Stewart’s injury ends season, turns spotlight to pay discrepancies

The Seattle Storm's Breanna Stewart smiles as she dribbles down the court after blocking a Dallas Wings shot on Aug. 19, 2018, at Key Arena in Seattle.

Months before it begins in earnest, the WNBA season was dealt a crushing blow. And while the incident was devastating, it is hopefully one that will drive long-lasting change for women’s basketball.

Forward Breanna Stewart, the league’s reigning regular season and Finals MVP, tore her achilles while playing overseas for Dynamo Kursk in Russia in the Euroleague Final Four Championship game. Stewart was playing against fellow WNBA star center Brittney Griner, who also found a temporary overseas home with UMMC Ekaterinburg.

What happened to Stewart drew sympathy from all around the basketball world, but it raises an important question: Why are two WNBA stars playing overseas during their offseason, when the WNBA is the best women’s league in the world?

The answer is simple: money. The WNBA pays crumbs compared to not only their male counterparts in the NBA, but other women’s leagues across the world.

The minimum salary for a WNBA player is $41,202 and the maximum is $115,500, while the NBA minimum is $838,464, with the average player making about $7.4 million. WNBA players who choose to go overseas can make up to three to 15 times their WNBA salary, depending on their talent and star power.

Even the NBA’s development league, the G League, has started awarding “select contracts” for elite prospects valuing up to $125,000. That’s $10,000 more than the WNBA’s maximum yearly salary. The WNBA is a subsidiary of the NBA, but these “elite prospects” are clearly valued more than the women’s game.

While it is true that NBA revenue dwarfs that of the WNBA, there is a radically different pay scale for players in either league. For instance, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement allocates players 50% of the league revenue, compared to only 20%  for the WNBA’s players.

Obviously NBA players are going to make more money, but the majority of WNBA players have to spend their offseason traveling abroad just to make a living — not necessarily live in luxury — and therein lies the issue.

Ever since the league’s conception in 1997, the WNBA has been unable to provide sufficient pay for its players to live at home, which is unacceptable and detrimental to the league.

Because these players are abroad during the offseason, there isn’t much time for rest. Stewart, a former No. 1 overall pick out of the University of Connecticut, hardly has any time to properly rest her body. Since being drafted she has played in 111 WNBA games over three seasons, 18 games in Russia and 58 games in China while also finding time for 14 international games for Team USA.

The WNBA season’s rigorous schedule is also a point of contention with players. The regular season is usually 34 games a year, with the regular season starting in late May and going through the beginning of September. The season is also shortened every other year by two weeks because of the Olympics or World Cup. That means teams have to fit 34 games in only a little more than 90 days — a game about every three days.

This schedule leads to a lack of durability and an increased risk of injury. Last season the Atlanta Dream’s all-star forward Angel McCoughtry missed the end of the regular season and the playoffs after torn ligaments in her knee. The Dream were on a roll, 9-1 in their last ten games before the injury, but were eliminated 3-2 by the Washington Mystics in the Semifinals after McCoughtry was sidelined.

The condensed schedule also highlights poor travel conditions. Unlike the NBA where players are chartered on jets, the WNBA forces their players to fly commercial.

This issue made headlines last summer when the Las Vegas Aces experienced travel troubles trying to get to their game against the Washington Mystics in D.C. Delays forced the Aces to spend 24 hours traveling and ultimately had to forfeit. The Aces missed the playoffs by just one game, which could have been made up by their game in D.C.

That said, the WNBA is not profitable enough. There are arguments to be made that without the support of the NBA, the WNBA may not exist at all. Half of WNBA franchises lost money in 2016.  

But the NBA is just as responsible for helping create revenue for the WNBA and has struggled to do so. The NBA needs to find ways that it can make the WNBA more profitable, and get the players money that can let them afford to stay in the states year round.

They can do this in a number of ways. First, they need to market their stars like the NBA does. Because their best players spend so much time away from the U.S., it is hard for them to make connections with the cities and fans they play for.

Skylar Diggins is one example of a player benefiting from her presence at home. Through money from her WNBA contract combined with sponsorships from Bodyarmor Sports drink and Puma, she can afford to stay home and run offseason basketball camps instead of playing overseas.

The WNBA also needs to reevaluate their TV deals. WNBA League Pass is available worldwide, but they can expand internationally and domestically. Removing massive advertisements on uniforms and opting for ones that connect better to the home cities will also help establish franchises in the United States. These changes, while inflicting some short-term costs will help drive fan engagement and revenue down the road.

With the WNBA Players Association opting out of their current collective bargaining agreement, the NBA and WNBA have an opportunity to work out a better deal before the 2020 season so that fans can enjoy women’s basketball and its stars at their highest level.

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