Bubble league disparities show there's still work to do to close gap between NBA and WNBA

Cassandra Negley
·5 min read

The NBA is coming back to a season with bedroom views of a lagoon and individualized menus from an exceptional culinary team.

The WNBA has booked stays in multi-room villas complete with washers and dryers. Some meals are provided.

And on it goes.

The two professional basketball leagues in the United States are both planning to return from the COVID-19 pandemic stoppage late next month at sites 105 miles from each other in Florida. Yet the worlds they’ll be in from Disney World to IMG Academy could not be more different.

The bubble-site imbalance is simply another example of the haves and the have-nots, a cliff-note on how far there still is to go after the WNBA’s groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement that netted better pay, more marketing opportunities and improved family benefits.

Those gains are clear in the league’s plan to play a 22-game season, plus a full playoff schedule, at the sports-specific boarding school. It’s also clear what’s not there: the amenities befitting a professional athlete, or at the very least afforded to them because they are stars.

There isn’t much solid information about amenities for the WNBA players at IMG Academy beyond certain details reported by Mechelle Voepel at ESPN. Those who play will get their full salary after paychecks began on time June 1 despite the postponed season. Mothers will be able to bring their child and a caretaker with their lodgings, COVID-19 testing and meal costs reportedly paid for by the league.

Those are both huge wins that might not have happened if not for CBA negotiations late last year between the WNBA Players Association executive board and first-year commissioner Cathy Engelbert. And they are aspects not afforded the NBA players, who agreed to pay cuts on much larger salaries and aren’t allowed any family with them until the second round of the playoffs.

The rest of the details are less thrilling. IMG Academy, which the NBA considered as a landing spot to finish its season and postseason, offers three- and four-bedroom multi-room villas with a “stocked kitchen,” laundry room and common area. Some players will instead have to stay at the campus hotel. Per Voepel, it’s “expected” that some meals will be provided to players and they’ll have a per diem to pay for other meals or groceries that will be delivered.

The nutritional aspect of the food has been a reported concern for players, which is understandable since it’s what powers their bodies to do elite work on the court every day. And it must be frustrating to eat boxed catering when NBA players are living a life of personalized meals three to four times a day from a culinary institute.

That’s only the beginning of the perks for the men. While staying in Gran Destino, Grand Floridian and the Yacht Club, they’ll have access to almost anything you could imagine. Players-only lounges with gaming, movies, DJ sets, ping pong, pool and lawn games. Barbers, manicurists, pedicurists. Excursions to Animal Kingdom and Wild Africa Trek.

They may even get early screenings of movies, such as Marvel’s “Black Widow,” not yet released to the public, Yahoo Sports’ Keith Smith reported. Just ... why?

(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

To be clear, this is of course about money. The NBA will spend tens of millions of dollars to put this on, per the New York Times. The WNBA will fall far, far below that considering the league’s estimate for a plus-one to stay with a player is $4,000 a month. That price tag is the equivalent of less than a week of lodging alone at Disney’s resorts.

It’s also about relationships. Disney is one of the NBA’s biggest customers seeing as the company pays around $1.4 billion a year to broadcast games on ABC and its ESPN Networks. The league presumably wants to keep that relationship healthy, and lining the coffers will do it. It also gives Disney business at a time when it is opening back up itself and unsure about when admission will be back to pre-COVID-19 levels, if it does soon at all. Seeing the NBA play at Disney might put the seed in people’s minds that a trip to Disney is safe, too.

The WNBA doesn’t have that, even though ESPN has long held the league’s broadcast rights. Those run through 2022, and while that has been a big buoy for the league, it isn’t always doing the WNBA justice. This April’s draft was a prime example. It’s a quick hit, and turn away.

It’s unclear how many games will be televised from the bubble, though CBS Sports Network and NBA TV also have deals with the league. The WNBA has used Twitter to broadcast and has its own League Pass offered last year for less than $20.

But it’s never always about just money. Exposure and coverage give leagues a better chance of making more cash and profit, but that’s tough to come by for women’s sports. It’s exactly why the players fought for a focus on marketing and building relationships with companies, showing them all there’s immense growth potential in the league. That’s key.

And that will be the next frontier to push toward in the years before the next CBA, put into clearer perspective by the single-site scenarios laid out at the same time, in the same state for players of equivalent talent. While the NBA seemingly gets everything but the kitchen sink, the WNBA is left with the kitchen.

But just wait until you see Sabrina Ionescu keep cooking up those triple-doubles.

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