Nneka Ogwumike looks on during a United States practice session on Jan. 26, 2020 in West Hartford, Conn.
Just call her Madam President, the creative leader and problem solver.
OK, so that’s definitely way too long of a title to fit on the back of Los Angeles Sparks and USA Basketball star forward Nneka Ogwumike’s jersey. But it would be fitting, as her leadership as the president of the WNBA players’ union has produced groundbreaking pay increases and benefits during its most recent successful contract negotiations — and kept the players safely in season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ogwumike’s work and vision landed her a spot as one the “Most Creative Leaders in Business” in Fast Company magazine’s September 2020 issue. She is hailed under the “Leveling the Field” leadership category.
“It’s hard to answer the question of what my leadership style is,” she told TeamUSA.org from the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida. “It’s probably some of diplomacy, delegation, communication, inclusion, collectivity. I feel as though I’ve been able to really cover some ground in my role as president because of all of those characteristics. They are all important: as a player, person and as a president.”
Ogwumike, in her second three-year term as WNBPA president, wanted to make significant forward progress for players with this new contact. Her negotiations produced a landmark agreement in January, raising the maximum WNBA salary up to $215,000 while earning a 50 percent share of league revenues, a child care stipend, fully paid maternity leave and a permanent private nursing mother room in each WNBA arena. The player revenue split is on par with NBA players, and the max contract raise is up more than 80 percent over the previous contract.
But her negotiating work wasn’t done. Nearly two months later, the WNBPA was back in talks with the league, this time trying to save the summer 2020 season from the coronavirus pandemic. Ogwumike and the PA team worked on the bubble concept and made sure the players received their full contract for the truncated season and playoffs.
Ogwumike said the WNBA season has been good so far, but she is missing a few things from the outside world.
“Being in one place all the time has its ups and downs, but being safe means it is totally fine,” she said, referencing life at the IMG Academy, where all WNBA teams are playing and living
this season. “We’ve developed chemistry we would not have had before, because we are together a lot more.
“I’m OK with being in one place, because I really am a homebody. But I miss getting into my own car, driving and getting my own groceries. I really miss that.”
Ogwumike, along with her younger sister and fellow Sparks forward Chiney, remain on the shortlist for USA Basketball’s 2020 Olympic roster. Chiney, 28, is sitting out this season due to concerns about COVID-19.
Nneka Ogwumike, 30, remains excited about hopefully making the Olympic team and the prospect of playing in Tokyo next summer with her sister.
“This is not how we planned it, but I am grateful to be considered for a chance to play in Tokyo,” she said. “They didn’t have the chance to set the team yet, when all the things happened. I’m looking forward to having any opportunity to play in the Olympics. I am glad they are taking the time to have it in a safe and healthy way, not just for the athletes but for the fans. You want to have an Olympics that resembles the Olympics, in front of people and live. I am willing to wait for whenever they feel it is safe to have the Games the right way.”
In the meantime, Ogwumike said her work advancing female athletes is not done. She wants to leave a path of change for her generation of players, and a way forward for future women.
“The step forward has to happen sometime, and we are taking that leap of faith to be the ones changing things up,” said Ogwumike, who won the WNBA title in 2016 and was the league MVP that year. “It is time for us not to accept things because that is the way they have always been. It is time for us to challenge those constructs. …
“If we want to bring change, we may have to do what has never been done before, understanding that thinking outside of the box is how history is made. We are in a male-dominated space in sports, and we are asking — and demanding — to bring to the table now not just what we need, but what we want and deserve.”