Nine combined Olympic gold medals. Six WNBA championships. Twenty-one All-Star appearances. One WNBA MVP. Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles, two of the most decorated and prolific basketball players in WNBA history—and both among Adweek’s 2022 Most Powerful Women in Sports honorees—each said goodbye to their professional careers a few months ago, choosing to retire at the top of their respective games.
“What makes myself and Syl interesting right now is we’re really one of the first crop of players that have had these lengthy, lengthy careers,” said Bird, noting the WNBA is only in its 26th season. “We’ve been in people’s homes, on their TV sets, at the Olympics for [more than] 15 years, and that’s not even including college, when both of us were household names.”
However, despite their career similarities—both credit Nike as an early supporter and are represented by Lindsay Kagawa Colas at powerhouse agency Wasserman—their opportunities and experience off the basketball court have been wildly divergent. Only one of them has been a fixture in brand spots for 20 years, earned a plethora of media coverage and been given every future opportunity to continue as an industry mainstay. Meanwhile, the other is preparing for a second act in funerary arts.
Bird, 42, the first overall draft pick in 2002, hung up her sneakers after 18 seasons and 20 years with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, leading her team deep into one last playoff run. No. 10 is a four-time WNBA champion, the league’s all-time assist leader, a 13-time All-Star and a five-time Olympic gold medalist. She has partnerships with major brands like Nike, American Express, CarMax and Capital One. The New York native is a part-owner of the NWSL’s Gotham FC, and founded media and commerce company Togethxr with three other elite athletes, which works to amplify the voices of women athletes.
Arguably one of the best players to ever change the game, Fowles doesn’t have the top-tier deals that Bird does. At 37, the second overall 2008 draft pick retired after an elite career with the Chicago Sky and Minnesota Lynx. The Miami native is a WNBA MVP, four-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and four-time Olympic gold medalist. She’s the league’s greatest rebounder of all time and the career leader in field goal percentage. Yet she’s spending post-retirement far away from sports, where she’s studying mortuary science.
“The world we live in, the world that the WNBA is trying to thrive in, doesn’t really appreciate [and value] the types of people that are playing in the league,” said Bird. “[It] doesn’t appreciate people of color, doesn’t appreciate the LGBT community. When you look at Syl, a Black woman in this world who stands at 6’6”, no one’s looking at her and seeing her talent.”
‘Driven’ to succeed
Fowles was raised in the Victory Homes Projects in Miami-Dade County, which she believes shaped her into who she is now. “The neighborhood was bad, and you’re seeing things that kids shouldn’t see at those ages. But it’s a community. We took care of each other,” she said, emphasizing that while living was rough, she never needed to scrounge for food or go without clothes and shoes.
“At some point, I knew I was going to be successful because I was driven at a young age,” said Fowles. She partnered with Nike in high school and was recruited by LSU after her standout Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) career. The university retired jersey No. 34 in 2017.
“I don’t think I would be the person I am today without Nike,” said Fowles. “Nike gave me an outlet to provide so many things for family. They gave me so many opportunities to provide for my travel team. Nike has been a big part of who Sylvia Fowles is as a person.”
While Nike is Fowles’ biggest partnership by far, she’s also signed a handful of other smaller-scale deals with Affalia, a Black soap, shampoo and hair company; and baby food brands Yumi and Fresh Bellies, which is particularly apt since starting a family is a huge priority for Fowles, post-retirement.
“I’m trying to think long term because I want kids, so I’m trying to line everything up of how can I get my kids set up?” she said. “I really don’t have sponsorships, and I know a lot of that comes through social media and followers.”
In her final season, Fowles finally began to break out into mainstream media, a narrative that caused conflicting feelings for a player who remained humble her whole career. She also put some of the blame on the WNBA itself, noting the league tends to promote only a small group of its top players.
“Give me credit where credit is due,” she said. “I’ve been consistent since I got in this league. I’ve been at the top of my game since I got in this league, but to cover it within my last year? Where were you all those other years? It starts with our league because we have some dope-ass women in the WNBA.”
Consistent may be the perfect word to describe Fowles. After battling back from a knee injury that sidelined her for five games in 2022, she made her eighth All-Star appearance this year (her first back in 2009) and led the league in rebounding once again.
But even the year’s increased media coverage didn’t catch the attention of the bigger brands that have flocked to other WNBA icons.
“Race plays a part. Social media plays a part,” Fowles said. “What else do I have to do? I’m not disrespectful. I don’t get in trouble. What else can you want from a person, which is to do their job?” (As a comparison, Bird’s Instagram following is at 706,000 while Fowles’ is around 73,500, though Fowles doesn’t use hers as much.)
“It’s not an equal platform. You can work your tail off and you can do all these great things and still don’t get as much as your counterpart. I had to learn to have thick skin. I’m just something that they don’t want, and that’s totally fine. Everybody has an image that they want, and I’m not that. I had to get to that point to understand that it’s bigger than me,” she said.
And for those few brands that have reached out, Fowles’ team doggedly keeps away the ones that don’t match her values. “They know what I’m going to say no to,” she said. “It has to be something I’m very passionate about, and that I back 100%. I’ve been bugging [my agents] Lindsay [Kagawa Colas] and Tracy [Hughes] about signing with a Black company for years. I don’t want a deal to just say I have a deal; I want to be able to say I reflect what I’m with.”
Fowles’ altruistic nature comes through when she chooses to sign with a brand. “It has to be something driven towards kids, probably women, hunger, education, and those are the things I look for when I’m signing deals,” she said.
Advocating for change
Bird has traveled a much different path, post-retirement. Two months after chants of “Thank you, Sue” reverberated around Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle as Bird exited for the final time in her career, she has been approached with speaking opportunities, offered extensions to existing partnerships and additional brand opportunities.
When Adweek told Bird what Fowles said about her lack of brand deals, she took a deep breath.
“It’s really sad to hear her say that,” Bird said. “It’s not because of who she is and what she’s done. When people turn on the TV, they see the talent, but society doesn’t see talent first. They just see skin color; they just see sexual orientation. That’s what in the last couple years, all of us in the WNBA have been trying to change. Because it’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s not accurate. And there’s so many people like Sylvia Fowles who could have been giving so much to a brand and just never had the opportunity based on discrimination.”
Bird knows she has the platform to advocate for change and doesn’t hesitate to use it. She came out as gay in 2017 and is currently engaged to soccer star (and fellow Most Powerful Women in Sports honoree) Megan Rapinoe.
“I had been gay for a very long time,” Bird said, adding that her team, her agents and coaches all knew. “I felt like I had gotten to that point where I was like, do you need to say it, like what’s the big deal?”
It wasn’t until conversations with Rapinoe that Bird realized the importance of publicly coming out to advocate for those who can’t safely do so.
The WNBA’s Dark Cloud
While the WNBA community celebrates the end of Bird’s and Fowles’ storied careers, it is also focused on the harrowing plight of Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, a WNBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete endorsed by Nike, who has been wrongfully detained in Russia since February for possession of cannabis oil. In August, she was sentenced to nine years in prison, and last week was transferred to a Russian penal colony. Her current location is unknown.
Griner, 32, like many other American players, competes in a Russian league during the WNBA off-season. Unlike the NBA, where stars like Steph Curry rake in $48 million annually, there are only 14 WNBA players making north of $200,000 per year. Overseas contracts are often far more lucrative than domestic salaries, including for Griner, who made more than $1 million playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg.
The community has been fiercely advocating to bring Griner home since she was first detained. Every WNBA court last season featured a BG42 decal, and during July’s All-Star game, each player wore No. 42 during the second half in her honor. On Nov. 9, President Joe Biden told reporters he was “determined” to bring Griner home, and said he has been in contact with her wife, Cherelle.
“We want to make sure she can still feel all the love that people have for her,” said Bird. “This is absolutely devastating. You can’t think of a worse scenario. We’re trying to use our voices, so hopefully BG can hear and feel it.”
“Every time I walk in a room now, everybody knew exactly who I was, who I loved, what I stood for, and there was something really powerful in that for me,” Bird said. “Even though the motivators were other people, I was probably impacted the most. There’s just so much power in that. And that’s where you need to realize when you’re living your authentic life, and you’re showing up that way in the world, not only does it inspire others to do the same, it allows you to be your full self. And that is where the inspiration lies.”
That authenticity translates into the kinds of brand partnerships Bird looks for.
“You want to have partnerships where your values are aligned,” she said. “When I think of a brand like CarMax, the commercial I did last year with Corona, even some of the Capital One spots, what’s been really amazing about working with these brands is this ability to highlight the female athlete by using a little bit of humor.”
American Express was one of Bird’s first brand partners, and one she points to as most supportive of the WNBA early in her career, outside of Nike.
“Nike has been there since day one, and they’ve been with me my entire career. Never wavered in the support, supported us in the WNBA lives, in our National Team lives, even in our overseas lives,” Bird said, adding that when Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Nike was one of the first entities to try and get WNBA athletes playing in Russia home safely.
“We are in a place in women’s athletics where we need brands,” Bird said. “We need these corporate sponsorships for leagues to survive, we need them for individuals to be able to build their own brands, but you have to be strategic in how you do it. Things are 100% changing. We still have a long way to go, and it’s going to take all of us and all the different perspectives. I’m definitely still going to have my foot on the pedal.”
But Bird knows she can’t just rely on brands to bring about those necessary changes in sports. She recently invested in Gotham FC, New York and New Jersey’s National Women’s Soccer League team, and launched media and commerce company Togethxr alongside athletes Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim and Simone Manuel.
“You have to take action as well. There are moments when you can step into the moment and have impact as an investor or starting a company,” she said. “This was a way for us to put our money where our mouth is, and to try and build this company that would be able to tell the stories that don’t get the light that they deserve.”
As Bird launches her new businesses, tests out a broadcasting career and experiments with front office opportunities like working with the Denver Nuggets in recent years, Fowles quietly—and, she said, happily—works on her mortuary science degree.
“It gives me time to focus on myself,” Fowles said. “I think that’s what draws me to mortuary science because it’s humbling. What am I complaining about? Life is so much simpler than we make it.”
But, as Bird noted, Fowles’ impact has indeed helped change the game for the better, paving the way for the next generation of superstars. That includes 26-year-old A’ja Wilson, the 2022 WNBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, who is signing the brand deals that Fowles couldn’t, a feat Bird believes is due to Fowles’ indelible legacy.
“There really hasn’t been a player like her, the ways in which she was able to dominate and the way she was able to do it consistently,” said Bird. “I hope Syl feels really proud of the fact that she helped change that narrative.”