BERGEN, N.J. — Serena Williams. Sue Bird. Allyson Felix. Sylvia Fowles.
Some of the greatest female athletes in the world have reached the end of their careers this year, and are now pivoting to build their legacies beyond sport. For some, that means improving the games they long dominated as part of their next chapter. For others, it means finding a way to use their hard-earned capital to elevate like-minded leaders.
This conversation was thrust into the spotlight when Williams, one of the best tennis players in history, announced in a Vogue magazine cover story that she would step away from the game after playing in this year's U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 29. Many have lauded the tennis star for leaving the game exactly as she played it for more than two decades — on her own terms.
“I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me,” Williams wrote in the piece. “Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
For Williams, that means growing her family. It also means focusing on Serena Ventures — the company she founded to invest in others like her, as she explained in Vogue. She learned that only 2% of venture capital money went to women. “In order for us to change that, more people who look like me need to be in that position, giving money back to themselves,” she wrote.
This idea of giving back has become a pillar of women’s sports. Now, more than ever, some of the biggest names in sports are turning to improving the games they played.
Felix has been doing it for years. Felix, the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history, ran on a 100-meter track in downtown Los Angeles this week in what is being described as the last race of her professional career. The race concluded “The Allyson Felix Race for Change,” an event presented by Athleta to raise awareness about the importance of child care and equity for women.
That cause is personal for Felix. In 2019, she spoke out in a New York Times essay against her sponsor, Nike, when the company refused to pay her while on maternity leave. Her advocacy led Nike to announce a new maternity policy for all its sponsored athletes, and just this week the shoe giant said it’s launching a maternity training program.
Felix has said she will now shift her focus to her footwear company, Saysh, and will use her involvement in the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission to further raise awareness on child care and gender equity issues. In the past, she’s partnered with organizations to help fund child care costs for traveling athletes. In June, she worked to provide onsite child care to fellow athletes at the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championship in Eugene, Oregon.
“The dream is for that to be the norm at all events,’’ she told USA TODAY Sports. “And obviously that’s going to take a lot of work to get that in place, but that’s where I want to see that going, and just finding ways to be thoughtful and supporting women in general.’’
Sometimes giving back means investing in the next generation. That’s what Fowles, a less talked about WNBA icon, has quietly done for years. The Minnesota Lynx star sponsors Team Fowles, an AAU team within the Miami Suns organization, and pays for scholarships for girls who can’t afford it. She’s even invited one player to play in WNBA pickup runs, as described in a recent Ringer profile.
Meanwhile Bird, the WNBA star who also is in the final stretch of her legendary career with the Seattle Storm, was recently introduced as one of the newest investors in Gotham FC. In a statement released by the National Women's Soccer League club, Bird said: “There is a lot of talk about the power of investing in women’s sports. As an athlete in a position to invest, I’m excited to now lead by example.”
Bird is joining a Gotham FC ownership group that includes Carli Lloyd, another Team USA great. This past spring, after ending her playing career with Gotham, Lloyd was named a surprise minority investor in the club. It shouldn't have come as much of a shock, though. In her final USWNT game in October, she concluded her farewell to fans with an iconic mic drop. She told the crowd: “You will not see me on the field, but you best believe that I will be around helping this game grow."
In many ways, the sports world will look different next year. Tennis without Williams. Track and field without Felix. Basketball without Bird and Fowles. But there’s little doubt that some of the greatest to have ever played won't stray too far.
Women & Sport is a NorthJersey.com column devoted to female athletes from the rec league level to those in college and the pros. If you've got a tip on an athlete from North Jersey who should be noted in the column, no matter how young they are or how old, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Serena Williams, other retiring stars will improve women's sports