Breanna Stewart's blockbuster move to the Liberty sends a message to WNBA owners: Invest or lose out

  • WNBA superstar Breanna Stewart has joined the New York Liberty, signing as a free agent Wednesday.
  • The two-time champ with the Seattle Storm made team charter flights a major factor in her decision.
  • Her free agent process and resulting move to New York underscores the importance of owner investment.

Breanna Stewart is headed to New York.

But the WNBA superstar’s decision to sign with the Liberty sends a message that resonates far beyond the Empire State, and she wants each and every team owner in the league to hear it: Invest in your franchise — and the WNBA at large — or prepare to lose.

“I decided to go to New York because I want to continue to be great,” Stewart told ESPN’s Malika Andrews after announcing the move on social media. “And I want to go to the place where I can continue to help this league become better, to continue to raise the standard.”

Stewart brings up the ball during the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

“You know that you have people behind you who are pushing the same thing; the owners of the Liberty, Joe and Clara Tsai, are trying to continue to elevate and raise the standard,” she added. “And I think that it’s what we deserve. It’s what we deserve as professional athletes, women, basketball players. We want to be our best every single night.”

The two-time WNBA champion and two-time Finals MVP made charter flights a major factor in her free agency decision. The league’s teams have long traveled from game to game on commercial flights, a reality that’s resulted in countless nightmarish trips and endless hours crammed into coach for the world’s best basketball players each season.

Though many team owners have the means and the will to fly their players and staffs privately, the WNBA has forbidden individual franchises from chartering for fear of disrupting parity in the league. Without explicit verbiage on the topic incorporated into the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the league has even gone as far as punishing one team that did not comply.

Team owner Joe Tsai high fives New York Liberty players.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

That team? The New York Liberty.

Just last year, the league slapped the Brooklyn-based team with a historic $500,000 fine after the aforementioned billionaire franchise owners — Joe and Clara Wu Tsai — flew their team private during the second half of the season. The Tsai family’s commitment to investing in the Liberty — not only through their push for charters but also by building state-of-the-art player facilities, assembling an impressive front office, coaching staff, and roster with a winning mentality, and making high-profile trades to bring stars to New York — was enough to catch Stewart’s attention.

“Our organization has invested a lot in us to be able to be put in this position to play in New York City in front of the fan base,” Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu told Insider last season ahead of the team’s first-ever playoff game at the Barclays Center. “They’ve invested a lot in us and just being able to fill these stands.”

New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello (left) and star Sabrina Ionescu.

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Not only did the Tsais — who also own the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets — invest heavily in their WNBA franchise, but they also invested considerable time and money into recruiting Stewart specifically. Last off-season, the Liberty pursued the then-Seattle Storm superstar with a swanky Los Angeles dinner, hosted by the Tsais and head coach Sandy Brondello, that included the 2018 MVP, her wife, and their daughter.

This year, they went even bigger. Clara Wu Tsai, Brondello, general manager Jonathan Kolb, and assistant GM Ohemaa Nyanin flew to Turkey — where Stewart plays during the winter months — to watch the four-time first-team All-WNBA selection compete and recruit her to the Big Apple.

Even Nets superstar Kevin Durant got in on the recruiting efforts by reaching out to Stewart — known by most as Stewie — “and was like, ‘Yo, it would be an incredible dynasty in New York City if you came here.'”

New York’s all-in approach paid off. But the Liberty aren’t the only team that’s parlayed owner investment in winning and player experience into major off-season gains.

The Las Vegas Aces — owned by billionaire and Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis — made arguably the biggest splash of free agency outside of New York. The reigning WNBA champions, who already boast a slew of All-Stars on their roster, signed two-time league MVP Candace Parker to take their squad from merely stacked to a full-blown juggernaut.

Like the Tsais, Davis has been outspoken in his commitment to furthering both his franchise and the league itself. And he’s put his money where his mouth is, shelling out more than $1 million to lure Becky Hammon away from the NBA to coach his squad

Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon (right) and owner Mark Davis pose with the 2022 WNBA championship trophy.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Davis is also in the Tsais’ camp when it comes to charters: He believes WNBA players “don’t need to be flying on commercial flights.” During a press conference in February 2022, he argued that the league “should have charter flights” because “these women are very tall” and commercial fights can be “very cramped.”

It’s no wonder a star of Parker’s caliber would be quick to sign in Sin City. Nor is it surprising to see Stewart head to the East Coast to join a team like the Liberty.

“Every player wants to play for an organization that treats them well; it’s that simple,” Erin Kane, an Excel Sports Management agent who represents several WNBA All-Stars, told Insider. “And let’s be clear that most of what the players are asking for, including charter travel, are things that improve quality of play and the product the league is able to put on the court every night.

“These women are the best in the world,” she added. “They should be treated that way.”