- Katie Barnes is a writer/reporter for ESPN.com. Follow them on Twitter at Katie_Barnes3.
ALREADY 22 HOURS into her journey, and with the final leg of her 6,000-mile trip still to go, tears prick the corners of Jonquel Jones’ eyes. The 6-foot-6 Connecticut Sun forward stretches her legs as much as she can in her exit-row seat. She needs more space, but mostly she needs more sleep.
It’s been a long 27 hours since she strode off the court at Mohegan Sun Arena after leading the Sun to their 13th consecutive victory, beating the New York Liberty 98-69 on Sept. 15, 2021. Jones scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. She woke up four hours later, climbed into a car at 2 a.m. and was driven 120 miles to New York to catch a six-hour flight to Los Angeles. From there, it was another hour ride, a day’s work and then back to the airport to board this 9 p.m. flight to Connecticut. Ahead of her still: a 90-minute ride home to her apartment in southeastern Connecticut, where she can snuggle her Goldendoodles and sink her head into her pillow.
She is supposed to have practice tomorrow — or is it today? — but thankfully, coach Curt Miller understood the significance of this trip, so he gave her the day off.
Cramming the whirlwind trek into the stretch run of her MVP-caliber WNBA season might not have been the smartest thing to do for her body, but it was important to Jones to take advantage of this unique opportunity.
“When you see State Farm commercials, they’re everywhere,” Jones says.
The filming itself was far from a heavy lift. Jones had to stretch up, grab a jar of pickles off the shelf and hand them to — the five inches shorter — Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young. And then 7-foot-3 Houston Rockets-bound center Boban Marjanović handed her a jar of mustard. She spoke just six words. Pretty simple. It was everything else that took some doing.
But the chance to raise her profile, and, yes, to cash a check, was well worth folding her long legs into an exit-row seat on this plane. Households around the country would see her face and hear Young say her name. Thanks, Jonquel. Endorsement opportunities for WNBA players, while growing, are rare. And the opportunities for someone like Jones — Black and gay and, how she describes it, not traditionally feminine — are almost nonexistent. Jones should be the third leg in a superstar tripod with fellow 20-something MVPs Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson. But the most visible WNBA players, at least according to 2021 jersey sales, are Sabrina Ionescu, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.
Jones has the game; she has the personality. She even has a compelling origin story. Yet few people outside of the WNBA faithful even know who Jonquel Jones is.
Weeks after shooting the State Farm commercial, Jones accepted the 2021 MVP award from commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Jones prayed the award would confer a stamp of marketability that would translate to more endorsement and revenue opportunities.
Since then? Crickets. “There hasn’t been anything,” Jones says.
She thinks she knows why.
WHO GETS TO BE a WNBA superstar? The player who scores the most points? The one who collects the most championship rings? The one who sells the most jerseys? Or, are factors beyond the court at work in the WNBA?
“I think it starts with winning,” Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum says.
“Someone that can really have the broad shoulders to help carry the load of a team,” Miller says.
“A WNBA superstar is about play on the court, work in the community, social justice, and elevating from a marketing and brand perspective,” Engelbert says.
“But it’s also about that visibility, that marketability, that machine behind you,” says Amira Rose Davis, a Penn State assistant professor of African American Studies and co-host of “Burn It All Down,” a feminist sports podcast. “Who gets the machine, of course, is the heart of a lot of the issues.”
The proverbial machine being the power of the media, marketplace, team and league lining up behind a player to push them out to consumers. There is no public database that tracks endorsement deals of WNBA players, but multiple people with knowledge of the marketplace for a league that is more than 80% people of color consistently cited six names: Candace Parker, Sue Bird, Sabrina Ionescu, A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne. Just two of them are Black.
“Even though our league is predominantly Black, I think it’s hard for our league to push us, in a sense, because they still have to market, in their mind, what is marketable,” Wilson says. “Sometimes a Black woman doesn’t check off those boxes.”
Plum has been on the other side of that, cringing when her face appeared on graphics promoting her team early in her career when she was playing limited minutes and scoring sparingly. “I feel like this league is about respect and you have to earn your way,” says Plum, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft out of the University of Washington. “And I didn’t. I was getting preferential treatment because I was straight and white. I blocked [the WNBA] on social media. I was pissed. It’s absolutely a problem in our league. Just straight up.”
Sun guard Courtney Williams entered the league in 2016 alongside Jones, and she heard concerns from her family about needing to look “a certain way.” On draft night, she wore a black dress, pink heels and her long hair down. Now, she rocks a bleach-blonde cut cropped close to her head, just long enough to see the ripples of her waves. She thinks she’s probably lost opportunities — lost money — because of how she presents herself. “It’s hard to get at that table, being yourself, being Black, being gay and being unapologetically yourself,” Williams says. “Especially if you’re not willing to conform and do certain things that they want you to do.
“And it got to the point where I’m like ‘Man, I’m not doing it. It is what it is.’ I’m just going to have to figure something else out because I can’t change who I am just for a couple of dollars. I can’t do that.”
In February, Jones tweeted out her own frustrations. “It’s all a popularity contest and politics in wbb. In mbb you just gottah be the best. In wbb you gottah be the best player, best looking, most marketable, most IG followers, just to sit at the endorsement table. Thank God for overseas because my bag would’ve been fumbled.
“Not to mention me being a black lesbian woman,” she added. “Lord the seats disappearing from the table as I speak.”
Jones, 28, has earned almost every on-court accolade there is. She was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player in 2017 and Sixth Woman of the Year in 2018. She was the 2021 MVP. The combination of her size, athleticism and skills makes her a unique talent. She can dunk, block shots, pull up off the dribble, drain a 3.
“A lot of people can’t do what JJ does at her size,” Williams says. “Since the first day I met JJ, I told her like, ‘You the one! Nobody can hold you. Once you believe that you a star, you going to be a star because the things that you can do.'”
But being Black, gay and self-described as more masculine puts Jones at an intersection that has traditionally struggled to attract brands even as the WNBA itself — players, teams and leadership — has become the most LGBTQIA+ inclusive professional sports league in the United States. The league pushed a more feminine (and heterosexual) image in the early 2000s, but has since embraced its diverse identities, becoming the first domestic professional league to have a Pride platform in 2014.
“There’s still a lot of room to grow,” Stewart says. “Sometimes I feel that we are getting to a better place. And then sometimes I’m like, ‘Maybe we’re not.’ It’s kind of like you’re on a roller coaster.”
Bringing brands and media on board remains a challenge, particularly for diverse players. Even when they have the game, the personality and a compelling origin story to boot.
LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW of the plane at the crystal-clear teal water crashing against the sand, Jones hums softly to herself.
Home sweet home. Home sweet home. No matter which part of the world I roam, The Bahamas is my home.
She learned the classic Bahamian groove by Tony Seymour and The Nitebeaters as a kid, and it always pops into her head on the descent to her favorite place — especially now, as she flies home from Russia in March 2022.
Jones grew up in Freeport, amid a sprawling extended family. She rode her bike with friends and cousins, breathing the salt-specked air over her handlebars and burning rubber against the asphalt streets.
“It wasn’t just my parents that were raising me,” Jones says. “It was everybody in the community. When I think about raising my kids one day, I want them to be raised in a type of situation like that.”
One of those people was her oldest brother, David Adderley. Despite a 19-year age gap, Adderley and Jones were close because they loved many of the same things: sports, video games, comics and anime. One Christmas, when Jones was about 8, she found a Nintendo GameCube while rummaging in her brother’s closet. Both her mother and brother insisted that the console wasn’t for her even though she had asked for one for Christmas. When Adderley presented it to her on Christmas morning, Jones cradled the game system, crying tears of joy.
“That’s my baby,” Adderley says of Jones. “It was nice that I could do that for her.”
Jones found basketball through her dad, though she doesn’t remember exactly when. She recalls following him to practice to watch him coach a group of boys. “But for as long as I’ve known myself, I’ve known the game of basketball,” Jones says.
Basketball also helped Jones discover herself. Growing up, she was often told what she was supposed to do, what she was supposed to wear, and how she was supposed to act. “I feel like a lot of times there were things that little girls weren’t supposed to do,” Jones says. “Like, ‘You’re a girl, you’re not supposed to be whistling.'”
On the court, though, none of that mattered. Jones could focus on making a shot or getting a rebound or crossing up a defender. On Sundays, when her mother told her to put the ball down, stay inside, clean up and go to church, Jones often sneaked over to her grandmother’s house, basketball in tow. Her grandmother had a court in her yard, and Jones would play all day. House rules be damned.
“I could kind of tell the rules that should be followed and the ones that you could kind of question and kind of interpret for yourself,” Jones says. “I can whistle really well now.”
Jones’ ascent to the thin air of the highest basketball summits was more steady climb than meteoric rise. By middle school, she began to outgrow the basketball opportunities available in the Bahamas. Fellow Bahamian and current Ole Miss head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin spotted her on a team coached by McPhee-McCuin’s dad. “JJ’s game is futuristic,” McPhee-McCuin says now. “I don’t think she’s reached her ceiling. And that’s scary. She’s still coming along.”
McPhee-McCuin asked if Jones wanted to play in the United States. It took a few months and more than a few phone calls, but Jones came to the U.S. in high school to play for Diane Richardson at Riverdale Baptist School in the Maryland D.C. suburbs. Jones moved in with Richardson, who became her legal guardian. Richardson had never seen Jones play before she arrived, and she thought she was getting a 6-foot-2 player. “She was 5-foot-9,” Richardson says. “And a bean pole.”
Jones went from the airport straight to her first practice. She brought shorts and a T-shirt, and Richardson’s husband loaned Jones his tennis shoes. Richardson threw her into practice, and Jones was all limbs and nerves. She reminded Richardson of a spider with her long, thin arms.
“I was terrible,” Jones says. “I was definitely behind.”
But she practiced for as many as six hours some days the summer between her sophomore and junior years. She did everything Richardson, now the head coach at Temple, asked of her and then did a little more. By her senior year, Jones was a varsity starter. She won Maryland’s Gatorade player of the year award and was named a WBCA All-American. By the end of the season, she jumped from the No. 36-ranked prospect to No. 17.
Jones went on to play her freshman season at Clemson, where McPhee-McCuin was on staff, before transferring to George Washington. Richardson came to D.C. too, joining the GW staff as an assistant coach for the remainder of Jones’ collegiate career.
While she was developing her game, Jones struggled to reconcile her identity as a lesbian with the faith she grew up with and the traditions of her country. She remembers being in middle school — right before leaving to play at Riverdale — watching a basketball game where a girl playing caught her eye. Jones couldn’t stop looking, and she wasn’t sure why she suddenly had these feelings. She nearly jumped out of her skin when her cousin ran up to her. “Jonquel, you have to tell this girl I like her,” he said. And he proceeded to describe a set of feelings Jones felt fluttering in her own chest and dancing in the pit of her own stomach.
The moment of recognition was fleeting. She already knew how her father would respond, what her mother would think, what her church would think. “And so I was like, ‘Okay this is definitely something that I should not tell anybody,'” Jones said to herself at the time. “‘I should just keep it to myself.'”
In high school in America, Jones explored more. She had a girlfriend that few people knew about. “She lived in Florida,” Jones says. “I met her at a basketball tournament.” They often talked for hours on the phone, sandwiching their quiet conversations between practice and schoolwork. Jones even changed her style a bit, opting for the polo shirts all the boys her age wore.
But that changed before she went to college. She dumped the polos and broke off her relationship. “It’s just always been this conflict between me being myself but also being a follower of Christ,” Jones says. “I just made this drastic change. And I basically went through college fighting that and feeling like I had to put that side of myself kind of on the back burner.”
Relics of that struggle dot Jones’ path: The slate blue dress she wore to the WNBA draft, the striped and form-fitting earth-tone dress she wore down the WNBA All-Star orange carpet for her first selection in 2017. “When I look at those pictures, I cringe because I know it wasn’t me,” she says. “I was trying too hard to be something I wasn’t.”
Instead of warring within herself, Jones tried to embrace all of who she is. She shared her identity with her parents and her siblings, and also with the world.
“It was a conversation that developed over time,” Adderley says. “I told her to just be herself and I’d love her either way.”
Jones and her current girlfriend try to pray every night, and she keeps her Bible close. But she’s still looking for a full-time home for her faith. “It’s still an ongoing thing,” she says. “But I ultimately know who I am. I just have to take the time to really find God for myself and not what other people tell me who God is. When I do that, then it’ll be different.”
When she made her second WNBA All-Star Game in 2019, Jones wore pants and a short-sleeve button-up on the orange carpet. Not quite a polo, but pretty close.
Jones believes her decision to embrace her identity as a lesbian and dress more authentically came with material consequences. The Bahamas Telecommunications Co., she says, opted not to renew her contract even though her basketball performance in the United States and overseas had improved.
“The only difference is that I’m openly out and dressing differently,” Jones says.
SPORTS ARE OFTEN considered a meritocracy. The best players get the highest salaries. A player’s worth is determined on the court.
The maximum 2022 salary for a WNBA player like Jones — who has been in the league for at least five years and played with the same team for the previous two seasons — is $228,094 (for everyone else, it’s $196,267). Jones’ salary is reportedly $205,000.
With the average WNBA career lasting five to six years, according to the league, many players supplement their income by playing overseas during the offseason. Jones has played in South Korea, China and Russia, and she signed to play in Turkey this upcoming offseason. She also plays for the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team.
“When you think about the months that we do play, we’re actually getting paid pretty well,” Jones says. “But I just feel like I would be crazy to leave that type of money when it’s on the table and it’s available overseas, you know?”
Others choose to spend their offseasons building their brands by filming commercials, making appearances and focusing on their social accounts. While male professional athletes also seek alternate income streams, there’s an added urgency with WNBA players.
“Even if you’re not a major hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars NBA player, or even if you’re an overseas [male] basketball player, you can make enough from your base compensation to not have to deal with marketing,” Excel Sports Management agent Erin Yates Kane says. “I’ve worked with guys who have deactivated their social media. They have that prerogative. On the women’s side, it’s much harder to walk away from that because it’s more opportunity to supplement your income.”
At least for some. The money in the endorsement bucket dries up quickly, Engelbert says, considering that less than 1% of sponsorship dollars goes to women’s sports.
“And a lot of that money goes to individuals and not team-sport athletes,” says Engelbert, who became commissioner in 2019 after serving as CEO at the accounting firm Deloitte.
In her role, Engelbert tries to raise the profile of the league, its teams and its players. She hired the league’s first chief marketing officer in Phil Cook, who joined the WNBA from Nike. Starting with the 2020 season, the league offered annual marketing agreements to a select few players, committing to pay them $250,000, but they couldn’t play overseas. Jones was offered a spot, but she declined, opting instead to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, where her salary was “six figures per month,” she says.
The league signed three players to the agreements for the 2021-22 offseason: Betnijah Laney, Napheesa Collier and Dearica Hamby, who were showcased frequently on the WNBA social handles, including to its 1.2 million followers on Instagram.
Players’ personal social media accounts drive endorsement opportunities at both the professional and collegiate level. “We’re definitely still in an influencer economy,” Kane says. “There’s no doubt about that.”
With social media, size of following is important. A player with a million followers is going to fetch more interest (and dollars) than a player with 30,000 followers. But attracting a large following — or even an engaged following — is easier for some than others.
“When it comes to building a brand, building a really visible persona for a WNBA player or female athlete, it’s so much harder for my athletes that are gay,” says agent Jade-Li English, head of Klutch Sports’ women’s basketball division.
The list of women’s basketball players who have successfully drawn large followings reveals some uncomfortable trends. Parker has 1 million followers on Instagram, but she is also a visible TV personality as an NBA analyst with Turner Sports. Skylar Diggins-Smith also has a million Instagram followers, as does Liz Cambage. But after those three, the lineup is noticeably white: Paige Bueckers (1 million), Hailey Van Lith (719,000), Ionescu (690,000), Bird (660,000), Delle Donne (462,000) and Plum (431,000). On TikTok, the trend is similar. University of Oregon senior Sedona Prince has 3.1 million followers. University of Miami seniors Hanna and Haley Cavinder have 4 million followers on their shared account (in addition to the 412k and 411k respective followers each of them have on Instagram). Bueckers boasts 371,000 on TikTok.
For comparison, consensus collegiate 2021-22 player of the year Aliyah Boston, who is Black, has 105,000 followers on Instagram and Jones has 34,100.
It’s also worth noting that coming from a big-time college program is helpful in building a large following that often remains loyal when players move on to the WNBA. Jones, who was relatively unknown in college, did not benefit from such a boost.
“A lot of people really didn’t know about me, so I didn’t have that fan base that would really be able to kind of drive revenue and help me in that way,” Jones says. “And so overseas was the best option. And I think it still is for me, honestly.”
The rise of NIL, which allows collegiate players to monetize their followings, may exacerbate some of these issues at earlier stages of athletes’ careers. According to Opendorse, a company that works with 120 schools to connect athletes with brands, 49.9% of total NIL compensation went to football, followed by men’s basketball (17.0%). Women’s basketball was third with 15.7%. Overall, the largest revenue-generating activity across sports was posting content on social media (34.2%). But in terms of total NIL activities by sport (posts, appearances, etc.), women’s basketball ranked No. 8 at 4.5%, meaning relatively few players made most of the money.
The numbers point to a high-stakes competition for college women’s basketball players, who are just as vulnerable to the forces WNBA players talk about when it comes to opportunities. How that will affect LGBTQIA+ college students as they explore and express their identities like Jones did remains an open question.
“I do think being who you are and being happy in your skin leads to a more stable life,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley says. “Yes it will impact their pockets. I’d rather for it to impact their pockets than to impact their mental health.”
WEARING AN OPEN-BACK, spaghetti-strap black dress and white sneakers, Bueckers took the stage in New York at the 2021 ESPYS. Her blonde hair cascaded past her shoulders as she held her award for best college athlete in women’s sports.
“With the light that I have now as a white woman, who leads a Black-led sport … I want to show a light on Black women. They don’t get the media coverage that they deserve,” she said. “For the WNBA postseason awards, 80% of the winners were Black but they got half the amount of coverage as the white athletes, so I think it’s time for change.”
Bueckers was citing a study led by Risa Isard, a research fellow at the laboratory for inclusion and diversity in sport at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The study examined how the number of media mentions for WNBA players was affected by race, sexual orientation and/or gender expression. It tracked mentions of WNBA players in stories on ESPN.com, CBSSports.com and SI.com during the shortened 2020 bubble season.
As Bueckers said, white players received more than double the mentions that Black players received. Wilson, the 2020 MVP, was the most-mentioned Black player, but she was mentioned half as many times as Ionescu, who suffered an early-season ankle injury and played just three games after being selected first out of the University of Oregon in the 2020 draft. Sexual orientation and gender expression did not have a meaningful impact independently, according to the study, but when viewed intersectionally with race, a pattern emerged.
“We found that Black players with more masculine gender expressions received the least amount of coverage,” Isard says. Black players received considerably less coverage than white players, but Black masculine players received even less than their more feminine peers.
“I think I’m definitely more on the masculine side [with] the clothing that I wear,” Jones says. “I do not want to be a guy. I do not want to be a man. I’m very comfortable in who I am.”
Whether or not a player receives media coverage can, of course, have a ripple effect. For the 2021 season, the WNBA announced the top jersey sales as follows: Ionescu, Bird, Taurasi, Wilson, Stewart, Parker, Diggins-Smith, Delle Donne, Maya Moore and Cambage. In a league that is 80% people of color, 50% of the top-10 jersey sales belonged to white players, and none of them sit at Jones’ specific intersection of Black, gay and masculine.
Also telling is whose jerseys are even available to buy. In the online WNBA store as of this writing, the only two Seattle Storm jerseys available are Bird’s and Stewart’s. Second-leading scorer Jewell Loyd’s jersey is unavailable. The only player-specific jersey available in the Chicago Sky store is Parker’s. 2021 WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper’s jersey is nowhere to be found. A fan cannot purchase the jersey of 2022 No. 1 draft pick Rhyne Howard in the Atlanta Dream online team shop. Granted, any name and number can be put on a jersey, but it costs an extra $30 to customize it.
The lack of jersey availability isn’t something that only affects Black players — and there are plenty of Black players whose jerseys are available — but it is notable that the trends in jersey sales mirror the trends in media mentions.
ESPN is one of the primary WNBA media rights holders. Matt Kenny, who is a vice president of programming and acquisitions, spearheads the day-to-day scheduling and business activities for professional basketball, including the WNBA. In addition to broadcasting games, ESPN added multiple studio shows for the 2022 season: a draft lottery show, a WNBA free agency special, a WNBA draft preview show, and a dedicated WNBA skills challenge during the All-Star break. Such programming has long been a staple across ESPN’s coverage of premier men’s sports, but it is new to the WNBA. At the time of publication, WNBA ratings are up more than 15% on ESPN networks.
“We’re starting to see us grow the WNBA in a variety of areas across the organization that we believe is going to have the ultimate rising-tides-lifts-all-boats effect,” Kenny says.
A rising tide may, in fact, lift all boats. But the question remains whether all of the boats will rise equitably.
JONES CATCHES A bounce pass on the left wing and swings the ball through to square up against Wilson in a June 2 marquee matchup in Las Vegas between the league’s last two MVPs. Wilson got the better of Jones two nights prior, when she scored 24 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and helped the Aces beat the Sun by eight. Tonight is the rematch, and Jones is determined to flip the script.
She jabs left, before taking a dribble right, toward the elbow. She spins toward the baseline, leans back, and launches a fadeaway jumper over Wilson’s outstretched fingertips. The ball swishes through the net. It’s her first two points en route to a team-high 20 on the night. And the Sun get the win — their first of four straight to start June — which is really what Jones was after.
“She deserves way more attention than she’s gotten as a WNBA MVP,” Stewart says. “She’s a three-level scorer and makes an impact on the defensive end. It’s tough to match up with her because her size first, and then the skill she has.”
“A humble superstar,” Miller says. “She’d give up any individual accolades to try and hang the first banner here.”
Jones was a free agent after the 2021 season, but opted to return to the Sun (and take a little less money) to chase a championship. Jones and the Sun made it to the Finals in 2019, but haven’t been able to get back since. Last season, after winning 14 consecutive games and having the league’s best regular-season record, the Sun lost to Chicago in the semifinals. “It just hurt,” Jones says.
Jones knows this season could be different. Maybe it will be the one. The one when she can be herself, the one when she can win a title, the one when her diversity is rewarded.
“I want it to be able to get to the point where we can just share those stories and allow women of our league to just really thrive and flourish,” Jones says. “And so, if me sitting up here telling my truth and being open and honest is going to do that, then I really do hope it is better for ladies in the future.”
Photography by Bronson Farr | @bronson.photo. Production by Runway 4. Wardrobe styling by Erika Golcher. Prop styling by Natalia Janul. Hair by Rahnaisa Foster. Makeup by T’nasia Ward. Athletic wear by Nike. Black and white top by Marc Jacobs. Green jacket by Willy Chavarria. Earrings by Shashi. Eyewear by ChuCHuNY.com.
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