Barker: Underpaid WNBA players forced to play overseas


There has been a lot of talk recently about trade deficits and the decline of manufacturing, but it can be safely said that there is one area in which the United States is a leading exporter.

We’re talking women’s professional basketball players and that every fall there is a massive transfer of talent from the United States to teams in Russia, Turkey, Korea, China, Italy and a handful of other countries in Europe and Asia. At least 63 players representing all 12 of the WNBA’s teams are playing overseas, according to WNBA.com. In other words, slightly more than half the players in the league spend the “offseason” playing basketball somewhere else.

It’s not just journeyman who go. It’s many of the WNBA’s best players like reigning MVP Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks. Ogwumike just recorded one of the best seasons in the history of the league, making 66.5 percent of her shots in the regular season, the second highest in league history, and hitting the winning basket in Game 5 of the Sparks’ win over the Lynx to give Los Angeles the title.

Yet, just 12 days after hitting the biggest bucket of her career, Ogwumike was suiting up for her first game with Dynamo Kursk in Russia.

Can you imagine NBA MVP Stephen Curry packing up for Russia less than two weeks after playing in the NBA Finals? Of course not. That’s because Curry made $11.4 million last season, and Ogwumike’s base salary last season was the league maximum of $109,000 for a player with her level of service.

Ogwumike’s salary in Kursk is not made public, but an elite WNBA player can make about 15 times more from their overseas teams than they do from their WNBA teams. Diana Taurasi, for example, makes $1.5 million from her Russian team, enough that she infamously chose to skip the 2015 season after she was asked to do so by the team, UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Why are overseas teams able to pay women basketball players so much more than they are paid here? There are a variety of reasons, according to Allison Galler, who represents eight WNBA players and a handful of non-WNBA players overseas. Some teams, like most of the teams in Russia, are funded by the municipal governments to serve as a source of local pride. Others, like those in Turkey, are attached to very lucrative men’s soccer clubs.

The WNBA just celebrated its 20th season, in which it had both an increase in attendance and television ratings and had its most exciting finals in years. Yet, we are still in a weird spot in the evolution of the women’s professional game. Players are generally happy to have the opportunity to make big money overseas, but they also wish they didn’t have to.

“It is quite exhausting, though, to jump from one season to the next and have to reset your life, but it’s a part of the process and still is, nevertheless, a blessing we get to work jobs we love. Ogwumike said. “In a calendar year we play about 80-90 games. I don’t worry about playing year-round because I won’t be doing it every year. It’s the sacrifice you’ve seen many take.”

Ogwumike, who was elected president of the WNBA’s players union in October, was emphatic when I asked her whether she was bothered by the pay disparity between men and women.

“OF COURSE!” she wrote, using all caps. “Though we would appreciate more economic advances, it doesn’t disregard my appreciation of the opportunities I’ve had to make great money overseas or the cultural experiences that contribute to my worldliness as an athlete and a person . . . The disparity is obvious, apparent and no secret. But our league is still young and we have a lot of growth I look forward to being a part of, and very soon.”

While the economics are not there to pay women anywhere near what men’s basketball players make, should the MVP of the NBA make about 104 times more than the MVP of the WNBA?

The WNBA is easily the most competitive basketball league in the world, even if it’s not the highest paying. That, and a sense of loyalty to growing the game, is likely what keeps scores of the best female talent from abandoning the league and playing only in Europe as Taurasi did two years ago. One has to wonder if that always will be the case.

 

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