How an emerging 3x3 hoops league could be a big win for WNBA's future

Cierra Burdick, the 14th overall pick in the 2015 WNBA draft, signed a training camp contract, two hardship contracts and two 7-day contracts in 2021. Her player page features more transactions than the average minutes she played over 56 games for six franchises.

The one place where she’s latched on for an extensive period is Force 10 3x3 (pronounced three-ex-three), the first-ever professional 3x3 women’s basketball team in the United States. The venture launched in 2019 by Force 10 Sports Management, the agency that owns the Seattle Storm, which is where Burdick finished out her 2021 journey.

“It was through 3x3 that they got to know who I was as a player and as a person,” Burdick, 28, told Yahoo Sports on a video call from a 3x3 event in Romania. “I think because of my previous relationship with 3x3 is how I got called last year when they wanted me to join their 5-on-5 roster.”

Burdick’s situation may become more commonplace, even potentially as a formal developmental league with call-ups by WNBA affiliates. Those involved in Force 10 who spoke with Yahoo Sports saw it as a possibility and even a goal. And the league has hinted at it, though it declined to answer specific questions about, Force 10 and its potential.

Cierra Burdick is part of the newly formed Force 10 3x3 basketball league, which could soon serve as a developmental circuit for the WNBA. (Photo by Ren Pengfei/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Cierra Burdick is part of the newly formed Force 10 3x3 basketball league, which could soon serve as a developmental circuit for the WNBA. (Photo by Ren Pengfei/Xinhua via Getty Images)

“As a league, we continue to be supportive of formats like 3x3 that grow the game of women’s basketball and provide more opportunities for women athletes to develop their game,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement to Yahoo Sports.

The WNBA’s Board of Governors approved Seattle’s Force 10 3x3 system as a pilot program when it started in 2019, the league confirmed to Yahoo Sports. In April, ahead of the 2022 draft, Engelbert noted she was “interested in this 3x3 format” while answering an unrelated question about expansion and development. And in June, Force 10 announced new co-sponsors in the Connecticut Sun, Dallas Wings and Indiana Fever to join the Chicago Sky and Storm.

That’s four more women per franchise able to play professional basketball who are currently affiliated with five of 12 teams. If it were to move forward as a development league, it would open up spots for 48 players, representing approximately a 30% increase in the number of athletes in the WNBA structure.

“This is something that we can do immediately,” Force 10 3x3 director of basketball operations Alanna McDonald told Yahoo Sports. “Expansion, as we know, takes time and investment and this is something that we felt like could make an immediate impact for women when there’s such an immense amount of talent coming out of Division I basketball.”

It is notoriously difficult to make a WNBA roster, and while Engelbert has said repeatedly league expansion is coming in the next few years, it doesn’t solve bigger problems like a revolving door of hardship contracts. Or players having to stay ready for a call-up at any moment without team practice time.

“Here’s another way maybe,” McDonald said. “Here’s another alternative for keeping top talent ready to go for the W.”

Expanding into a developmental league, and specifically the benefits of an emerging and unique 3x3 one, could fix that.

How a domestic 3x3 league could be another avenue for the WNBA to expand. (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)
How a domestic 3x3 league could be another avenue for the WNBA to expand. (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

How Force 10 expanded opportunities

The first time McDonald capitalized on a 3x3 opportunity was in 2018 at an event with Alisha Valavanis, the CEO and team president of the Storm and Force 10 Sports Management. It was an elevator pitch moment.

Her idea was for a women’s 3x3 tournament sanctioned by FIBA that offered equal prize money as the men. Maybe, she thought, the Storm ownership group could be a part of it. She could contract with a few groups to put this event on in the United States.

Instead, the Storm hired McDonald to its staff and put her in charge of a 3x3 branch of a business that includes services for the NWSL’s OL Reign and USA Basketball.

“I was really lucky that the ownership group for the Storm is super open-minded. They somehow took me seriously,” McDonald said. “They just saw it so clearly that there was so much opportunity here.”

McDonald came in having not played basketball since eighth grade, but knowing first-hand about gender disparities in sports. The Brown University graduate played professional volleyball overseas together with her husband, Damon Huffman, who played pro basketball. They were in comparable leagues moving in parallel tracks through stays in Belgium, the Netherlands and England, yet the “pay gap was astonishing” and the contrast clear.

They returned home to Seattle in the mid-2010s and McDonald put her master's degree in international migration studies, which she earned while overseas, to work in a refugee resettlement job. Huffman turned his 5x5 career into a 3x3 one in 2017. And that’s when McDonald, who was experiencing burnout in a career field that had become challenging, went to the men’s 3x3 FIBA World Cup.

Everything about it interested her. It’s played in the halfcourt, often times outdoors, with a 10-minute running clock, a 12-second shot clock and games to 21. There was a deejay-filled community event atmosphere and games were continuous and bite-sized. Men’s and women’s matches were interspersed throughout the day. It was an equal stage with fans there to see both events.

But even then, she saw the gender gap “forming really quickly,” especially in regard to prize money. Her gears started turning, and for months she worked on a plan, taking into account the announcement it would become an Olympic sport in 2020. Other nations were skyrocketing their investments, but she didn’t see much in the U.S.

It was, she said, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a women’s sport on a similar timeline to the men’s, rather than decades later in the case of the NBA and WNBA. The sport is “inevitable,” she said, and the time is now.

“How often has that come along in a new sport to say, 'We can really impact this in a meaningful way by hopefully bringing the right people to the table to share their perspective on what this should look like for women in the U.S.?'” McDonald said.

The initial goal was, and still is, to increase the number of opportunities for women in a talent pool that only grows larger, those familiar with the sport who spoke with Yahoo Sports said. USA Basketball, which works closely with Force 10 and McDonald, told Yahoo Sports it’s recruiting talent from high school to pro levels for the format as it grows the sport from the grassroots to senior Olympic levels.

All while while WNBA fans beg for expansion and ways to see their favorite players regularly.

How the 3x3 structure works within U.S. women’s basketball

Jennifer Rizzotti had heard of Force 10 a few times since she joined the Sun as president in April 2021. At one point, it came up during a league call with team presidents. The informational session asked who would be interested in sponsoring a team and working toward a goal of a “self-sustaining league,” Rizzotti told Yahoo Sports.

“I felt confident in the foundation and structure that Force 10 has put into place to have a legitimate league in the United States,” said Rizzotti, who was named the USAB FIBA 3x3 women’s series team head coach last month. “And I felt like the other teams in the WNBA needed to jump on board and continue to support that.”

The Sky franchise joined as a co-sponsor in July 2021 and the Wings, Fever and Sun, who Rizzotti said needed league approval to sponsor, came aboard in June. McDonald credited the teams' ability as well as the Board of Governors to see the vision and be bold.

Since it can be a tricky, complicated format, everything is done in-house through McDonald and Force 10 instead of through each team office. They built well-balanced teams rather than a draft and assigned them to WNBA affiliates via a lottery. Rizzotti said she hopes to make a series event when one comes to the northeast, but otherwise the team stands back with full faith in McDonald’s leadership.

As part of the pilot program, they are not allowed to use full WNBA team branding, McDonald said. They compete on the Red Bull women’s series circuit as Seattle Force 10, Chicago Force 10, Indiana Force 10, Connecticut Force 10 and Texas Force 10 (the Wings opted to go by the state). Players are based wherever they want and travel on Force 10’s expense to compete on weekends.

Former Ohio State standout Linnae Harper, center, competes for Force 10 in the Red Bull 3-on-3 basketball tournament in New York. (AP Photo/Sarah Stier)
Former Ohio State standout Linnae Harper, center, competes for Force 10 in the Red Bull 3-on-3 basketball tournament in New York. (AP Photo/Sarah Stier)

The original terms of the pilot program stipulated players were not allowed to keep prize money, Force 10 told Yahoo Sports. That changed in 2021 and ’22, with players able to keep what they earn at tournaments. USA Basketball confirmed it has a “prize money-matching component” for players on its sponsored teams. In the future, McDonald said the goal is to make it more of a full-time gig.

The entire Force 10 roster has grown to around 26 players comprises six rosters (Seattle has two) of well-known collegiate and fringe WNBA names.

“We’re really targeting athletes No. 145 and beyond since it’s 144 [players] in the W,” McDonald told Yahoo Sports. “We carefully watch the draft [and] we carefully watch players that are going to WNBA training camps and then might be waived before the season starts so that we’re really looking at that top talent.”

Select players represent Team USA at Red Bull women’s series tournaments through Force 10. Burdick, Syracuse’s Alexis Peterson (17 WNBA games) and Ohio State’s Linnae Harper (25) won the 2021 Red Bull USA Basketball 3X3 Nationals last summer. Burdick, who won the 2014 World Cup with Team USA, was named MVP and signed with the Lynx two days later.

Other names include Joanne Allen-Taylor (Texas), Lauren Cox (Baylor, Fever/Sparks), Kathryn Westbeld (Notre Dame) and Blake Dietrick (Princeton, Storm/Dream). These are players who often were on short-term contracts outside of those “144” playing limited minutes, if they made WNBA regular season rosters at all. It can be a difficult mental undertaking to go from short contract to short contract, staying home in between. Putting them into a 3x3 league that competes consistently changes that.

“I started a few games my rookie year,” said Burdick, who also showered McDonald with praise. “But other than that, my WNBA career has been mainly 10th, 11th, 12th man. So in the W, I’m not playing a ton. But in 3x3, everyone plays.”

The Force 10 players are able to train and still play competitively, an advantage if there is a sudden call to join a WNBA team. And all four players are critically important. Players in the league who spoke to Yahoo Sports noted it exposes your weaknesses and there’s no way to hide. It makes 3x3 uniquely qualified to develop players in both skill and IQ since there are no coaches in-game.

“I do think there’s a lot of skills that you need to have to be good at 3x3 that can translate back to 5-on-5 and make some of these players even more valuable,” Rizzotti told Yahoo Sports.

Added McDonald: “You have to really develop a well-rounded skill set. You can’t just be super specialized cause it will hurt your team.”

And Burdick: “I think 3x3 is just a great way to learn basketball, period. Offensively and defensively.”

The format is such a useful training tool that retiring four-time WNBA champion Sue Bird, 41, told Yahoo Sports she uses it in the offseason and finds it particularly challenging from a cardio perspective.

Domestic 3x3 league 'top goal' in development plans

The WNBA is small and opportunities are few, as seen every year when half of the 36 drafted rookies are waived. It’s not for lack of talent and an expansion of one or two teams is only going to make a dent in the roster shortage issue.

Ahead of the 2022 WNBA draft, Engelbert was asked about expanding opportunity through larger rosters, an injured list or, in the case of the NBA, a G League for development.

“I would love to have a development league longer term,” Engelbert said. “That's why I'm so interested in this 3x3 format, as we see that take hold.”

It was a quick reference that felt almost out of place, and was never mentioned again in expansion talks over the past three months.

“I wouldn’t say it was out of nowhere for us,” McDonald told Yahoo Sports in July. “We were very much in discussions with the WNBA Board of Governors and with the commissioner at the time about what this could look like. And there’s certainly flexibility to it. It could be more than one thing.”

McDonald said a standalone 12-team, domestic 3x3 league playing on U.S soil is a “top goal for us.” It could play a parallel season to the WNBA, keep players in top shape and provide quick, impactful call-up opportunities.

“That’s something that I think we are looking at pretty carefully,” she said.

In an email to Yahoo Sports, Valavanis called a domestic league “certainly one opportunity for the future.” Rizzotti said becoming a developmental league “would be a great option.”

“It would be nice if, at some point potentially, maybe the 3x3 league is owned by the WNBA or run by the WNBA or kind of stood on its own,” Rizzotti told Yahoo Sports. “With all the injuries that we’ve had and COVID still being around, it’s necessary for us to have additional players — a player pool for us to choose from when we need depth to our rosters.”

The 3x3 aspect, rather than traditional format, makes it an exciting venture to market and sell to TV, similar to the Athletes Unlimited format that introduces fantasy game aspects to the game to make it slightly different. There’s momentum after the Olympic gold, and could be an appetite to watch a 10-minute game on phones or partake in a fan experience/athletic event combo.

“This could potentially be a format or a structure that provides something like [the G League] for us while also standing alone as its own format, with its own revenue streams, its own prize money opportunities, its own earning opportunities for the athletes,” McDonald said.

Burdick said she hopes the rest of the WNBA teams buy in and continue to grow the game and keep steady progress.

“I think Cathy [Engelbert] knows that this could be another avenue in addition to expansion,” Burdick said. “Because adding an entire franchise as opposed to adding just four extra roster spots would be a little bit more affordable.”

There are clauses in the collective bargaining agreement outlining the process for expansion teams, but there isn’t anything for something like a developmental league.

Burdick said she received a call in late July from the Phoenix Mercury to sign a hardship contract, but declined.

“I’m in a space where I love 3x3. I truly enjoy and love playing this game,” Burdick told Yahoo Sports. “I want to see it grow and develop, and I want to play. I don’t want to sit on somebody’s bench.”

She has “absolutely loved” her time with Force 10 — especially being part of the “first” of its kind — and believes in the product, the main goal and the people. She said she doesn’t think she’s interested in returning to the WNBA, adding “I’m all in” to McDonald’s vision and the Seattle ownership’s investment.

If that investment and vision shifts into an official WNBA development program, a new generation of players will get a door to the top women’s professional basketball league in the world.

Editor's note: This is part of a series on WNBA expansion. Read more: