This post originally appeared on Forbes.com SportsMoney (February 9, 2015)
Last September, I sat courtside at the 2014 WNBA Finals and watched Diana Taurasi lead the Phoenix Mercury to its third WNBA Championship (2007, 2009, and 2014). While Taurasi was named the 2014 Finals MVP, in true leader form, she gave equal credit for the Mercury’s regular season and playoff success to her teammates. At that moment, I was sure Taurasi would be motivated and ready to lead the Mercury to a back-to-back championship in 2015.
However, when you are a seasoned professional athlete, sometimes other factors take priority over winning. For Taurasi, in 2015 her health will take precedence. For this reason, she is choosing to sit out the 19th WNBA season.
There is no question that she made one of the most difficult decisions of her professional career. No one enjoys winning – or hating to lose – more than Taurasi. Do not forget, prior to the WNBA she amassed a 139-8 winning record at UConn and won three NCAA Championships.
Since 2004, the first overall draft pick, seven-time WNBA all-star, and three-time Olympic gold medalist (2004, 2008, and 2012) has been playing basketball year-round.
She deserves a break.
The WNBA and its President, Laurel J. Richie, respect Taurasi’s decision to rest in 2015.
“She has been playing competitively for ten years, year-round, with very little downtime. She is taking this opportunity to rest, and I completely understand that,” said Richie during a phone interview with FORBES.com. “She deserves to rest, and I think she will come back terrific in 2016.”
Resting is not a new phenomenon for the WNBA. In 2012, Taurasi played only eight games. Other current and former players, such as Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie, have also rested for personal reasons, such as maternity leaves.
Although, Taurasi’s decision to rest adds a financial element to the equation, which women’s basketball has not experienced before.
In her letter to the fans, she stated, “The year-round nature of women’s basketball takes its toll and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down.”
She went on to say, “They offered to pay me to rest and I’ve decided to take them up on it. I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing.”
Truthfully, Taurasi probably could have kept the fact that she is being paid to rest as a private matter, but leading has and will always be what she does best.
Whether she meant to or not, Taurasi is guiding the league into a new conversation – the value of a WNBA superstar.
There are plenty of unanswered questions and widespread speculation surrounding the impact that Taurasi’s decision will have in the league, as well as future collective bargaining. Is this situation an exception or is it a new norm? Will other overseas teams offer incentives for WNBA players to sit out and rest? How do we continue to increase the value for athletes to play in the WNBA?
Here is what we know so far:
New Territory Equals Progress. Take a depth breath – the conversation that we are having is actually a good thing. ESPN basketball analyst and former WNBA head coach and general manager, Carolyn Peck, spoke with FORBES.com and offered her insight. She shared that prior discussions about the WNBA primarily centered on how to build a professional women’s basketball league. Additionally, during her tenure the association paid the players and controlled free agency – not the franchises. Further, Peck explained that the WNBA is entering a new territory, and the steady debated surrounding Taurasi’s decision means that it is becoming a legitimate professional sports league.
Yes, we spent many years debating and forecasting whether the WNBA would survive or fold. In 2014, viewership and attendance numbers increased – 2% and 1% respectively, plus five franchises posted a profit. During the off season, HARMAN (audio equipment company) and Kaiser Permanente (health care coverage provider) signed on as new partners. It appears that we have finally buried those old headlines, and moved on to a topic that every other major professional sports league tackles.
Everyone Wants Player Salaries Increased. As it stands, women in the United States earn somewhere between $0.77 to $0.80 cents on the dollar in comparison to men. The theme of women being paid less for equal work carries into professional sports. BBC News recently reported that Cristiano Ronaldoearns 83 times more than top U.S. female soccer player Alex Morgan’s salary of $282,000. And take a breeze through FORBES’ 2014 list of the world’s 100 highest-paid athletes where you will find that only three women made the cut.
While change won’t happen overnight, part of the discussion is, “How do we get there?”
According to Peck, now that the WNBA has its footing with talented players who are sought after all over the world, the league can longer remain focused on paying them enough to live. Now, it must identify their actual value, which she recognizes is a business decision that the owners need to take a hard look at.
Seattle Storm owner, Ginny Gilder, discussed her point-of-view regarding WNBA salaries during a 2011 interview with FORBES.com
Gilder said, “I’d love us to have to get to the point where we have to be on that slippery slope of determining what the right salary is for our top players, and really confront and have a healthy dialogue so we don’t go the route of men’s professional sports.”
“I want our players to stay connected to their community and that means making good money, so they don’t have to play abroad maybe, but not money that ends up disconnecting them from their fans. I don’t necessarily know where that is, but I want us to have the financial stability as a league to be in that conversation.”
Under the current six-year WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (ratified in 2014), in 2015 the minimum player salary for 0-2 years of service is $38,913 and $55,275 for 3+ years of service; the maximum player salary is anywhere between $107,000 – $109,500. Outside of the base salaries, the players also receive year-end bonuses for awards or reaching the post-season, year-round health/dental benefits, tuition reimbursements, and an in-season housing allowance.
Some commentators suggest that one way to increase player salaries is to decrease what the coaches are earning. While the assertion is correct that athletes, such as Taurasi, often contribute more value to an organization than the coaches, Richie notes that the current compensation structure should be viewed in context. Specifically, the coaches, more often than not, are year-round employees who assume additional roles including scouting or being the general manager. Therefore, decreasing front-office wages is not necessarily the answer.
The WNBA Has Legitimate Superstars. The WNBA’s talent pool is heads and shoulders above where it once was when the league was founded in 1997. The quality of the competition has grown exponentially, and the WNBA now has legitimate superstars. This shift is evidenced by Taurasi’s contract with the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is reportedly valued at $1.5 million. Parker, who plays for the LA Sparks, is her current teammate, and Sue Bird, who plays for the Seattle Storm, was her teammate.
Peck notes, “There are only a few [players] making that kind of money.” She went on to say, “What the league has to look at is there are players that are not Diana Taurasi caliber making Diana Taurasi money in the WNBA…There are players who are making about as much money as the can make in the WNBA and then their supplemental income is of a smaller amount as opposed to the way Diana’s situation is.”
Peck and other analysts recommend that the league consider establishing a system where core players would be paid substantially more than similarly situated veterans; so that making it more valuable for the superstars to play in the league. In return, these players would agree not to sit out WNBA seasons.
Another approach is for the WNBA to adopt a Designated Player Rule, which is a model currently used by Major League Soccer. This exception allows a team to “acquire up to three players whose salaries exceed their budget charges, with the club bearing financial responsibility for the amount of compensation above each player’s budget charge.”
When FORBES.com asked Richie about the WNBA incorporating a similar structure, she explained that the league in partnership with the player’s union recently negotiated a new agreement that goes for the next 6 to 8 years, and not long ago had robust discussions on the topic. The WNBAPA could not be reached for comment.
WNBA Offers Exposure. While women’s professional basketball continues to grow globally, playing in the U.S. and the WNBA is the gold standard. Even though the WNBA is a young league, the caliber of players produced in the U.S. is sought-after overseas.
“I hear all the time from our players the advantages they see in playing in the WNBA. First and foremost as athletes and competitors, it is the notion of playing with and against that very best in the WNBA,” said Richie when discussing the benefits of playing in the league.
“As professional athletes who are interested in reaching the highest level of their game, the competition of the WNBA is critical to their development as an athlete. The second piece I hear very often is the visibility of the WNBA. It is recognized worldwide as attracting the best women’s basketball players in the world.”
Essentially, if the WNBA was not viable option for women’s basketball players, the valuable contracts doled out overseas would not exist. Therefore, the next phase in the league’s evolution is to ensure that its superstars, such as Taurasi, continue to have an incentive to play in the WNBA and it is increasingly valuable for them to do so.