How WNBA teams use facilities to shine, attract free agents

ByKevin Pelton ESPN logo
Thursday, July 13, 2023

FORMER WNBA MVPCandace Parker shocked Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green.

"I have not had a locker in my WNBA career," Parker told Green on his podcast in May. "I've been in the WNBA for 16 years, and I have not had a locker where it has my name on it and I can leave my s--- and then come back and know my s---'s going to be there."

For Green and his fellow NBA stars, a locker room in a private practice facility solely for the team's use might be taken for granted. When Parker got that opportunity this season, as the Las Vegas Aces opened a first-of-its-kind headquarters and practice facility in Henderson, Nevada, it was something worth celebrating.

"I feel like you have all that in college," Parker told ESPN, "and it's kind of a shocker when you get to the league and you don't have it."

While the Aces were first to complete a dedicated practice facility, they aren't alone. In March, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held for the Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance, which the organization describes as the first building constructed solely for use by a WNBA team. (The Aces' facility shares some space with the Al Davis-Eddie Robinson Leadership Academy.)

In a league with a hard salary cap of just $1.42 million per team and restrictions on the use of charter travel, practice facilities are an opportunity for teams to distinguish themselves and compete for free agents. With Las Vegas and Seattle joining in the WNBA teams who share ownership with NBA counterparts in having gleaming, spacious facilities to call home, the rest of the league risks getting left behind.

"You have to have those things in order to compete for elite players. Period," longtime WNBA guard Kristi Toliver said. "You're not going to see a Stewie [Breanna Stewart] or a[n Elena] Delle Donne, a [Diana] Taurasi, a BG [Brittney Griner] go to teams that don't have those resources. At this point, it's like a bare minimum that everybody needs to have the same type of facilities, the same type of resources."

PARKER'S WNBA EXPERIENCE was extreme, but it wasn't an outlier. Parker played her first 15 seasons in the league with the Los Angeles Sparks and Chicago Sky, two of the teams with the least exclusive access to practice facilities. The Sparks in particular have been itinerant throughout the franchise's existence, practicing in multiple locations during the 2022 season alone.

"A lot of the facilities were nice," Parker said, "but they weren't ours."

When asked how many places she practiced during her nine seasons with the Sparks, Toliver can't help but laugh.

"At least seven," Toliver told ESPN. "We went from high school to high school to a small college ... we just bounced around. We just didn't have a home. That's what I felt like. You feel like a nomad."

Historically, the experience for WNBA players has varied depending on whether their team is independent or is owned by an NBA team that has a practice facility. The Indiana Fever (Pacers), Minnesota Lynx (Timberwolves), Phoenix Mercury (Suns) and Toliver's Washington Mystics (Wizards), jointly owned, all have space in shared practice facilities built to high NBA standards.

The other team that shares NBA ownership, the New York Liberty (Brooklyn Nets), has a dedicated practice court and locker room at Barclays Center. Independent teams, by contrast, have often practiced at small colleges or even rented time at public courts.

"When I was at San Antonio, we were practicing at a YMCA," Aces guard Kelsey Plum told ESPN. "It was open to the public; we had a track on the second floor. It was usually retired people who were watching practice. A lot has changed in my years in the league."

Plum joked -- or maybe not -- about the Stars being kicked off the court for 2 o'clock dodgeball.

"It's just like, 'What is life?'" she said.

For Las Vegas forward Alysha Clark -- who wasn't accustomed to the high-quality facilities Parker enjoyed at Tennessee and Toliver had at Maryland after playing her college basketball at mid-majors Belmont and Middle Tennessee -- there's been a gradual understanding of what was possible in the WNBA.

Clark started her career with the Storm, who have practiced in a dedicated, seasonal gym on the Seattle Pacific University campus since the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 and their practice facility was torn down to make room for the Gates Foundation headquarters. She then signed in Washington, enjoying shared access to the Wizards' facility, before moving into the Aces' new building this year.

"For starters, the one in Vegas is actually ours," Clark told ESPN. "We're not having to split time or split courts or locker rooms with anyone. It's awesome. You don't realize what a big deal that is until you're in it. For so long it's like, 'This is normal.' When you get a space that's actually yours, it's like a different type of settling. It's like, 'I can actually be here and I'm here.'

"Full circle, Seattle where it was completely shared, nothing our own; to D.C. where it was kind of our own, kind of shared, and now being in a space completely our own. Literally every place you could be."

A tour of the Las Vegas facility, located next to the Raiders Headquarters and Intermountain Health Performance Center under the shared ownership of Mark Davis, reveals all the features NBA players have come to expect. Aces players can eat food prepared nearby at the Raiders' facility and get necessary treatment before working out in an expansive, well-stocked weight room.

Recovery tools, from cryotherapy to hot and cold tubs, are nearby. The locker room -- where, yes, Parker has a locker of her own for the first time since 2007-08, her final season at Tennessee -- has screens in every locker, and the film room features massage chairs that Plum said are her favorite feature.

"No one's fallen asleep yet," she joked, "but I might be up there."

After video of the facility was posted online, New York Knicks wing Josh Hart (who has played for four NBA teams) said on Twitter that it would be "a top 5 facility in the NBA."

Parker, in her 16th season,has spent more time in the facility than ever before.

"I feel way more settled," she said. "You can go in and get treatment. I feel like I spend way more time there because you get there, you get breakfast, you do your treatment, then I go and do my lift, and then I shoot, and then it's film and then afterwards I do my recovery."

AS THE CHAMPAGNE was flowing after the Storm's 2020 WNBA title, won in the so-called "Wubble" campus setting at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, co-owner Ginny Gilder received an email from Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez well after midnight Eastern time:

"Girl, now's the time, you just won your fourth championship, let's go."

The idea, before Davis had even purchased the Aces or considered building them a practice facility, was for the Storm's owners to provide one of the WNBA's most successful franchises a fitting home despite the economic challenges the league faced during the pandemic.

"I think always, I've dreamt of our having the same kind of facilities that men's pro sports teams have, so this is the fulfillment of a long time coming," Gilder told ESPN. "We have always wanted to give our athletes everything they need so they can perform at the level that they want to. And having a place that's theirs, where they don't have to share court time, where they don't have to clean out a locker or whatever, is kind of essential.

"I think what's changed in the last couple of years is the expectation of what women athletes should have. It's changed very quickly. And I think we're part of generating that change."

The motivation for the Aces building a practice facility was, to some degree, because they can. For the independent Storm -- one of four WNBA teams, along with the Sky,Atlanta Dreamand Connecticut Sun, whose majority owners don't have investment in any men's pro sports teams -- this was a more monumental decision.

Building a facility with a $65 million cost -- about three times what Gilder initially anticipated -- required both taking out a loan and selling minority shares in the franchise as part of an investment round that yielded a historic $151 million valuation, as reported by The Wall Street Journal in February.

"One of the things we've always found about this organization is if you invest in the players and if you invest in the fan experience, they will pay you back," Lisa Brummel, another member of the Storm's ownership group, told ESPN. "I don't mean that sort of literally, dollar for dollar, but you have to give people a great experience if you want them to keep coming back to doing what you do."

As securing the necessary funding was playing out behind the scenes, the Storm also spent 2021 navigating the political process of rezoning the land where the facility is being built. In May 2022, the organization announced the plan publicly. By that point, the ownership group and owner's rep Maria Barrientos had worked with players, coaches and general manager Talisa Rhea on designing the building to the team's needs.

"I was a part of a few of the meetings with the design and the input, from a coach's perspective and even a player's perspective, about what should be in the building early on," Storm coach Noelle Quinn told ESPN. "Up to an opportunity to see furniture and our area from a coach's standpoint."

In March, while Seattle was hosting the regional finals of the women's NCAA tournament, the organization got to celebrate breaking ground on a facility that is on schedule to open ahead of 2024 training camp.

"It's going to be the coolest thing ever," Brummel said. "I think regardless of what any other team does at this point, I think we feel so proud and passionate about giving this to our team and giving this to the city as a place they can look at and say, 'Women built this. Women are honing their craft in this place.' It's going to be something Seattle's going to be incredibly proud of."

THE NBA EXISTED more than four decades before its teams had their own dedicated practice facilities. All the way up through the halcyon 1980s, teams often practiced in some of the same types of places as independent teams in the WNBA, now in its 27th season. The SuperSonics, in fact, practiced at Seattle Pacific University in their early days, just like the Storm.

The Chicago Bulls building the Berto Center in 1992, after the second of their six championships with Michael Jordan, is believed to be the first NBA-exclusive practice facility, with the Phoenix Suns adding their own gym at the newly constructed Footprint Center that same year.

Although a shift toward team-specific facilities followed, some NBA teams went without them well into the 2000s. The LA Clippers didn't open their own facility, the Honey Training Center, until 2008. WNBA teams might not be able to afford to wait that long as facilities become a point of competition in free agency.

"I think heading into free agency and coming out of free agency this year, there's no question that it's a critical factor in players' decisions," Sparks chief administrative officer and general manager Karen Bryant told ESPN. "It came up in just about every conversation with every free agent we had. ...

"I think as we go forward it will be the differentiator."

When Clark signed with the Mystics in 2020, the team's facilities weren't a driving factor. After experiencing life in an NBA-caliber facility, she took a different approach last offseason before signing with the Aces.

"Going into this free agency, for sure that was something I was very adamant about -- just making sure I asked about resources," Clark said. "It definitely played a part."

The timing of the push for dedicated practice facilities comes against the backdrop of the WNBA's new prioritization rules, which were part of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement and are designed to ensure players are with their teams for the start of training camp. This year, players under contract were subject to a mandatory fine if they were late for camp and were ineligible to play at all if they didn't return before the regular season. In 2024, players who haven't reported by the start of camp won't be allowed to play.

Along with an influx of young players who don't see making more money overseas as a necessary part of their careers from a financial standpoint, the prioritization rules mean a larger percentage of WNBA players staying home in the offseason. Those players need somewhere to develop, and dedicated, year-round facilities give them that opportunity.

"It's huge because I think a lot of the reason players go overseas is the basketball development," Rhea told ESPN. "Obviously the pay, but it's an opportunity to play and develop and grow, work on some different areas.

"Having the ability to work with your coaches in-market with resources to be able to have a prolonged period of development rather than two weeks of training camp, to have a five-month program to work on different areas of their game and having the sports performance resources and the basketball technology to really help elevate and focus on skill development in a totally different way."

Even for players such as the Storm's Jewell Loyd who won't necessarily spend the offseason in their home market, having a place to work out when she is in Seattle figures to be a big benefit.

"People need spaces to get better and grow," Loyd told ESPN. "It will help players develop better. If they're not going overseas, they know they can come to Seattle for a weekend, get work in, have a gym. Come for an appearance, stay for a week. People want that, to be taken care of -- not just for the four months we're here but year-round."

Although the lack of dedicated practice facilities didn't really hamper the Storm and the Aces, who have combined to win two of the past three titles (with the other one by the Sky, another team that shares a facility), having them figures to be a competitive advantage going forward, in free agency and in terms of player performance.

Already, Plum credited Las Vegas' record-setting start coming off the 2022 title in part to players being able to spend more time working on their games.

"You see the product on the floor," she told reporters earlier this month. "I think that's a big reason. ... I think that's why you see people elevating their games, because you're able to fine-tune things. Everyone knows at this level, it's all about the little details and the fine-tuning that makes the biggest difference."

Unlike in some areas where the WNBA has limited spending for competitive reasons, most notably private charter travel, investment in facilities has the benefit of increasing the value of franchises by giving them long-term property assets. As a result, the Sky told the Chicago Sun-Times in May that they're exploring locations for building their own facility. Other teams without dedicated facilities might soon have to do the same.

Although that won't come in time for Storm legend Sue Bird to use as a player, Bird -- who testified on the team's behalf during the zoning process -- is thrilled about the development just the same.

"The truth is, for Seattle, this is going to be amazing," Bird told ESPN, "but you hope that teams follow suit and you hope in three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years, every team has a practice facility."