It was only fitting that on National Girls’ and Women’s Sports Day, much New York City basketball talk revolved around the New York Liberty and its emerging superstar team after two-time WNBA champion Brianna Stewart announced her intention to sign with the team on Wednesday.
Stewart joins rising star protégé Sabrina Ionescu and former major leaguer Jonquil Jones in the star-studded Big Three that will compete to bring the original WNBA franchise its first eight championships in 26 years. On Wednesday, Jones — who was acquired from the Connecticut Sun in a huge trade just last month — got the chance to mentor and teach the ins and outs of the game to the next wave of WNBA hopefuls at the Grand Concourse gym at BronxWorks’ Caroline McLaughlin facility.
With Beyoncé’s “Run the World” playing in the background, Bronx prep students were getting a crash course in ball handling, rebounding, and the subtle intricacies of the game from one of the WNBA’s top stars.
One aspiring ball player, Bronx middle school student Aheli Espinal, picked up the game at the age of seven, when she saw a group of boys playing and thought she could ball better than them. What used to be a curiosity for Espinal, has now become a pursuit and a goal to be achieved in “W”.
“My favorite thing about basketball is how it can bring a group of girls together, and how these girls work together not only for each other, but to prove that we are worthy of playing on the court, just as the boys do,” Espinal said. . “I plan to play this for as long as possible. I want to make it to the WNBA.”
More than anything, Espinal said, she wanted to pick the brain of 6-foot-6 Jones, and learn some of the basketball IQ that made Jones a multi-star player, player of the year, and player of the year in 2021.
But the journey of Espinal and others seeking a path to the pros, or even competitive college basketball opportunities, comes with roadblocks.
Girls have 1.3 million fewer chances to play high school sports than boys, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. At the age of 14, girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of their peers. However, working in sports pays off, as 90% of female CEOs are ex-athletes.
However, the cost of youth sports has outstripped many parents in lower-income communities, and for parents of girls pursuing collegiate ranks, it can be a journey to find those who will invest in their talents.
“The cost of an AAU, finding the right team, finding an organization that treats and mentors my girl the same way you treat any boy who wants to play in college or professionally is a challenge in itself,” said Raquel Nieves, R.D. of the South Bronx. Single parent with two boys and a middle school age girl. “She wants it so badly, and as a father I’m going to make sure every coach, every single person sees that.”
The collaboration between Liberty and BronxWorks is a sign of meaningful investment for girls seeking a path into sports, as players or otherwise, said Dina Brown, 50, director of after-middle school programs at BronxWorks.
“We grew up in the Bronx, and we go through a lot of trials and tribulations, so it’s not often when you have someone like Jonquil Jones and New York Liberty take the time to invest in our girls from the Bronx and give them[them],” Brown said. “It means something to them. It means someone is willing to invest in their trip.”
A spokesperson for the New York Liberty told the Bronx Times that they are looking to reach as many young ballplayers as possible in the five boroughs, hoping to develop a love of the game early so that it can lead them to a wide variety of future opportunities and careers in the industry.
Jones, who was traded in New York Jan. 15, is still fitting in with the Big Apple but said she was eager to be a part of the first-ever Liberty Clinic.
“When I’m here with these girls, I see a lot of myself in them,” Jones said. “I’m glad to be here, because if I had a player in the WNBA to teach me things when I was younger, I would jump at the chance.”
And as girls and women in sports continue to break down the barriers that have historically kept them away from a career in sports, the WNBA’s top talent has demanded change in the longest-running women’s sports league in the United States.
In 1997, the WNBA was founded, which is half owned by the NBA. But as the league grows stronger and raises $75 million—the largest ever capital raise for a women’s sports entity—in 2022, the league’s players continue to highlight the disparities.
Even superstars in the professional ranks – like Jones – are still fighting for their fair wages, travel and investments in their products.
And what WNBA players have long demanded, is to get the same share of the league’s revenue as their male counterparts in the NBA — 50%. WNBA players only receive 20% of the revenue from the WNBA League.
Some progress has been made for the WNBA’s top-tier players, after the league and its players’ union entered into a new collective bargaining agreement in 2020, Which allows top talent to earn cash compensation of over $500,000three times as much as it was before.
“There’s a lot of room for growth and we’ve gone in the right direction with the new CBA,” Jones said, “but there’s still a lot that can be done to make the player experience better and on par with men’s basketball.” “We want to be treated the same, but we understand that revenue is different… So when we talk about equity, we talk about percentages (of revenue) and the important topic is also travel and charter flights.”
During her free agency, new teammate Stewart made charter flights a major factor in her decision. WNBA teams only fly commercially, and Liberty owner Joe Tsai has in the past offered unauthorized charter flights to his players, much to the league’s chagrin and reprimand.
Hopefully by the time Espinal plays her first game in her hometown of Liberty sometime in the next decade, those systemic challenges for women’s professional sports will have been rectified.
Get to Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @tweet and Facebook @tweet.