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Sue Bird And Megan Rapinoe Have Gotten Better Together

On Oct. 30, WNBA legend Sue Bird and U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe posted the same photo on their Instagram accounts to announce their engagement. They were in Antigua on vacation, at an infinity pool overlooking the ocean, and Bird had extended her left hand to Rapinoe, who was down on one knee on the pool ledge.

There is perhaps no bigger power couple in all of sports right now than Rapinoe and Bird. The 35-year-old Rapinoe has won seven individual global awards, including the 2019 Ballon d’Or Féminin for the world’s best female soccer player, and two Women’s World Cups; and she has ranked in the top 10 in the National Women’s Soccer League in goals in two of her past three seasons.1 Bird, who turned 40 last month, is a four-time WNBA champion, eight-time All-WNBA selection and 11-time All-Star in her 17 pro seasons. Combined, the two have five Olympic gold medals and could win two more in Tokyo next summer.

Rapinoe and Bird met at a press event before the 2016 Olympics, and they hit it off in Rio de Janeiro when Rapinoe and some of her teammates attended the basketball team’s party to celebrate its gold medal. They connected over social media after the Olympics and started dating in fall 2016.

Despite being in their mid-to-late 30s for most of their relationship, the two have produced some of the biggest accomplishments of their careers while they were dating, including two WNBA titles for Bird and Rapinoe’s transcendent 2019 World Cup performance. They have also worked to advance their respective sports and promote social justice. Bird helped negotiate a landmark new collective bargaining agreement for the WNBA last winter, and this summer, she had the idea for WNBA players to repudiate Atlanta Dream co-owner and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler by wearing T-shirts backing her opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock, in the 2020 election. Rapinoe has been one of the leaders in Team USA’s fight for equal pay, and she hosted an HBO special this summer called “Seeing America With Megan Rapinoe,” which also featured U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and television host Hasan Minhaj.

“Progress is really hard, and carrying the torch is really hard,” Rapinoe told InStyle in 2019, “but you find a way to manage it and do it.”

Team USA’s legal battle for equal pay is ongoing, and the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement and Rapinoe and Bird’s political activism will have ripple effects for years to come. But in their sports, the immediate impact that both players are making in the supposed twilight of their careers is already obvious. Let’s look at some numbers that show how much both players have elevated their games in the last four years.

Sue Bird

From the moment Bird entered the WNBA at age 21, she was a difference-maker. In the 2002-15 regular seasons, she made nine All-Star teams, won two championships and averaged 12.3 points and 5.4 assists in 32.4 minutes per game. Her effective field-goal percentage was just north of 50 percent, and her player efficiency rating of 17.5 was well above the league average of 15.0.

Yet 15 years after her debut, after she met Rapinoe,2 Bird found another gear. From 2017 to this year, she averaged about five fewer minutes and 2 fewer points per game, but her effective field-goal percentage increased to 57.0 percent. Her 3-point shooting percentage also rose from 37.9 percent to 42.6 percent and became a bigger part of her game, representing 55 percent of her field-goal attempts since 2017 compared with 40 percent pre-Megan.

Bird also upped her assists by an average of 1.2 per game while decreasing turnovers by 0.7 and fouls by 0.2, while playing against some opponents who had her poster on their walls as children.

“It’s all about maximizing your strengths and hiding your weaknesses,” she told The New York Times this year. “Whether you’re a role player or the best player on the team, if you can do that, it’s a recipe for a long career.” She has also credited better nutrition, reduced inflammation and better sleep with contributing to her remarkable longevity.

Of course, playing with 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart, whom the Storm drafted in 2016, is unlikely to hurt Bird’s stats. But teams need multiple star players to win a championship, and Bird has been a star in the playoffs since she and Rapinoe started dating.

From 2017 to 2020, Bird averaged 7.7 assists against just 1.8 turnovers in the playoffs, compared with 5.2 and 2.1 pre-Megan, and she set a new single-game playoff record with 16 assists less than a month before her 40th birthday. She also hunted her 3-point shot with extra vigor: 63 percent of Bird’s field-goal attempts in the 2017-20 playoffs were 3-pointers, up from 42 percent pre-Megan, yet her accuracy decreased by less than 2 percentage points. As a result, her effective field-goal percentage increased from 46.9 percent to an even 50.0 percent.

Sue is more efficient with more assists since Megan

WNBA stats for Sue Bird before her relationship with Megan Rapinoe (2002-15) vs. during it (2017-20)

Regular season Playoffs
Before During diff Before During diff
3-point shooting % 37.9 42.6 +4.7 36.0 34.1 -1.9
Effective field-goal % 50.1 57.0 +6.9 46.9 50.0 +3.1
Minutes per game 32.4 27.5 -4.9 34.3 27.8 -6.5
Points per game 12.3 10.3 -2.0 12.6 9.8 -2.8
Assists per game 5.4 6.6 +1.2 5.2 7.7 +2.5

Bird and Rapinoe’s relationship began during the 2016 WNBA season, so that season is excluded.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Megan Rapinoe

Rapinoe burst into the national consciousness with a cross to Abby Wambach in the 122nd minute of a 2011 Women’s World Cup match against Brazil.3 Rapinoe’s production was relatively similar for the national team and her NWSL team, OL Reign,4 before she began dating Bird — an era that lasted through the 2016 Olympics with the national team5 and spanned the 2013 through 2015 NWSL seasons. Excluding penalty kick goals, Rapinoe averaged 0.71 goals plus assists per 90 minutes for Team USA and 0.78 for OL Reign. On Team USA, she produced goals and assists at nearly equal rates (0.38 and 0.33, respectively, per 90 minutes), while with OL Reign, she was more of a scorer (0.52 goals versus 0.26 assists per 90 minutes).

Despite several injuries, Rapinoe’s star has risen on the national team since she and Bird started dating. She played in the Olympics and the NWSL less than a year after tearing her ACL in December 2015, and in the 2019 World Cup, she battled hamstring and Achilles tendon issues. Yet she averaged 1.08 goals plus assists per 90 minutes (excluding penalty kicks) for the national team from 2018 to 2020 — a 52 percent increase in production at ages 32 through 34.

Rapinoe’s 2019 World Cup performance cemented her legacy as an American sports hero. She led her team to its second consecutive championship and won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top goal scorer and the Golden Ball as the best player. And she did it all amid criticism of the team for routing Thailand 13-0 and added pressure from President Trump, who reacted to Rapinoe saying that she would reject an invitation to the White House if the team won by tweeting that she should “WIN first before she TALKS!”

As Vanity Fair put it in a July 2019 headline, “Megan Rapinoe Won Every Possible Part of the World Cup.” (Subtitle: “She collected every trophy, answered every unfair question, and now returns home as a national icon.”)

Or, as Bird wrote in her Players’ Tribune article called “So the President F*cking Hates My Girlfriend”:

“You just cannot shake that girl. She’s going to do her thing, at her own damn speed, to her own damn rhythm, and she’s going to apologize to exactly NO ONE for it. … All the threats, all the criticism, all the fallout — coming out on the other side of that is what now makes her seem so unfazed by the assholes of the world.”

Rapinoe’s NWSL output hasn’t matched her increased Team USA production, with just 0.59 goals plus assists per 90 minutes (excluding penalty kicks) in 44 matches. It has also decreased compared to her production in the pre-Sue era. In the 2016 through 2019 NWSL seasons, Rapinoe recorded fewer goals (excluding penalty kicks) and fewer assists per 90 minutes than she did from 2013 through 2015. In 2019, she had zero goals and zero assists in five matches after the World Cup, likely due to a combination of injury, fatigue and reacclimating herself to the league nearly 12 months after her last NWSL game.

Despite that comparative drop-off, Rapinoe still finished in the top five in the NWSL in goals per 90 minutes in 2017 and 2018. She is one of soccer’s biggest names both domestically and globally, and her ascension has largely come while dating Bird.

Megan has made a leap internationally since Sue

International and NWSL stats for Megan Rapinoe before her relationship with Sue Bird (2011-16) vs. during it (2016-20)

International NWSL
Before During diff Before During diff
Goals per 90 min. 0.38 0.72 +0.34 0.52 0.53 +0.01
Assists per 90 min. 0.33 0.52 +0.19 0.26 0.21 -0.05
G+A per 90 min. 0.71 1.08 +0.37 0.78 0.59 -0.19
Minutes per match 66.2 69.9 +3.70 77.9 76.6 -1.30
Team goal diff. 37 51 +14.00

Bird and Rapinoe’s relationship began after the 2016 Olympics. Rapinoe’s pre-Bird stats include the 2016 Olympics but not the 2016 NWSL season.

Source: FBRef.com


Bird and Rapinoe have each relished in the other’s success. Bird missed the entire 2019 WNBA season with a knee injury, which allowed her to be in France for the World Cup final, and pictures of her kissing Rapinoe in the stands became symbols of the team’s triumph. A year later, Rapinoe returned the favor, cheering Bird all the way to a championship inside the WNBA bubble, or “Wubble.”

“We are huge fans of each other. I have become, like, a Seattle Storm number one superfan, of course,” Rapinoe told People magazine last year. “I think it is just the understanding of what we have to go through and the appreciation of, you know, each other’s skills and lives is really special. … Neither of us are jealous or weird about each other’s careers. We are just kind of there to support each other.”

In perhaps the understatement of the century, she added, “I’m just a girl in a Wubble dating her local team’s point guard.”

That point guard and that girl in the Wubble have nearly unmatched resumes and medals galore in their respective sports. Yet, as good as they were individually, they have been even better together.

Footnotes

  1. Rapinoe did not play in the NWSL in 2020, citing COVID-19 concerns and the risk of injury because of the compressed schedule. She later joined Bird in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida.

  2. Bird and Rapinoe’s relationship began during the 2016 WNBA season, so for simplicity, that season is excluded from this comparison.

  3. The available statistics on FBref.com covers Rapinoe’s international career beginning with the 2011 World Cup and her entire NWSL career, which started in 2013.

  4. Formerly known as Seattle Reign FC and Reign FC.

  5. Rapinoe’s team was eliminated in the quarterfinals that year, which enabled Rapinoe to attend Bird’s games and the championship party where they got to know each other.

Jenn Hatfield is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Her work can be found on Her Hoop Stats and The Next.

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