OPINION: WNBA unrest and public outrage show need for investment and growth
by Maggie Mertens
From the absurd to the terrifying, the most recent WNBA stories describe an urgent need for change in the league.
Thanks to the report of Howard Megdal published in Sports Illustrated last week we now know that New York Liberty owners Joe Wu Tsai, a billionaire co-founder of Chinese company Alibaba, and his wife, Clara, grew tired of watching their players steal commercial games and almost run out for do it – so they did something about it.
In July, amid flight cancellations, delays and other business travel issues, WNBA players were increasingly vocal about the pain of their travel schedules. After a series of complaints, Joe Tsai tweeted“Getting your team to an away game and back comfortably, safely and on time is a fundamental business necessity. It’s the right thing every homeowner should do. Apparently, the Tsais chartered flights for the Liberty for the entire second half of the season.
But when news of the pick broke, league officials didn’t come out in favor of owners raising the bar for player treatment. Charter flights are a no-no in the current WNBA (CBA) collective bargaining agreement, as it equates to unequal pay for some teams. The league therefore fined the Liberty $500,000.
The league (and the current CBA) state that this policy maintains a level playing field. It may make sense within the league. After all, not all WNBA owners are billionaires like the Tsais – here in Seattle, our owners are two former Microsoft executives and a former Olympic athlete, well-to-do but certainly not Tsai-level rich. But there’s nothing fair about the way female athletes are treated, and while that’s been the case for some time, this theft fiasco and the public response to it show that a radical change is not only necessary, but also that it is possible.
The divide between the way male and female professional athletes are treated is so well known that we have almost become oblivious to it. WNBA players have salaries so low that most are putting their bodies at risk from overuse and injury by playing in foreign leagues during the offseason. Beyond the risk of injury, we got a moving insight into just how dangerous the practice is when news broke over the weekend about another major issue: the Phoenix Mercury. Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia for several weeks. She is detained for drug trafficking – and was detained in the country where she earns the majority of her money (over $1 million per season, compared to his WNBA contract of $227,900). The WNBA says all of its other players have now been safely evacuated from Russia and Ukraine, but Griner’s wartime Russian situation is chilling. All to say: it’s time to start waking up to the question that many of us have been asking ourselves for years: why do our superstars have to go to Turkey, Russia and China to earn their money when the States United have the best league in the world. ?
The Sports Illustrated article on player travel noted that when Liberty owners floated the idea of finding a way to get all teams free charter flights for three years to other owners, most didn’t. did not receive it well. “Some owners worried that the players would get used to it so there would be no turning back, and others wondered if the players would just prefer a pay rise instead,” Megdal reported.
Why should not these players get used to it? Should we fear that they will get used to the pay rise they received in the last CCT, too? Or that they might get used to it higher tv ratings the league saw? Should we worry that the Storm will get used to playing in a real world-class arena instead of a ramshackle decades-old structure this season? Should we use the same excuse that we can’t pay players more because they to get used to of not having to travel to potentially dangerous countries to play an extra season of basketball each year?
The WNBA will begin its 26th season in May, making it by far the oldest women’s professional sports league in the United States. This is due, in part, to how smart the league and team owners are about responsible growth. Wages and amenities were kept low for the league to survive. And that’s the case. But while the league is honest about its desire to grow the game, it must also take risks, and these recent stories show that it’s time to go further, for the good of the player.
Even though the Seattle ownership group was probably one of those not willing to pay for charter flights, we have the current owners of the Storm to thank for having basketball in this city. And they’ve clearly treated the players well enough to have kept Sue Bird here for her entire career and to build a franchise and a fan base at a steady pace. But these players need more investment. Period.
Does it really make sense that Sue Bird – a future Hall of Famer – accepted a contract to not be paid the league vet minimum salary, only $72,141so the storm can keep the band (Bird, Stewart and Loyd) together for another year under the notoriously tight team salary cap of just $1.37 million? Does it really make sense that world-class athletes should fly coach (at best, Economy of the best quality, unless they pay for their own first-class upgrades) to each of their 18 road games? When male professional athletes, and even many college athletes, regularly travel by private plane to meet their playing and training schedules, don’t have to strain their bodies into cramped seats, and can ultimately have the best opportunity to perform to their greatest ability, it seems ludicrous to say that women don’t deserve the same.
I’m not saying Storm owners should sell or quit (like owners of OL Reign did it since the sale of the majority stake to OL Groupe), but I believe that the owners of women’s sports teams must enter a new world – a world that requires more investment – or risk being left behind.
And if Storm’s owners were looking to recruit new owners with deeper pockets, they wouldn’t even have to give up their female-owned label: Two recently divorced Seattle women have billions to give away (Hint, Hint, MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Doors).
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Maggie Mertens is a Seattle-based writer covering the intersection of gender, sports, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, espnW, Glamour, VICE and other publications.
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