The slow steady din of anticipation vibrates lightly in the air at Pour Coffee House near Sunset Park. On this sunny afternoon, the shop had closed its doors to act as an impromptu meeting place for a chat with not one, but two Las Vegas Aces.
The demands facing a professional basketball player in the WNBA come quickly into focus as the interview is bookended by an intense practice session and impending departure to face the Chicago Sky at Wintrust Arena (the team who they will ultimately sent home during round two of the WNBA playoffs).
Tamera “Ty” Young enters with a gentle confidence ̶ every bit the embodiment of a veteran with a career spanning over a decade in the league.
She presents herself to prep for the shoot and surveys the environment. Observing all and saying little, Young unknowingly gives rise to a curiosity for what wisdom might be buried behind her electrifying smile.
A’ja Wilson arrives fresh-faced from practice (one of her first since recovering from an ankle injury). Warm and outgoing, Wilson sets the tone as she greets each individual before taking a seat near a window. She takes a moment to secure her signature strand of pearls, and the contrast between these two women couldn’t be more striking. It is hard not to speculate whether such differences have been a key to success for a young Aces franchise.
If overcoming adversity is the name of the game, the Las Vegas Aces are already champions. Earthquakes, 24-hour road trips, canceled games, hosting WNBA All-Star Weekend, injuries, 6th Woman of the Year (Hamby), holy-heck-Hamby-half- court-shots, over-time victories — all for a small fraction of the salary paid to their male counter parts (spare me the armchair lesson in EBITA) (earnings before interest, taxes and amortization). It was only when the team recently reached the semi-finals of the WNBA playoffs that they were granted a charter flight cross-country to kick-off of a best of five series against the Washington Mystics. (thanks to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert). Never mind the fact that top colleges have been chartering flights for decades. But, I digress. These women show up. They put in work. And, it shows.
There is a (valid) argument to be made that this Aces franchise was built to succeed. In other words, the success of season two is not a happy accident, sports fans. Reconstructed from the skeleton of the San Antonio Stars, the Aces are a shining example of what can happen when you bet on women. More specifically, women’s sports and even more specifically, women’s professional sports. Given the resources to thrive and placed in a market primed for professional sports and hungry for basketball, it would be difficult not to succeed. This isn’t lost on the players.
“MGM is the best (owner) in the league for supporting players,” Young said. “We are lucky to be a part of that family, it’s not like that everywhere (in the league).”
She’s not wrong. Owner MGM Resorts International went all-in on the Aces from the very beginning. The marketing support dedicated to introducing the team was substantial, and while fans certainly responded, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger marketing presence for a WNBA team.
“People know who we are. And not just in this city,” Wilson said. “That is because of the marketing support from MGM and the Aces. It makes a big difference.”
Indeed it does. What does investing in success look like? How about $10 million to update an arena lovingly known as “The House?” Better seats, upgraded suites, a sweet new JumboTron, sleek do it now.”
And, by all accounts year two has been a benchmark year for the organization, complete with a legitimate playoff bid.
One can only assume Laimbeer would agree. At first glance, it would be easy to classify the head coach as hard-nosed and demanding. But, actions speak louder than words, and it was Laimbeer, (as reported by the Associated Press) who pushed hard to reward his 2019 WNBA All Stars with coveted first class travel: “I put $20,000 in our budget to fly the players first class, and the league said you couldn’t do that. The league refused to let us do that,” Laimbeer told the AP. “I made a complaint at the Board of Governors meeting about that specific issue. They are our best assets, they are our All-Stars; treat them with respect.”
Laimbeer is notorious for ending shoot-arounds with cash prizes (not surprisingly, forward Dearica Hamby frequently cashes in).
He never misses an opportunity to share a vintage commercial from his days as an NBA player in the 1980s (aptly named Bad Boy Bill) and is always game for sharing an embarrassing photo captured of one of his players (as Aces Center Liz Cambage can attest). All of which adds to a kind of take-no prisoners playfulness embodied by his squad. But it’s pulling that through to the fan experience that has netted the biggest gains for the Aces.
The less than stellar compensation structure for the league is well-documented with low salaries forcing athletes to compete overseas (playing year-round) where they can make up to 15 times more than in the U.S. They risk injury and fatigue to earn higher salaries and maximize a relatively short window as viable competitors in the longest-running professional women’s sports league in history (23 years and counting), the WNBA. When you consider the average career of a WNBA player spans just five years, players have little choice but to make every opportunity count.
A lesser reported fact is that the WNBA has the highest per capita of four-year college degrees of any professional sports league. Ever. Why? Because a four-year college degree is required to be eligible for the draft. The result? College-educated, elite athletes adept at cultivating and managing personal brands to supplement their mediocre salaries. While fair compensation remains out of reach for most players, savvy players have found a way to capitalize on the exposure.
Interestingly, few teams have recognized (as the Aces have) that strong personal brands ultimately support the brand strategy of both the franchise and a league that is still fighting to remain financially viable 20-plus years after launch.
Take Aces guard Sydney Colson, for example. Boasting an Instagram following of more than 18,000, she started training camp with a “non-guaranteed contract.” She quickly became a fan favorite leading her team through the tunnels of The House with her signature “Lady Aces” war cry.
Guard Kelsey Plum? She was selected as the top pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft. Teammates categorize her as, hands-down, the hardest worker (an honor that translates in her style of play).
“Plum would live in the gym if you let her,” Wilson said. “She is the first one in and the last one out.”
Aces guard Kayla “McBuckets” McBride didn’t earn a nickname like McBuckets without a certain level of consistency and offensive prowess. The five-year veteran diligently grinds at home and abroad to solidify the strength of her personal brand.
The list goes on. Player after player, carving a niche for themselves to make an honest living as a professional athlete. And yet, it is never all about the bottom line with WNBA players, and certainly not the Aces.
Look no further than the A’ja Wilson Foundation to find a humble commitment to a cause much greater than basketball.
“My foundation is really focused on kids struggling with dyslexia and bullying,” Wilson said. “I have a learning disability. So it was important to me to bring awareness to issues impacting a lot of children.”
The foundation focuses on providing resources and information to young people and their families impacted by dyslexia and bullying.
Wilson’s charity endeavors are also rooted firmly in her own life experience. Losing her father to pancreatic cancer and grandmother to breast cancer inspired her to become involved with the American Cancer Society and facilitate a charity, 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament to Kill Cancer.
What’s next? For the league, it will be a new collective bargaining agreement, a push to grow the fanbase; and, one can hope, a serious look at fair compensation for its biggest drivers of revenue (players).
As for the Aces, the team remains focused on a WNBA Championship. That would mean peaking at the right time.
Wilson said it best: “A lot is said about knowing how to win. That’s valid. A big part of success is knowing how to win at this level. Once you’ve have won and you know how to do it, things fall into place.”
So whether it’s year two, or three or even four, doubling down on the Aces is a bet worth making. Didn’t you know? The house always wins.