Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
We’re coming up on the first games of the season for the United States’ oldest professional women’s sports league, the W.N.B.A. — and as ever, the various shortcomings and challenges that league faces are already being discussed at length among players, media and administrators alike. There are dozens of knotty, worthwhile questions about its present and future with few clear cut answers.
Can you successfully market a women’s sports league that trades in what is still a widely-accepted taboo (women, and particularly Black queer women, finding strength and success in a realm where cisgender straight men’s approval is automatically secondary) without being patronizing? How do you reconcile the fact that the league can’t grow without more accessible T.V. broadcasts with the crowded sports television calendar, which only seems to grow fuller as men’s pro leagues seek to wring every last ounce of profit out of their players? How can the W.N.B.A.’s profits grow without greater investment, and who will invest without evidence that it’s a surefire proposition (because of course, the wealthy can’t make the kind of gaudy, long-term investments in women’s sports as they do men’s)?
Most crucially for the next few years, how can the W.N.B.A. expect players to cut their overseas seasons short to arrive for the W.N.B.A. season on time when some players make a fraction stateside of what they do internationally — when the W.N.B.A.’s regular season is just 36 games, compared to the N.B.A.’s 82?
This issue, which in collective bargaining agreement parlance is known as “prioritization,” has loomed over preseason conversations, as the usual slew of later arrivals from overseas teams trickle in with the knowledge that starting next season, they might face a penalty for doing so. In the most recent C.B.A., the league put in place a series of measures designed to encourage players to “prioritize” the W.N.B.A. over those overseas leagues that so often pay them more.
It gets at the crux of so many of the league’s chicken and egg problems: players don’t feel like they should be asked to prioritize a league that pays them less, while the league argues that they can’t pay them more unless players make themselves more consistently available stateside.
Players, especially the league’s best, are displeased by this impending development. “Because I feel like while the league is making the right and necessary strides to pay us more and ensure that if we don’t want to go overseas, we don’t have to, I just feel like in my situation, the money is not comparable,” Jonquel Jones told ESPN. “I have to think about the financial status of my family and everybody else, and also the opportunities that I’m leaving if I don’t go.” She added that her salary for a season in the W.N.B.A. is equivalent to what she makes in one month playing overseas.
“Prioritization is, like, the biggest topic of conversation in the WNBA for me, especially in the next couple of years,” Breanna Stewart said earlier this year — notably, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “To be able to play overseas at UMMC Ekaterinburg, where basketball is very valued, we’re treated really well and able to make a lot of money, it’s just hard for me. With the prioritization, you’re cutting off one of my sources of income and not substituting it.”
It isn’t hard to understand their frustration. They’re being asked to give something up for nothing, the same way women playing in the W have been asked to do more with less since its inception.
Predicting the international market for women’s basketball has rarely been harder, especially given Brittney Griner’s horrifying, ongoing detainment in Russia. But the core stakes of what’s being asked of W.N.B.A. players won’t change unless the opportunities evaporate completely, which is unlikely.
The W.N.B.A. is the best women’s basketball league in the world, but it can’t or won’t give its players the best treatment; that treatment can only come, they say, if players ignore what their skills are worth on the international market and sacrifice short-term earnings — presumably for the sake of some unknown future players.
The longer W.N.B.A. season can only become a reality, according to them, if FIBA and European leagues become more accommodating and they find a way to include more games without conflicting with any other American professional sports — ignoring the fact that if the N.B.A. prioritized the growth of the W.N.B.A. the same way the league is asking its players to, it would be easy to offer enough incentives that neither of these problems would ever come up.
Reinventing the W.N.B.A. schedule and thus the framework of a W.N.B.A. career is a massive, necessary challenge, but it isn’t one that should be borne by players who will never receive the fruit of their sacrifice.