Monday, July 30, 2007

A Billie Jean for every sport, Part II

Most everyone who follows basketball knows of the huge disparity in pay for NBA and WNBA players. NBA players are averaging salaries of about $5 million, while WNBA salaries are capped at $100,000. Smith, in the column I referenced in part I of this post, writes that the WNBA plays in the NBA off-season. Even as she argues for equality she falls victim to the discourse that the WNBA is the awkward little sis of the NBA who only gets to shine when the "real" players are vacationing. Can you imagine the NBA season being referred to as the WNBA off-season.
The reality is that many WNBA players have no off-season. They head overseas to play ball--often for a lot more money depending on where they go. This feature from ESPN details the "off-season" lives of Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi who play for a team in Russia owned by a very generous Russian man who provides them perks usually only experienced by NBA players. The women get free housing--good housing: a villa with an indoor pool. They fly business class or charter. They get three round-trip plane tickets to the US every season.
And they make around $400,000 (US) for their December-May season. Far more than they earn when they head back in early summer to play in the WNBA.
The article is quite detailed, giving readers a good idea of what overseas basketball is like and why players receive so much in a former communist country that they can't get here in good 'ole capitalist USA. But the big point, the one I came away with anyway, is that this practice may not be sustainable. WNBA players often need to go overseas to make money. But that means no real off-season. No time to recover from either season--WNBA or overseas. And Taurasi herself noted that it's grueling and something she cannot imagine doing for the rest of her playing career. If the money remains good overseas--and there are no guarantees given that salaries and perks are up to individual owners--Taurasi predicts that some WNBA players may just opt to play only overseas.
This puts the WNBA in the proverbial rock and hard spot crunch. Salary caps allow everyone to make some money, but also force players into better-paying situations overseas. If the travel and work get to be too much and the WNBA starts losing star players, the draw for the WNBA goes down considerably. But the WNBA cannot afford to pay players more at this time because it has not drawn enough people to games or earned enough through other venues.
Hopefully something will happen, more fans, less money overseas, more cooperation between European leagues and the WNBA, so that the WNBA does not get squeezed out of existence.

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