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Even for the most hardened of NBA obsessives, the ones eagerly looking forward to Tuesday’s Boston/New York contest on League Pass, the WNBA is a bit of an unknown frontier. It’s something to ignore in the summer, sadly, after burnout hits following too many autumn, winter and spring months of watching all things orange and leathery in both the NBA and NCAA men’s basketball season.
For those sorts of non-followers, a big name can help, and accessible attributes (you watched her play an NCAA final in college, she averages over 20 points per game) aid in the faraway fandom. Who knows, by the time the summer draws to a close and the WNBA Finals tip off, you may even take in a game or two to catch up on how that big name is doing?
Well, perhaps the WNBA’s biggest name appears to be sitting out the 2015 WNBA season – as you will not see Diana Taurasi play with the Phoenix Mercury this season. Not because of a torn ACL or other threatening injury, but because it is in that player’s best interests to not work for the relative low wages the league pays its stars in comparison with other international women’s leagues, and the Russian squad that is paying Taurasi to play for them in the winter, and rest in the summer.
For the 2014 WNBA season, the 33-year-old made just under the league maximum of $107,000. But she makes 15 times that -- approximately $1.5 million -- playing overseas. And now she'll make even more, as [UMMC Ekaterinburg] is essentially compensating Taurasi her WNBA salary, and then some, to not play in the WNBA at all.
Taurasi says she has every intention of returning for the 2016 WNBA season and also intends to play in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. But this summer, for the first time in her career, the California native will actually have an offseason.
"It was the perfect mix of timing and making sure I was in control of my career," Taurasi, whom many consider the best women's basketball player in the world, told espnW Tuesday. "Since 2004, when I started professional basketball, it has been a cycle -- a cycle that I have enjoyed so much. With my team in Russia, a conversation began about making sure I'm at an elite level for a long time with them. I put everything on the table and weighed all my options and made the best decision.”
This is an understandable move for Taurasi, who between overseas commitments, WNBA play (she’s won three titles) and her Team USA brilliance (three gold medals at the Olympics, two gold medals and one bronze at the World Championships), has never had an actual offseason. We’ve gone on quite a bit about how players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have been pushed to the brink by the combination of early-career responsibilities, deep runs into the playoffs and Team USA work, but at least they’ve had some offseasons in order to recuperate.
For Taurasi, at age 33, to use her offseason basically slumming just to stay on the fringes of the North American sporting scene? It makes absolute no sense for the future Basketball Hall of Famer.
In a statement, the Mercury pointed out that they were “obviously disappointed” that Taurasi wouldn’t return to pair with Brittney Griner and defend the team’s 2014 WNBA title, but they also “respect her decision.”
So should anyone. Because according to Kate Fagan, the league’s finances are a mess. Not so much in terms of television revenue and gate receipts, but in how teams choose to dole out what they’ve taken in.
The WNBA has enjoyed some franchise stability over the last half-decade, and the league’s television contract with ABC/ESPN lasts until 2022. The Mercury’s 2014 may have only made a blip on the national radar even with the emergence of the brilliant Griner working alongside a legend in Taurasi, but this is still a sustainable league.
According to Fagan, however, far too many WNBA players make the sort of max money that Taurasi makes. It’s understandable that teams would want to max out as many players as they could, especially when even the max players are working for a fraction of what someone like Skip Bayless makes to prattle on TV for a few hours each morning. It feels good to spread the wealth around, even if it is absurd that someone like Taurasi is making the same amount as a fringe All-Star.
For the health of the league, however, it might be best to develop an established star system. Apparently 42 players make right around the $100,000 mark that Taurasi makes a little more than, and that’s in a 144-player league.
Things get even weirder in the coach’s box. From Fagan:
In the WNBA, most coaches make more than double the salary of their star player. Numerous coaches in the league are making in the range of $250,000 -- some as much as $300,000. Think about that for a second. That's the equivalent of the Cleveland Cavaliers paying coach David Blatt something like $40-50 million, while LeBron James makes $20 million. (Most NBA coaches make about a quarter of what their star players make.)
It’s important to try to lure name brand coaches into the pro ranks and away from the more potentially lucrative NCAA women’s basketball system, and it’s also important encourage legends to stick on the sidelines and away from retirement, as the Indiana Fever did with the fantastic Lin Dunn before she called it quits in 2014.
The marks are off. One would assume that plenty of WNBA players would decline to take part in the season if their nearly-six figure salaries were cut, preferring to act as Taurasi currently is (at a far lower rate, but still better than the WNBA’s offer), but not many would. And certainly stars would think twice taking in an offseason if the max money seemed more apt for, say, the WNBA’s version of Kevin Durant as opposed to the WNBA’s version of Joe Johnson.
This is all very unfortunate.
The WNBA should be proud to be where it is in 2015. It has dodged massive franchise and league restructuring, and needless and outright misogyny from some of the world’s most prominent sportswriters and otherwise-indifferent fans that seem to want to go out of their way to routinely poke fun at something that they would otherwise ignore had the gender of the participants been different.
When men play sports that men don’t care about it, most men remain indifferent about that sport. When women play a sport that men don’t care about, too many of these “men” seem to take great delight in telling strangers just how awful they think the sport is. Just check the comments under this column for proof.
I’m hardly a major WNBA fan – after a long and wearying NBA season, I need a break from my TV in the summer. With that in place, some of the most thrilling games I’ve ever covered as a writer or witnessed as a paying fan in person were WNBA games, and that’s coming in the same house that saw LeBron and company take on the home crowd for massive stakes just a few weeks before in the face of a volume that wasn’t nearly as loud. Seriously, go to a WNBA game.
The league cannot afford to lose its stars as they understandably and rightfully take some time off to rest their bodies. The WNBA has long been aware of the discrepancy between its paychecks and the ones international teams pay their players during the WNBA “offseason,” and it’s more than unfortunate that it takes the loss of a star like Diana Taurasi to set the wheels of change in motion.
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