The check-in: Soaring valuations, labor disputes, and March messiness
Keep reading to cheer, cry, laugh, and rage scream. It'll be great.
Hi, friends. I hope you’re all doing well! A couple of quick announcements:
Next Tuesday, March 7th at 7:00 p.m. ET we are having our next Power Plays Book Club Virtual Q&A for “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.”
We’ve got three special guests joining us this time: Frankie de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, the co-authors of the book, and Linda Stamps, a founding member of the Columbus Pacesetters!!! You can read more about Linda in this Sports Illustrated story, “How One Women’s Football Team Took Control Away From the Men.” This event is open to everyone (though only paying Power Plays subscribers will have access to the replay of the video and transcript), and you can register here.
The Power Plays mailbag is returning! Have a question about anything going on in the greater women’s sports world? WNBA free agency? Softball? Curling? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Mailbag” in the subject line.
Also, I’m excited to announce that I will be at the ACC women’s basketball tournament this week. If you’ve got any questions you’d like me to ask any of the players or coaches, or have any tips of storylines I should be following, please let me know. Power Plays paying subscribers will get a couple of exclusive insider dispatches from the tournament. (And, if you’re going to be at the tournament, be sure to say hi!)
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Okay, that’s all the admin work. Let’s do this.
1. Putting the Storm’s $151 million valuation in context.
Earlier this month, the phenomenal Rachel Bachman at the Wall Street Journal reported that the WNBA’s Seattle Storm secured a franchise valuation of $151 million. This valuation is not theoretical — or, at least, it’s as non-theoretical as any valuation can be. It was achieved when team owners Ginny Gilder, Lisa Brummel, and Dawn Trudeau (who form Force 10 Hoops LLC) sold stakes of the team to 15 investors to help finance a new $64 million, 50,000-square-foot practice facility and business office for the Storm.
Friends, this is a monumental moment for the WNBA and women’s sports, one that has far bigger implications than any of the earth-shattering free agency moves and trades we’ve witnessed over the past month. (And that’s not meant to minimize the implications of Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones going to the New York Liberty or Candace Parker going to the Las Vegas Aces, and it’s certainly not intended to downplay the WNBA’s investigation into allegations that the Aces illegally maneuvered around the salary cap and discriminated against Dearica Hamby due to her pregnancy. It’s simply a reflection of how big the $151 million valuation is, and what it could mean for the league going forward.)
Now, I want to be very clear about one thing: I am not a financial reporter. (Surprise!) I have not independently confirmed any valuations. I don’t fully understand what goes into setting valuations for teams, no matter how much googling I do, and I’m not entirely convinced the system isn’t just a high-stakes guessing game for MBAs. But I have access to a publicly-available inflation calculator and an affinity for research.
With that said, in my quest to put a $151 million valuation into context, I found some comparison points that I think are valuable:
This dwarfs previous valuations of WNBA franchises: It’s long been reported that the price of WNBA franchises is around the $10 million mark. That’s what the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority paid in 2003 for the Connecticut Sun, and what Houston furniture dealer Hilton Koch reportedly paid for the Comets in 2007. But in reality, owners have purchased teams for far less. When Gilder and her co-owners purchased the Storm in 2008, they only paid $1 million because, according to the WSJ, “the balance of funds were only to be paid if certain business targets were achieved, which they were not.” And in 2021, it’s been reported that Mark Davis only paid $2 million for ownership of the Las Vegas Aces.
This even dwarfs the average franchise value established by Cathy Engelbert’s $75 million fundraising round last year. Last year, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced the league had raised $75 million from investors. There were initial reports that the money raise brought the WNBA to a $1 billion valuation, but Howard Megdal reported in Sports Illustrated last year that the money was raised at a $400 million valuation, with a post-raise valuation of $475 million. Last December, The Athletic reported the $475 million valuation as well. So if we look at $475 million, that puts the average WNBA franchise price at $39.6 million a little over a year ago. ($475 million divided by 12 teams.) That number is notably higher than the $10 million figure assumed in the past, but much lower than the $151 million valuation the Storm received.
WNBA valuations are outpacing NBA valuations in season 27. Today, the 30 NBA teams are worth a combined $90 million, which constitutes an average valuation of $3 billion. That’s an inconceivable amount of money. But it hasn’t always been that way. This is the WNBA’s 27th season. In the NBA’s 27th season, 1972, Robert Schmertz purchased the Boston Celtics for $4 million. That’s $29.12 million today. In 1984, the Seattle SuperSonics were sold to Barry Ackerley for $21 million. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $61.65 million today. The 1984-85 season was the NBA’s 39th.
It took until the late 1980s for NBA franchises to reach values that, with inflation calculated, are comparable to the Storm’s $151 million — the Portland Trail Blazers were purchased for $70 million in 1988 (about $181 million today), and the Denver Nuggets were purchased for $60 million in 1989 (about $148.23 million today). The 1988-99 season was the NBA’s 43rd.
Valuations across the women’s sports landscape are skyrocketing. On the surface, it seems downright faulty that the valuation of WNBA franchises could be rising this quickly. But it is on trend with a marketplace that seems to finally be recognizing the monetary power of women’s sports. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is a great example. As recently as three years ago, NWSL expansion fees were under $5 million. Now, expansion fees for new franchises are expected to be around $50 million, according to Bachman and Jessica Toonkel at the WSJ. In 2022, Michele Kang became owner of the Washington Spirit at a $35 million valuation, and Gotham FC recently raised money at a $40 million valuation. Angel City FC has achieved a $100 million valuation, and team president Julie Uhrman told The Athletic that she believes the team will be the first women’s team to have a billion-dollar valuation in just five years.
So, yeah. It will certainly be interesting to see whether other WNBA teams can achieve valuations on-par with the Storm’s, but one thing is certain: The floor for the valuation of women’s sports teams is rising at a breakneck pace, and the ceiling is nowhere in sight.
2. I cannot get enough of Brittney Griner’s return to the basketball court and public life. She’s glowing.
Substack will get mad at me if I embed every tweet I want to embed, so instead I’ll just link to this gleeful montage of BG taking press photos, this heartwarming photo of BG hugging Penny Taylor and meeting Penny and Diana Taurasi’s new baby, and this incredible video of BG and her wife, Cherelle Griner, looking hot as hell at the NAACP Image Awards while taking the stage to advocate for the return of Americans who are still detained abroad.
If you’re not crying right now, I’m honestly a bit worried about you.
3. Okay, now we need to talk about what is happening in women’s soccer, particularly the labor disputes in Canada and France.
Another year, another slate of female soccer players having to sacrifice their careers in order to fight for proper treatment from their federations. Fun!
Let’s start up north. On February 10, ahead of the SheBelieves Cup, the Canadian women’s soccer team announced that they were going on strike due to stalled contract negotiations and budget cuts for 2023 that left them with significantly less days resources for training — for the SheBelieves Cup camp, Canada Soccer only paid for 20 players to be at camp, down from 28 at previous camps. Considering we’re less than six months from the Women’s World Cup (!!) and Canada won gold at the Olympics in 2021, the cuts are baffling and infuriating. Unfortunately, just two days later, the players announced that they would be ending the strike and playing the SheBelieves Cup in protest, because Canada Soccer had threatened to sue the players and take steps to collect millions of dollars from the players association and individual players if they went forward with the strike. (I recommend reading this piece from CBS Sports for more information.) So, Canada played the SheBelieves Cup, but the story is far from over.
Meanwhile, last week, the captain of the French women’s national team, Wendie Renard, announced that she would not play in the Women’s World Cup this summer because she can “no longer support the current system, which is far from the requirements of the highest level." Two of her teammates, Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani, followed suit.
Now, Molly Hudson of The Times reported just a few hours ago that the president of the French Soccer Federation, Noël Le Graët, and the head coach of the French women’s soccer team, Corinne Diacre, are expected to resign this week. That’s a testament to the power of Renard, and could certainly mean she will return to the team, which is all great! Truly.
But you know what? I’m having a hard time getting inspired by this story, because I’m just so fucking sick of the burden being on these athletes to take drastic actions in order to earn a modicum of respect from their federations. I love covering stories of labor solidarity in women’s sports, and will continue to do so, but I look forward to the day when, every once in a while, they actually have the option of just shutting up and dribbling. SIGH.
4. March officially started yesterday.
Throw away your calendar. It’s wrong. March began on February 26 in Iowa, when No. 2 Indiana and No. 6 Iowa put on a masterpiece theater showcase of a basketball game in front of a sold-out crowd of 15,056 in Iowa City. With ESPN’s iconic College Gameday broadcast team in attendance, Iowa beat Indiana 86-85 thanks to a game-winning three-pointer by Caitlin Clark on an inbound pass with just 1.5 seconds left. Given the spotlight and the occasion, it was everything you dream of getting from a basketball game; everyone from both teams stepped up. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. It was perfect. It was agonizing. It was March.
If you missed it, definitely read M.A. Voepel’s story from the game, and then re-think your priorities.
5. Also, are things getting salty in the Big Ten?
Let me caveat this by saying I have not done my journalistic due diligence and listened to any of these press conferences, and I have so much respect and admiration for all three of these coaches and programs.
But also, I proudly embrace that I am a messy bitch who lives for drama, and this is especially true when it comes to shit-talking and feuding in women’s sports. So, without further adieu, here are a few tweets that came across my feed over the past few days.
These first two took place after Maryland destroyed Iowa 96-68 (!!) on Tuesday, February 21:
And this was after Iowa beat Indiana on Sunday:
Look, I’m excited to be in Greensboro for the ACC tournament, don’t get me wrong. But I’ll have an eye on the action in Minneapolis, and some popcorn on standby.
I agree that team valuations are mostly nonsense. They are calculated based on estimations (guesses) a lot of the time. But, hey. Big numbers sound good and it can only help the image of the league. I am here for all of the WBB shade! It's so much fun. I cannot wait to see the ratings for the post season this year. I'm excited to watch my Gamecocks run it back.