A league fighting for relevancy and attention has just been dealt a massive blow.
Reigning WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart ruptured her Achilles tendon while playing in the EuroLeague Final Four championship game Sunday for the Russian club Dynamo Kursk. The 6'4" Stewart went up for a jump shot and upon landing immediately grabbed the back of her right foot before writhing in pain. She was helped off the court and did not return in her team’s 91–67 loss to UMMC Ekaterinburg. Stewart will undergo surgery “at a date to be determined,” according to a statement released by the Seattle Storm. She will miss the entire WNBA season, which begins May 24, but is expected to make a full recovery.
Still, it is a heartbreaking injury for the 24-year-old Stewart, who has dominated her sport for the past 12 months. Last season she was named league MVP and helped guide the Storm to the WNBA title while averaging 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.4 blocked shots per game. She became only the sixth player in history to win league MVP and Finals MVP in the same year. She was named EuroLeague MVP after averaging 20.9 points and 8.6 rebounds for Dynamo Kursk, led Team USA to a gold medal at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup (where she also won tournament MVP) and was named USA Basketball Female Athlete of the year.
This doesn’t include the fact that Stewart is also a two-time WNBA All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist, a former Rookie of the Year, and in college, led UConn to four consecutive national championships while also being named Most Outstanding Player every time—an accomplishment that no other male or female collegiate player can claim. She’s also received a ton of support as she begins her recovery, with colleagues like LeBron James, CJ McCollum and A’ja Wilson tweeting well-wishes.
But Stewart is more than just the best player in the league right now. She’s a role model for millennials and future generations, unafraid and confident to use her voice and platform to talk about major issues, which has sometimes been rare for WNBA players in the past. Stewart has called out the NCAA during the NCAA tournament for what she described as a lack of respect for the women’s game. She’s brought awareness to the #MeToo movement, telling her own harrowing story of sexual assault in a brave Players’ Tribune letter. She’s a leader in the fight for equal pay.
Last fall, the WNBA players opted out of their collective bargaining agreement and are in the process of negotiating a new deal. The players have pushed for a lot of things, including better salaries, better travel accommodations and better marketing, as well as being stakeholders in the league.
But what kind of impact could Stewart’s injury potentially have on a new CBA? When the WNBA season ends in September, the majority of players head overseas to continuing playing from October through April because they don’t make enough money. Stewart, for example, is still on her rookie deal and is expected to earn $64,538 next season with the Storm. The max contract in the league is $113,500.
Speaking on a panel before the WNBA draft last week, New York Liberty guard Kia Nurse said that players love going overseas. It’s a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in different cultures while playing basketball. Plus they can maximize their earning potential and visibility. Stewart could have been hurt doing just about anything, but WNBA players put more wear and tear on their bodies by not having a proper offseason.
Two years ago, following her rookie season, Stewart sprained her posterior cruciate ligament while playing in China and had to come home early. At that point, she’d been going nonstop for a year: After leading UConn to a national championship, she was drafted No. 1 overall, played a full WNBA season and then went to China.
“I haven’t had any break,” Stewart told the Associated Press at the time. “Maybe it’s a sign my body’s saying I’m a little tired. So now a break is coming. It was supposed to be coming after the China playoffs finished.”
It can take up to a year to recover from a torn Achilles, but every situation is different. Former WNBA star Tamika Catchings tore her Achilles in Sept. 2007 and played in both the 2008 Beijing Olympics and WNBA regular season. Kobe Bryant tore his in April 2013 and played the next season.
Former league commissioner Lisa Borders reported toward the end of the 2018 season that regular-season TV viewership had increased by 31%, League Pass digital subscriptions were up 39% and merchandise sales were up 66%. That’s a positive springboard heading into this summer.
But with only 12 teams and a relatively short season to catch viewers’ attention, the WNBA needs all the star power it can get while it tries to figure out how to keep growing and increase interest. This season, it will have to do those things without its most valuable player.