By Jacqueline LeBlanc
Nneka Ogwumike has never been one to allow setbacks or snubs to keep her from thriving. Even after Team USA’s controversial decision to leave her off the Olympic Team in Tokyo, and FIBA’s decision that she couldn’t play for Nigeria with her sisters Chiney and Erica despite holding dual citizenship her entire life—Ogwumike has accomplished a great deal in 2021.
Earning her recognition as one of the biggest stars in basketball, the WNBA named Ogwumike one of the greatest 25 players in league history, and the Sparks star cemented her status in pop culture when she starred in the movie Space Jam: A New Legacy.
Now, as she helps Los Angeles fight for a spot in the playoffs, GoodSport sat down with Ogwumike to discuss growing basketball internationally, media visibility for women’s sports, and reflecting on her role in the WNBA’s historic collective bargaining agreement, signed in January 2020.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What piqued your interest in doing Space Jam, and what was the response you saw from young girls after the movie came out?
They asked me and it was a no-brainer. I guess you could say that it did pique my interest, but it was more so just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was so grateful to be a part of. For them to think of putting me as a character in the movie, and having that visibility is huge—especially for women in sport. … So for me to be able to be a part of Space Jam and represent women in sport and the WNBA, it’s moving in the right direction.
What are your Olympic plans for the future and how does that overlap with not only growing women’s basketball globally, but specifically in Africa? How do you want to help advance the sport and how do you see yourself being involved in that?
I want to play. We’re trying to grow women’s sports everywhere. I’ve played overseas in several countries against and with many Olympians, and so it’s important for us to understand that it’s not just about home-growing basketball and sport for women, it’s about doing it globally. Especially for a chance for me to be able to hopefully do that with Team Nigeria would be huge. You know even considering the fact that there was only one African team represented in the Olympics and Africa is a big continent. So for us to be able to help develop the sport there, and use that to create more high-level international play, especially as we continue to see prominent Nigerian Americans doing well in sport, specifically women’s basketball, I would love to be a part of growing that. I know that’s a mission of many conglomerates and so that’s something that we shouldn’t shy away from being aligned on.
Tell me about your involvement with Michelob Ultra’s new “See It, Save It” campaign. Why did it interest you and why was it something you wanted to be a part of?
Michelob in general, they represent a lot of what is authentic to me, whether it’s being a role model or just investing in women’s sports. And being authentic to who you are in that investment. It’s interesting, as I talk through Space Jam and as I talk through my hopes of becoming a member of Team Nigeria, you know, it’s all represented in this campaign. Being able to provide that visibility as Michelob is doing so well, especially with a $100 million investment over five years, I think that those are numbers that we’re not used to hearing as women in sport. So for us to be able to put that into a campaign, and really buy into figuring out what it takes to not just increase visibility, but to sustain sport not just for professional women athletes, but for young aspirers that we see everyday is huge. It was a no-brainer for me to be a part of something like that, and I really hope that my involvement can boost that. Because this is something that is not exclusive to women. I think that’s one thing that visibility and equity kind of gets people confused about is that it’s not like a women’s club. We need everyone to be on board, and Michelob is doing just that.
Aside from media, marketing representation and investment, what other areas of focus are key to not only leveling the playing field between men and women in sports, but also growing women’s sports as a whole?
I think the idea that Michelob has around this kind of sparked a little bit of my president mind in the WNBPA. If you increase visibility, then you’re able to have more sponsorships. If you see more of these players, then you can figure out “Okay, you know this player represents what we want,” and even if it’s just simply down to, “She loves using this product, let’s add her on as an athlete.” Once that is viable, that now creates a broader perspective of what you can really aspire to do growing up.
I can say that I struggled with that even leaving college. I wasn’t quite sure if being a professional women’s basketball player was a way to make a living. So when you increase that visibility, you can increase those sponsorships and those partnerships. That really encourages the grassroots to understand that you can have fun playing sports and you can also make a living doing it in the same way they encourage young boys. It’s a reality to them, and so for us to be able to create that reality for women in sport is huge. I really love that perspective and working our way from the basics that really creates the foundation of what we want to see in terms of growing women’s sports.
We’ve talked about representation, leveling the playing field and the growth potential that women’s sport has. With all that in mind, how do you see this playing out for the WNBA over the next couple of years? As WNBPA president, how do you think this growth could possibly impact or change the next CBA when that comes around?
We’ve experienced a lot of amazing changes in the structure of our players association and leadership, and I think that that has really ignited so many individual powerful voices of women who are not just role models, but who are pushing the envelope. We’ve experienced so much, and I think the  bubble season was a perfect example of that—of us understanding the power of our platforms. And that’s empowering individuals to really stand by what they believe in and how they want to impact their communities….
I really hope that we are inspiring the generations after us to continue that change. It comes with understanding that there are people before you that did the work. Especially for women, that’s not just in sports, but in the workplace. There’s things that they probably never imagined would happen that are now normal to me today. Maintaining that perspective over generations is important—the culture of hard-working women.
Now that we’re a few months removed from the two-year anniversary of announcing the current CBA, what progress have you seen over the last few seasons?
The amount of time and commitment that we put into this new collective bargaining agreement was so major, and we’re so proud of it. But we also wanted to let people know this is a catalyst. This is by no means where we see the buck stopping and as we look forward, a lot of things have changed and played out. The timing of our CBA was imperative for the bubble season. For us to be able to sit face to face with our Board of Governors and with our ownership and demand our worth yet again, after signing such a monumental CBA, was crazy. Then coming out of that bubble season and experiencing so much free agency change with raising the cap and raising the max [salary]—I think there’s going to be some growing pains that come with what we truly envision, and that is more investment and valuing athletes in the league that have been underpaid for so long, and leveling the playing field in a way where the numbers can kind of swing in a direction that now represents the status of our league.
I’m really excited to see where this is going to go, especially as we phase into [players] prioritizing playing in the WNBA, and hopefully not feeling as though we have to supplement our incomes elsewhere.
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