In one of the biggest free agent moves in WNBA history, former league MVP Breanna Stewart has decided to play for the New York Liberty, leaving the Seattle Storm after winning two championships in seven years, she announced Wednesday on Twitter.
Wednesday marked the first day WNBA free agents can officially sign contracts and offer sheets for the 2023 season, although sources told ESPN that Stewart is still working through the specifics of the deal she will sign with New York.
— Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) February 1, 2023
Stewart made charter air travel a key factor in her free agency, league sources told ESPN. It was a topic in discussions with the four teams she met with — the Liberty, Storm, Minnesota Lynx and Washington Mystics — to see where they stood on the issue, which she believes is critical to players’ health, safety and performance.
While none of the teams could make a direct pledge on the issue due to salary cap rules, sources said Stewart believes she has raised the issue to a level of importance that meaningful conversations will continue in the immediate future.
“Stewie’s free agency is the story of the WNBA at an inflection point: Players understand their value, the potential of the WNBA, and are eager partners in growing a business that has incredible momentum,” Stewart’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas of Wasserman, told ESPN in a statement Wednesday. “She owned the process and the responsibility that comes with power in ways that hopefully will impact how smart free agents of all genders approach similar opportunities.”
Stewart was picked No. 1 overall by the Storm in 2016 and won two WNBA titles with Seattle and won the league’s MVP trophy in 2018. The 28-year-old has averaged 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in her career, having missed the 2019 season with an Achilles injury.
The addition of Stewart, a Syracuse native who played collegiately at UConn, vaults the Liberty into championship contention as she joins former No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu and the recently acquired Jonquel Jones, the 2021 WNBA MVP, in what looks to be the second “superteam” created this offseason.
Last weekend, the defending champion Las Vegas Aces added two-time league MVP Candace Parker to a roster that already included Chelsea Gray, A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum.
The Liberty have long been a proponent of charter air travel, with owner Joseph Tsai tweeting in October 2021 that he would work with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert to solve the issue. In 2022, the Liberty were fined $500,000 for chartering flights for the team without league approval.
Unlike the NBA’s 30 teams, the 12 WNBA teams currently travel on commercial airlines, except in rare circumstances. The WNBA and its owners have decided that no team can fly charter — even if its ownership can pay for it — unless all teams can afford to fly charter. It is estimated that chartering travel for all teams would cost close to $30 million.
WNBA owners would have to hold a board of governors vote to make modifications to the system. Since the issue is collectively bargained, the players’ association would have to revisit it as well. In the last CBA negotiations, players opted to table the issue for increased compensation, among other things.
The issue of private air travel has come to the forefront this winter because of the assumption, sources said, that Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner will need to fly privately due to security concerns after she was released from a Russian prison in December. Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport last February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was detained for nine months before her December release as part of a prisoner swap negotiated by President Joe Biden’s administration.
If Griner were to fly privately, the WNBA would have to address whether her Mercury teammates would fly privately with her. That would raise the question of fairness for the other teams in the league.
Griner, an unrestricted free agent, has indicated she wants to play for the Mercury in 2023 but has yet to ask for special travel accommodations from the league, sources said.
Stewart, who played with Griner on United States’ national teams and tweeted about her nearly every day of Griner’s incarceration, raised the issue of charter air travel for the entire WNBA in a tweet on Jan. 22. She tweeted that she would be willing to contribute money from her name, image and likeness deals, social media posts and production hours to help ensure the entire WNBA could travel privately “in a way that prioritizes player health + safety” and “ultimately results in a better product.”
Last week, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who is a vice president in the National Basketball Players Association, voiced his support for WNBA players to have charter flights for travel.
“I wish it was as easy as getting it tomorrow, but business takes a little patience and our W ladies have been patient long enough, so we definitely got to get something done,” he said. “And I’m with them no matter how much it costs, per se. I think we could all collectively come together and make something very doable happen.”
Losing Stewart in the same offseason that franchise icon Sue Bird retired is a huge blow to the Storm, who have only two players — Jewell Loyd and Mercedes Russell — under contract for the 2023 season.
Seattle is one of three teams still in play for former Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot, who announced Tuesday that she would not return to the franchise she won a championship with in 2021.
ESPN previously reported that Vandersloot was considering the Storm, Liberty and Lynx along with the Sky and that her free agency could factor into Stewart’s decision. Vandersloot, who is playing with Stewart on the Turkish team Fenerbahce, is expected to announce her decision this week, sources said.