, that you walk into and this is your own area. Nobody else − there’s no old people walking through.
"I’ve never had a practice facility where I could just go get shots up at night,” she added. "We’ve always shared a practice facility."
Green looked incredulous, and why wouldn’t he? The “luxuries” Parker was describing are commonplace throughout the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. But they haven’t been in women’s sports until now because most owners treated their franchises like a proverbial pat on the head – Oh, isn’t it great we’re giving the girls a chance to play! – and expecting players to be grateful for what little they were getting.
Fortunately, there’s a new generation of owners in both the WNBA and NWSL who believe it’s worthwhile to support women’s sports but also recognize them for the good business opportunities they are. There’s money to be made in both the NWSL and WNBA, a boatload of it.
TV ratings for the NCAA women’s basketball championship were bonkers, while ESPN said the average viewership for the WNBA’s opening weekend was up almost 200% over last year. The NWSL has had so much interest in expansion, commissioner Jessica Berman recently said the league will add four new teams between 2024 and 2026.
As any good businessperson will tell you, however, you have to spend money in order to make money. You want the biggest names to come play for you? You want to sell out your arena every game? Then you’re going to have to invest – and you’d better do it quick before everyone else passes you by.
"For what we have here right now as far as our staff, culture and team, (a team facility) is the separation," Kahleah Copper, the Sky’s All-Star guard/forward, told the Sun-Times. "We have to keep up with the Joneses. As WNBA players, it’s important for us to be taken care of. We’ve gotten so relaxed in just settling for whatever it is we have, but we should demand and want more."
It’s no longer enough to give women the opportunity to play professionally. They need to do it in a professional environment, too. If team owners can’t – or won’t – provide that, then it’s time to step aside and turn their team over to someone who will.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.