The Indiana Fever will play their tenth game of the season Thursday night, June 21, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse against conference rival the Connecticut Sun. It’s still early in the WNBA season and the Fever have seen several extended breaks between games. They should be well rested and healthy, right? After all, the 2011 season ended in early October. They had about seven months off before they returned to training camp.
People are usually surprised when I tell them a majority of WNBA players compete year ’round. They go overseas and keep playing when there’s no more basketball for them in the states. And they make more money playing overseas than they do in the WNBA.
A total of 82 WNBA players who were on 2011 rosters–62% of the league’s talent–played overseas this past winter. Seven members of the 2012 Olympic team are included in those numbers: Angel McCoughtry, Tina Charles, and Diana Taurasi in Turkey; Candace Parker and Seimone Augustus in Russia; Ashja Jones in Spain; and Swin Cash in China. Six of the Indiana Fever’s 11 players also played overseas. Jeannette Pohlen, Erlana Larkins, and Shavonte Zellous were in Turkey, Katie Douglas played in Russia, Roneeka Hodges in Spain, and Erin Phillips in Poland. Tamika Catchings and Briann January were rehabbing injuries, so the number could have been higher.
The WNBA league minimum contract is $36,570. The maximum contract, earned by stars like Catchings, is $105,000. It’s not a bad chunk of money for four or five months of basketball. I would be happy to work a full year for $36,000.
But the pay is pretty pathetic when compared with their male counterparts’ salaries. Kobe Bryant made $25,244,493 with the Lakers this past season.
Money lures our women basketball stars overseas. The top players can see their WNBA pay multiplied six times or more. ESPNW estimated that Taurasi and Parker made a million dollars during the winter.
There’s a tradeoff for the extra money, though. Too many games plus not enough rest equals injuries. The NBA has seen that formula play out this season as the league tried to pack as many games as possible into a lockout-shortened season. A litany of NBA stars had their season further shortened by injury, and the folly culminated in the first round of the playoffs when the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose tore his ACL, eliminating any hopes for a Chicago championship run.
But this is an annual roulette in the WNBA. There is always a superstar whose unlucky number comes up. Candace Parker has played a total of 27 games the last two seasons. (WNBA seasons are currently 34 games long.) WNBA Finals MVP Seimone Augustus played a full season of basketball in 2011 for the first time in three years. (This year, she’s been hampered by a strained right quad.) Seattle’s Lauren Jackson, a three-time MVP, missed 21 games last year with a torn labrum in her hip. The Fever’s Briann January went down with an ACL tear ten games into the 2011 season.
Once I participated in a group interview with former WNBA President Donna Orender. I prepared a real question about something that concerned me: the players going overseas and wearing their bodies down. There were reports that Diana Taurasi, one of the league’s top talents, was going to sit out the following season and let her body rest. It wasn’t healthy for the players to compete year ’round, and it wasn’t healthy for the league to lose the stars who drew fans to games.
When I finally got to ask my question, Orender cut me off midway through. “We don’t make our players go overseas during the offseason,” she said, and hurried to the next question.
That same summer I wrote an article about Katie Douglas. I asked her about playing overseas. “We want to make money while our bodies are still capable of playing,” she told me.
I thought of her teammate, Tully Bevilaqua, who was in her late thirties and was as feisty on the basketball court as ever. She’d spent many off seasons playing in her home country of Australia. Bevilaqua was a marvel. I couldn’t recall a time when she suffered a prolonged injury. “Do you think all the playing helps?” I asked.
Douglas laughed. “Definitely not,” she said, and pointed to all the injuries in the league. Just nights before the interview, Los Angeles had lost Candace Parker to a season-ending injury.
There are other perils beside injuries, though. In December 2010, the WNBA made sports headlines for a reason it preferred to ignore: Diana Taurasi had tested positive for a banned substance while playing in Turkey. She was fired from her Turkish team and faced an Olympic ban.
Taurasi was eventually cleared of the charges. The lab that tested Taurasi had a questionable reputation to begin with, having been suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency in the past. The lab was once again banned following their retraction of Taurasi’s test results.
In some ways, as the London Olympics—and the WNBA playoffs—near, the race to the top resembles an act of attrition. Health can often determine a championship in professional women’s basketball, not skill or talent. So who will have the healthiest lineup in the end? Australia lost perennial WNBA all-star Penny Taylor to an ACL tear. The U.S. is holding its breath and hoping the injured Taurasi and Augustus will be healthy.
Would the Indiana Fever have topped the Atlanta Dream in last year’s conference finals if Catchings had not torn the plantar fascia in her foot? It’s hard to say. Atlanta had handled the Fever during the regular season, winning all four of their games, but the Fever had a one-game playoff lead and home court advantage in their best-of-three series when Catchings went down. She kept playing, but couldn’t overcome the injury and take the team back to the WNBA Finals.
Recently, NBA commissioner David Stern endorsed an international basketball age limit that would require players to be 23 years old or younger, freeing NBA veterans from Olympic and World Cup of Basketball duty. NBA owners no longer wanted to send their superstars overseas.
But if the WNBA tried to restrict their players from playing overseas, I imagine it would probably cause a revolt. Sure, not all players make the decision to play year ’round. Some coach. Some take classes. But the league couldn’t deny the possibility of financial success that overseas play offers unless it was willing and capable of cancelling out the lost pay. The only way to stop women’s basketball marathons is to raise their WNBA pay, and that isn’t going to happen while the league’s average attendance is approximately 7,900 fans a game.
As much as the sport has grown over the decades, it troubles me our women’s basketball players must go overseas to earn real money. Is a Kobe Bryant-style salary realistic? Absolutely not. But if the WNBA could match their overseas pay, maybe players would stay home and stay healthy. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, our Senate can’t pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would help women in all walks of life receive pay equal to their male counterparts.
Back in 2010, I asked Douglas if she foresaw a time when players could just compete in the WNBA and make a living.
“Not in my lifetime,” she replied.