Turning the Page in the WNBA
Since the 1996 Olympic Games, women's basketball has grown in popularity. From stars in the professional game to future superstars in the college game, the women's game possesses more figureheads than ever before. The average salary for a women's basketball player in this day and age is $120,648, forcing these superstar athletes to do what they call their "real job", play overseas. Just 12 teams occupy the WNBA, preventing some unknown players from demonstrating the talent that they have developed during their college careers. The truth of the matter is that in the WNBA, the maximum league salary is only $221,450, and only seven players in the entire league make that amount of money. The women of the past did not pave the way for future generations to play overseas during the offseason just because they needed the money.
These star athletes have to make the trip to countries like China, Russia, or even Turkey where they make over 15 times what they make in the WNBA. It is a culture shock for some people, but for others, it is something that just simply has to be done. The lack of attraction of the WNBA is clear in the United States, but for players to make a scarce amount of money in the place they call home compared to another country is simply not the way it should be. The WNBA introduced the new concept of prioritization to prevent players from going overseas during the winter months. There were mixed feelings from individuals around the league, and with the pros and cons of expanding the season, and paying the players more, the WNBA is at a crossroads following the new CBA.
After the CBA was announced, Sue Bird spoke on the future of some of the players, and why playing overseas is so important, stating, "I don't know that a Paige Bueckers -- and all the kids coming up behind her -- will ever need to go overseas...Why do we go? Mostly we go because there's a ton of money. Some people go to work on their games. But some people also go -- and Diana (Taurasi) will tell you this -- she went because of the money and because she's a basketball player. And that's what basketball players do: They want to play."
The WNBA is still the longest-running women's professional league in the United States. While it is easy to see the men vs women pay gap in the sport of basketball, it is concerning to see how much the players in the WNBA have to rely on what the United States league calls "the offseason". The league argues that it has raised the salaries, and is providing the platform for players to market themselves in more ways than one. Lots of people disagree with the assessment of the WNBA commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, but Engelbert is a professional when it comes to the business side of things.
She is trying to make the WNBA stand alone and be able to sustain some of the bumps in the road that leagues across the United States endure. 2023 starts a new chapter in women's professional basketball with the WNBA putting the hammer down on showing up to the training camps, and the regular season on time. If players beyond their third year in the league miss training camp, they will be fined, but if someone happens to miss the start of the season, they will be suspended for the rest of the year. Even with the salaries slowly increasing and the supermax, and max contracts that are now floating around the WNBA, players are still going to want to spread their wings overseas.
The marketing deals in reality look like it will create more income for the players in the league, but with the overseas league not prioritizing profit or equality among teams, players will be able to make more money given the different business models. Sacrificing over $1 million to play in another country is tough to do, but for this league to get to the next level, players need to stay around much longer than they have. Players may hate the idea of prioritization, but in reality, Engelbert is doing what is best for the WNBA, and the future of one of the most untapped sports in the entire world.
There are two clear sides to this situation, and neither of them are in the wrong on the surface. Both of them want to make money in some way or another, and while so many players rely on playing overseas as their real way of making a living, the WNBA would truly reach new heights if its players stayed in the United States during the offseasons. Engelbert continues to use the fact that they continue to raise salaries with the ability to take advantage of the marketing opportunities that are now going to be provided, but according to Kelsey Plum, the league has been far from equal.
Since she is straight and white, she believes that she has been getting preferential treatment. Plum blocked the league's social media accounts due to their inability to market its players in an equitable fashion. It is a massive hit to the league which had been stressing these opportunities rather than the money that could be made overseas. Taking the women's game to the next level relies on this, and if the WNBA can't do that right, it could be doomed for catastrophe in the near future.
Just simply saying that the league should just pay better in general, and this wouldn't be a problem is easier said than done. The WNBA would then have to expand the season due to the lack of television availability given all the other pro sports going on. Rookies have less than a few weeks to report to training camp in the first place, but if the schedule were to extend, these players would have to wait to begin in the middle of the season or get even less time to adjust to what life is like as a professional.
What is clear is the ascension that women's basketball and women's sports are beginning to see. Soccer around the globe is constantly getting more attention on the women's side, and women are now becoming even more center stage given the quality and talent that has been put on display. With players like Caitlin Clark, and Paige Bueckers emerging as superstars among clothing brands around the United States, it is safe to say that women's sports continue to elevate itself to the next level year after year.
With the new CBA that the WNBA has introduced and the rules that are coming into play in 2023, the league knows it is at a point in time where it can ascend something beyond the possibilities of what may think. Keeping players around creates more of an attachment with the American culture just like the NBA players do during their offseasons. From commercials to movies to just simply interesting the people, the WNBA would massively benefit if playing overseas was not much of a priority. For almost every player, it is something they have to do in order to maintain a quality standard of living, but the possibilities that could be reached by staying in the United States are through the roof.
The culture in America would truly embrace the WNBA as time goes by. From Candace Parker to Chiney Ogwumike, WNBA players are becoming household names on not just the court by the television as well. With the talk of expansion to 14 teams instead of the 12 that are currently assembled, more and more players are going to get to showcase their talent. This will only benefit the growth of the league into not only one of the best women's professional leagues in the United States but one of the best professional leagues in general.
The equity and equality may not be there now, but the sport is moving in the right direction. The professional futures of Clark and Bueckers could look a whole lot different than what they looked like for Sue Bird and Lisa Leslie. More opportunities outside of the court create more engagement in the game, in the arenas, and on the television screens. Some may be skeptical, and for the right reasons, but all in all, the goal has always been to create a more equitable and equal world, and while it may not look like it now, the strides will only be made if the WNBA allows them to.