The WNBA’s journey toward globalization reveals ‘a small paradox’

What are the roadblocks and growing pains the WNBA deals with on its path to globalization?

New York Liberty guard Marine Johannès could be affected by the WNBA's prioritization clause with her French league commitments. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
New York Liberty guard Marine Johannès could be affected by the WNBA's prioritization clause with her French league commitments. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

When Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot were introduced at Barclays Center and to the New York market in February, New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello was asked how she thought the WNBA’s new era, which was mostly being defined by the rise of two all-talented “super-teams,” could be characterized differently. What could come of this moment the WNBA was about to enter?

Brondello explained this chapter for a league she’s been a part of for decades is not just about the star power of her team and the Las Vegas Aces, but rather the way the ceiling for the WNBA could rise as a result of the brewing rivalry.

“Hopefully, more fans can come and watch us and we’re selling it, we’re going global,” she said. “We’re not just thinking about just America. I think about going global and getting the best players.”

What she meant was twofold in that having a supremely talented team leads directly to more viewership and exposure across the entire globe. But also, the 2023 Liberty represented the WNBA’s goals to continue to house the best players from around the world. This past season, New York rostered four of 11 players who were born outside of the United States. Across the WNBA, 25 players not born in the U.S. were at some point rostered out of a total number that fluctuates between 136 and close to 170 players due to player injuries and the hardship contracts that follow. A group from 15 different countries represents over 15% of the WNBA.

Capitalizing on this global reach and potential to create international household names is something that’s incredibly appealing to league commissioner Cathy Engelbert. When discussing the impact of the WNBA’s successful preseason game in Toronto, and at the 2023 All-Star Game, she spoke of wanting “a global platform.”

Then, fewer than three months later, Engelbert referenced these goals more than once while in San Francisco to announce the WNBA’s first expansion team in 15 years. She explained how having a team in the Bay Area, a “global hub of technology” will lead to building that “global platform.”

“Just the ability to then give hope to other players that we’re going to have a team here in the Bay Area, such a great demographic for our fan base and to grow that fan base, not only here as Brandon [Schneider, president and chief operating officer of the Golden State Warriors] said, globally,” Engelbert said. “One of our big things is I’ve admired what the NBA has done and their global platform, and we need to do the same thing, and this will help that, as well.”

The global platform and footprint of the WNBA’s brother league has come as a result of some of the brightest stars hailing from countries outside of the U.S. In the NBA, the last three players who won MVP weren’t born in the United States. The Liberty’s Jonquel Jones, a native Bahamian, won the 2021 WNBA MVP with the Connecticut Sun, and was the league’s first international winner since Australia’s Lauren Jackson in 2010.

Satou Sabally, a future MVP candidate born in Germany, always knew she wanted to play in the league. Following her fourth season playing in the W, Sabally has felt how much the league “creates a space” for its international players. She sees similarities between the W and the NBA in that their intention isn’t just for success for homegrown talent.

“The WNBA is a global league,” she said. “We’re on the same path as the NBA where an international player can be an MVP one day.”

Germany's Satou Sabally gesture during a European championship qualifier against Italy on Nov. 12, 2023, in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Germany's Satou Sabally is a rising star in the WNBA, making her an important player in helping the WNBA brand grow across the globe. (Photo by Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images)

But while she’s felt inclusion, that doesn’t equate to fairness. The WNBA’s prioritization rule — created via a desire from team owners to have their top talent in market at the start of the season rather than weeks late due to the postseasons of international club teams — will suspend a player in 2024 for late arrival to training camp. This rule launches into effect when players are going into their fourth year of WNBA service.

Prior to the start of the 2023 season, players under contract were fined if they missed training camp and suspended if they were late to the first game of the regular season. The rule forces all players, not just international players, to make less lucrative career decisions. To prevent suspension, players might be swayed to reject playing in EuroLeague and in different European countries’ domestic leagues.

The rule excludes all national team commitments. This was something the league conceded when the rule was agreed to in the WNBA’s 2020 collective bargaining agreement.

While the WNBA has created internships and marketing agreements for players during the league’s five-to-seven-month offseason, there are players who want to play during a portion of that time — and earn more money while doing so. But for players who did not grow up in the United States, they don’t always have the means or desire to find other non-playing jobs, such as marketing, coaching or broadcasting in the U.S., for the duration of the offseason. The ideal option is to play for foreign clubs that “offer bonuses that are worth more than a whole season in the WNBA,” according to Sabally.

The WNBA needs and values its international players, those who hold a large part of the key to growing its desired global platform. These same players are caught in what Sabally has called “a small paradox” when referencing this current league dynamic. If the WNBA wants to grow its global footprint, why are the players who can help caught in such a difficult spot?

Why the WNBA values international players

Bethany Donaphin, a former player and now the head of league operations at the WNBA, remembered playing in New York alongside Belgian Ann Wauters (most recently an assistant coach with the Chicago Sky) and Russian Elena Baranova. For her, it was always a privilege to be introduced to talent that had a different perspective and often a different way of playing the game.

“I think it speaks to the fabric of the WNBA that there are so many countries represented in our league and that’s been true over its entire history,” she told Yahoo Sports.

The trajectory of the W’s product has been immensely impacted by international players throughout its 27-year history. Jackson, a three-time MVP from Australia, changed the way post players could operate in women’s basketball at the professional level. WNBA champion Ticha Penicheiro of Portugal was known for dishing out passes with zest during the league’s first 15 years, paving the way for France’s Marine Johannès, who was nicknamed “The Wizard,” this past season.

“I think that international presence is big in the style of the game because I think that the way that Europeans learn the game is different also to how Australians learn the game and Americans,” Australian wing and WNBA mainstay Rebecca Allen said. “And I think when you have that perfect blend of getting a bit from every other country, it evolves the league and the style of play.”

Former WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones sees the league's growth in further globalization of the game. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Former WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones sees the league's growth in further globalization of the game. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

When Jones thinks about the WNBA’s growth, she sees it in further globalization. She pointed to the NBA’s success in creating household names from players who spanned the globe. In addition to Australia's Jackson, Jones referenced German Dirk Nowitzki as someone who had skills ahead of his time. Players who can do what is unheard of only leads to more attention and fascination.

“As much as we can help to grow the league and grow the game internationally, I think it’s going to help us,” Jones said. “Produce the best product and be able to have more fans come in and watch our game.”

Engelbert said she looked through the data from the 2022 season and noticed engagement with WNBA content, including games and highlights, has come from unexpected places. In a call with Yahoo Sports, she explained there were 20 million unique views in India. The top-five countries outside of the United States that are tuning into the WNBA are the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France and Japan.

In order for those numbers to grow and expand, the league needs to continue to provide a consistent path for international players to maintain a consistent presence in the WNBA.

An effect of the WNBA’s prioritization concessions

At its heart, the prioritization rule is meant to provide a better and more consistent product to fans at the beginning of the season. It allows teams to be able to use training camp to prepare for the season, instead of signing players of lesser-known talent to fill in until some of the league’s best arrive back on U.S. soil.

“It has been a challenge for our league by not taking a stand and making the WNBA a priority,” one league executive told Yahoo Sports. “And seeing the negative impact of not prioritizing and us always having to make these concessions, you’d never have players in training camp.”

Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud spoke about prioritization on “The Athletic’s Women’s Basketball Show” podcast. She is critical, but understands the value of having players in training camp and at the start of the season.

“I’ve played with players that haven’t come back right away,” she said. “And it just makes it really hard. It makes it hard for your team. You’re put at a disadvantage and then when they do come back, they put you at another type of disadvantage because now you have to figure out how to jell and figure out chemistry.

“And then you lose them for part of the season. I remember it was, no hate on [Belgian] Emma Meesseman, but it’s, ‘Girl, we need you here. We need you here. You gotta get here, girl. Our team needs you. You are really important.’”

Belgium's Emma Meesseman during a qualification match against Poland for the EuroBasket on Nov. 8, 2023, in Antwerp, Belgium. (Photo by Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images)
Emma Meesseman's time with the Belgian national team has kept her away from the WNBA for an extended period of time. (Photo by Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images)

While the WNBA and its Board of Governors were indignant about making sure players were on time, something the WNBA compromised on was a player’s national team commitments, especially when players are a part of teams that participate in qualifying tournaments for the Olympics or the FIBA World Cup.

“It was important for us to recognize that it’s important for players to be able to compete with and train with their national teams,” Donaphin said.

However, tensions have escalated between WNBA teams, players and national federations. This came to a head publicly at the end of May when the French Federation decided Johannès could not compete in the 2023 EuroBasket Championships, an event that typically helps European teams qualify for the Olympics.

When Johannès re-signed with the Liberty in early March, The Next reported Johannès, who wasn’t yet impacted by prioritization because she had only two years of league service, would report to the Liberty following when her French club team finished its playoffs. After that, she would jet off to EuroBasket weeks later to meet the French national team in Slovenia. This is allowed in the CBA.

The French Federation historically has its women’s national team players train together prior to playing at any international competition. But Johannès had an opportunity to play for one of the most talented teams that has ever existed in women’s professional basketball. She wanted to put down roots in New York instead of arriving much later during the season and having to scramble to settle in Brooklyn, learn the Liberty playbook and grow accustomed to her new teammates with less time during the season.

Johannès, her agent and the French Federation spent months negotiating a way the French guard could participate in everything. But for prioritizing the WNBA ever so slightly, the French Federation punished not only Johannès but themselves by not allowing the French star to compete with the French national team in EuroBasket.

The Federation also determined that for missing one national team preparation period, Johannès might not be allowed to partake in the 2024 Olympics, which France is hosting. The fallout across the French media took a toll on the 28-year-old. She got her wish to play for the Liberty, but was subjected to national scrutiny for doing so.

“She should be known more than just in France,” Brondello said of Johannès. “This is why you come to the WNBA. This is a global game and she should be known worldwide the way that she plays. And if you want to be the best, you want to play in this league.

“They made the decision and Marine made a decision and stayed true. And hopefully, she’ll pave the way for others to find some more support that you can do both.”

New York Liberty guard Marine Johannès shoots the ball against the Phoenix Mercury at Barclays Center in New York City, on July 5, 2023. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)
New York Liberty guard Marine Johannès was at the center of a conflict between the WNBA and the French Federation over her presence at international competitions. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

But since the 2023 WNBA season concluded, Johannès clarified the threats made in May to bar her participation in the 2024 Olympics will not become a reality. She told reporters on Oct. 20 she spoke to the French national team president and she expressed her commitment to training with the national team in early June, which will run at the same time as the WNBA season and prior to the start of the Olympics in late July.

The French Federation isn't the only international athletic organization that bumped heads with the Liberty and the WNBA last season. Han Xu, the 6-foot-11 stretch big, who is a fan favorite at Barclays Center, had multiple national team commitments during the 2023 WNBA season.

Before the season began, Han and the Liberty discussed her participation in the FISU Summer University Games, a competition in China that would help Han get her master’s degree. But prior to her absence in the WNBA from July 16 through Aug. 12 for the FISU Games, Han was pulled out for the Asia Cup, a tournament WNBA teams initially didn’t know Chinese players would need to partake in.

Han was away from the Liberty from June 12-July 4 and put up massive numbers, including consecutive double-doubles while in Sydney, Australia, during the Asia Cup. She often played on back-to-back days and as a result returned to the Liberty with an aggravated foot injury, one the Liberty’s performance staff had worked with Han to ameliorate.

Prior to leaving for Australia, Han had trouble with the Liberty’s updated and more complex style of play. With Stewart and Jones ahead of her in the rotation, the more instinctual and experienced Stefanie Dolson became the team’s third big. When Dolson was out for seven weeks from late June through mid-August with an ankle injury, Han had a chance for meaningful minutes. But she, too, wasn’t healthy.

By the time she was, Han had to return to China for the event that was planned, the FISU Games. When she returned to the WNBA for the Commissioner’s Cup championship on Aug. 15, Dolson had returned from injury. Han played in a few games prior to the regular season concluding, getting minutes during garbage time. For the regular-season finale against the Washington Mystics, Han was gone again. The Chinese national team pulled her for the Asian Games, another competition in China.

On the other side of that final regular-season game was Li Meng, another Chinese player on the Mystics. For both the Asia Cup and the Asian Games, Han was getting pulled earlier than Li Meng. This isn’t the first time the Chinese Federation and its women’s national team pulled different players out at different times.

Last season, the Chicago Sky rostered a different Chinese player, Li Yueru. Since she was new to the Sky and the WNBA and had a major language barrier, she was relegated to the end of the bench. As a result, the Chinese national team pulled Li Yueru out of the United States prior to the 2022 playoffs because she wasn’t getting regular minutes. There was concern she was out of shape, although she was a regular participant in practices.

Over a year later with Han not logging consistent minutes on the Liberty, the Chinese national team wanted and demanded her back early before the Asian Games, her agent told Yahoo Sports.

These federations have made it increasingly difficult for international WNBA players to prioritize the WNBA and establish themselves as global stars rather than just domestic ones. Multiple WNBA league sources explained to Yahoo Sports the push and pull over players comes down to international diplomatic relations and how other countries perceive the United States. Nationalism and patriotism are very much at play.

The same tensions that exist on the international stage over global security, economics and trade also occur in the women’s basketball world. The athletic federations act in their best interest and that isn’t always in the best interest of the WNBA, a league based in the United States.

China's Han Xu reacts during gold-medal game at the Asian Games against Japan on Oct. 5, 2023, in Hangzhou, China. (REUTERS/Marko Djurica)
China's Han Xu has struggled to find footing in the WNBA while she meets her commitments with the Chinese national team. (REUTERS/Marko Djurica)

Will the WNBA’s globalization be stunted?

During WNBA exit interviews for the 2023 season, international players expressed both hesitant and concrete answers about if they will return to the WNBA next season. Allen, an Australian, was hesitant, but confidently explained her eye is on the Paris Olympics.

“For me, you always put yourself in position so that you can play with the teams that you want to play with at the right moment,” she said. “It’s figuring all that stuff out. But I know that there’ll be a lot of people in a similar position as me.”

In 2024, players have to report to their WNBA teams by the first day of training camp or May 1, whatever comes later. Since 2024 is an Olympic year, that training camp start date is difficult to predict. During the most recent Olympic year in 2021, training camps began on April 25.

Gabby Williams, another French domestic league and French national team player, has already made her decision and intentions clear. After arriving back in the WNBA and with the Seattle Storm this past season by virtue of a loophole in the prioritization clause, she said returning to the WNBA in 2024 doesn’t look possible.

Like Johannès, Williams remains under contract with the French League and EuroLeague team ASVEL for the 2023-24 season, and the Olympics and preparation for it will begin immediately after. Even if Williams doesn’t sign a contract until she’s ready to come back to the U.S., similarly to how she returned this season, she’d be joining the WNBA in August. For Williams, all that travel and strain on her body seemingly would not be worth it.

France's Gabby Williams controls the ball during the 2022 Women's Basketball World Cup quarterfinal against China in Sydney, Australia, on Sept. 29, 2022. (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)
France's Gabby Williams has already made it clear she won't be able to play in the WNBA for 2024 due to her French national team commitments. (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

There is an understanding among WNBA executives and coaches that the world calendar remains incredibly challenging. The WNBA operates on a completely different schedule than everything associated with FIBA, which includes EuroLeague and EuroCup, two of the most competitive leagues across Europe. Mystics head coach Eric Thibault explained that for a long time there hasn’t been “a lot of workaround.” He hopes with more international players getting drafted into the WNBA, there’s more of a concrete path for them in the league.

But is there? One league source explained the level of cooperation that exists between the different stakeholders — the WNBA, FIBA and the domestic leagues — has room for improvement. As a result, league globalization has been and will continue to be halted.

“The globalization has been hindered by the competing schedules,” the league source told Yahoo Sports. “I would love to see more collaboration. There’s not an easy answer. There isn’t a conflict between the NBA and the leagues abroad. And I would love to get to that space where it’s not because I think you’d see even more involvement and immersion into the league here in the U.S.”

When asked about that level of collaboration, Engelbert explained the WNBA has to be willing to support FIBA and provide concessions.

“I mean, if you have a shared vision and goal with FIBA to grow the game globally, you have to support each other,” she said. “And not every player is going to play every year. We know that.”

That will most likely be the case for Williams and Johannés because of prioritization. Also, Meesseman hasn’t played in the WNBA since 2022, and it’s doubtful she’ll return in 2024. Her focus will primarily be on how her Belgian national team can make a run at the 2024 Olympics. How does the WNBA continue on its path toward globalization if players born from all around the globe can’t play in every season? When building a fan base, continuity matters.

What will continue to keep international players in a bind with regard to prioritization is the current economic structure of the WNBA. But what if the players’ money changes? A new media rights deal is looming, as are expansion fees from at least one — possibly two — new teams in 2025.

“I think as our league goes in the direction that everybody wants it to go with money, more eyeballs and more teams and all of that, there will be more incentive for the top international players to come over,” Thibault said. “And we’ll see the benefit of that.”

That’s what it might take for the WNBA to completely globalize. That’s how international household names, consistent international viewers and eventual fans are born. That’s how the current “small paradox” dissipates.

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