The WNBA Finals concluded in a winner-take-all Game Five tonight, with the Minnesota Lynx dominating the Indiana Fever, 69-52. Unfortunately, however tight of a contest the series had been as a whole, it has not been widely recognized.
The WNBA is facing no short list of dilemmas. The league of 12 teams does not garner much attention in the breadth of American sports. It is the NBA’s neglected younger sister, cornered into poorly timed scheduling and devastatingly belittling contract parameters.
Some of these facts should be immediately apparent if you consider the scheduled dates and times for potential series-clinching games. Game Three, on Friday, coincided with opening-night for six NHL franchises, and played at the same time as five teams from integral markets (the Blackhawks, Devils, Islanders, Kings, and Rangers). Game Four coincided with three major sporting events: Sunday Night Football; Game Three of MLB’s American League Division Series; and golf’s Presidents Cup. (Sunday Night Football should hardly be considered an “event,” but TV ratings suggest otherwise.) Playing in primetime on a fall Sunday also meant competing with series premieres and the like. And it didn’t help that Game Five was bumped to ESPN2 in favor of boxing, which draws considerably worse ratings than ESPN proper.
It would make plenty of sense to start the WNBA season earlier in the year so that it does not cross paths with so many obstacles at the back end of their schedule, but that would mean infringing upon the NBA’s season. As more than half of the WNBA teams are owned by people/groups that own NBA counterparts, that poses a couple of problems. First, most teams share their home courts. Overlap would create negative press as the NBA would force the WNBA to accommodate, essentially having owners wound themselves. The second potential issue is that the NBA would not compose the whole of basketball current events. College basketball ends nearly two weeks before the NBA playoffs begin, a comfortable cushion for March Madness’ hysteria to cool. While the WNBA does not draw significant viewership numbers, it still demands press. The WNBA’s active presence during the entire playoffs would certainly not create a massive divide among their audiences, but the NBA is the far more marketed and profitable product, and it would frown upon the WNBA stepping on its feet.
As it stands, a great deal of the WNBA’s advertising attempts to capitalize upon the popularity of the NBA Finals, claiming that summer doesn’t mean the end of the basketball season. This dependence in itself limits any chances of making substantial changes to the WNBA season. However, the WNBA season does not only occupy calendar space left open by the NBA. Making a career as a woman basketball player is not beneficially sustainable without year-round participation.
The WNBA is composed of players involved with other leagues around the world, particularly in China and Russia. Professional sports demonstrate some heinous disparities in compensation along gender lines. The maximum contract that could have been offered in the WNBA this season was $109,500. According to the current collective bargaining agreement, the minimum salary for an NBA player in the upcoming 2015-16 season is $525,093. The salary cap for WNBA teams remains less than $1 million as opposed to the NBA’s $70 million. (These numbers are available through the above links.)
It hasn’t become a problem yet, but the WNBA is at risk of losing players that are actually getting paid greater to not play. Diana Tuarasi of the Phoenix Mercury, who is easily one of the league’s best players, earned approximately $1.5 million as a member of UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League last year. She elected to sit out this season as her club team in Russia paid her more than her WNBA salary to simply rest. At 33, Taurasi essentially has not had an offseason since being drafted first overall in 2004 out of Uconn. The opportunity to take time off without financial concerns had not been available, which is troubling for the future of the WNBA.
The WNBA desperately needs to pay its players better. The league already implements its jerseys as ad space, relegating team logos to a badge on the shoulder, but television money has proven to be the most crucial in sports. The NBA has come upon a windfall in its recent deals with Disney (ESPN/ABC) and Turner (TNT) that are already having a major impact on contracts. The WNBA already renegotiated its television contract with ESPN before the NBA did, partly as a gesture of goodwill between ESPN and the NBA. While the $12 million per year for 30 WNBA games might sound respectable at first blush, plenty of NBA players will make more than that individually due to the NBA’s nine-year, $24 billion deal. The realization that the $12 million is being split amongst 12 teams only makes the contracts all the more depressing.
I hate that I feel obligated to talk about these things and overshadow the actual matters of basketball that should be the focus of the WNBA. These Finals included two consistent contenders with some of the greatest players in the league like Maya Moore and Tamika Catchings, and featured three very close games — one decided by a Moore buzzer-beater that had many reminiscing Michael Jordan. But the fact of the matter is that the WNBA is in a precarious position, trapped by the dominance and financial support backing other sports leagues that diminishes its own potential to develop.