by Maggie Mertens
From the absurd to the terrifying, the most recent stories about the WNBA paint a dire need for change in the league.
Thanks to reporting from Howard Megdal published in Sports Illustrated last week, we now know that New York Liberty owners Joe Wu Tsai, a billionaire cofounder of the Chinese company Alibaba, and his wife, Clara, got sick and tired of their players having to fly commercial and nearly missing games to do so — so they did something about it.
In July, amid flight cancellations, delays, and other commercial travel troubles, WNBA players became more and more vocal about the pain of their travel schedules. After one round of complaints, Joe Tsai tweeted: “Getting your team to an away game and back comfortably, safely, and on time is a basic business necessity. It’s the right thing every owner should do.” Reportedly, the Tsais chartered flights for the Liberty for the entire second half of the season.
But when word of this choice got out, league officials didn’t come out in support of owners raising the bar for player treatment. Chartered flights are a no-no in the WNBA’s current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), as it amounts to unequal compensation for some teams. So the league slapped the Liberty with a $500,000 fine.
The league (and the current CBA) state that this policy keeps a level playing field. That 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-off but certainly not Tsai-level rich. But there’s nothing equitable about the way women athletes are treated, and while that’s been the case for some time, this flight fiasco and the public’s response to it show that drastic change is not only needed but also that it’s possible.
The gulf between the way male and female professional athletes are treated is so well-known, we’ve almost become numb to it. WNBA players have had such notoriously low salaries that most put their bodies at risk of overuse and injury by playing in overseas leagues in the off-season. Beyond the risk of injury, we got a stirring look at how dangerous this practice can be when news broke over the weekend about another major problem: Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia for several weeks. She’s being held on drug charges — and was detained in the country where she makes the majority of her money (reportedly more than $1 million per season, compared to her $227,900 WNBA contract). The WNBA says that all of its other players have now been safely evacuated from Russia and Ukraine, but Griner’s situation, at a time of Russian war, is frightening. All to say: It’s time to start getting really real about the question many of us have been asking for years: Why do our superstars have to go to Turkey and Russia and China to make their money when the U.S. has the best league in the world?
The Sports Illustrated article about player travel noted that when the Liberty owners floated the idea of finding a way to get comped charter flights for all teams for three years to the other owners, most didn’t receive it well. “Some owners worried that players would get used to it, so there’d be no going back, and others wondered whether players might just prefer a salary hike instead,” reported Megdal.
Why shouldn’t these players get used to it? Should we worry that they’ll get used to the salary hike they received in the most recent CBA, too? Or that they might get used to the higher television ratings the league has been seeing? Should we worry that the Storm will get used to playing in a real world-class arena instead of a decades-old dilapidated structure this season? Should we use the same excuse that we can’t pay women players more because then they’d get used to not having to go to potentially dangerous countries to play an extra season of basketball every year?
The WNBA will begin its 26th season this May, making it by far the longest-running women’s professional sports league here in the U.S. That’s due, in part, to how smart the league and team owners have been about responsible growth. Salaries and amenities have been kept low so the league survives. And it has. But if the league is honest about wanting to grow the game, they’ve gotta take some risks too, and these recent stories show that it seems about time to go big, for the player’s sake.
Even though Seattle’s ownership group was likely one of those that wasn’t ready to pay for charter flights, we have the current owners of the Storm to thank for having basketball in this city at all. And they’ve clearly treated players well enough to have kept Sue Bird here for her entire career, and to build a franchise and fanbase at a steady rate. But these players need more investment. Period.
Does it really make sense that Sue Bird — a future Hall of Famer — took on a contract to only be paid the league vet minimum salary, just $72,141, so that the Storm could keep the band (Bird, Stewart, and Loyd) together for one more year under the notoriously tight team salary cap of just $1.37 million? Does it really make sense that world-class athletes have to fly coach (at best, premium economy, unless they pay for their own first-class upgrades) to all 18 of their road games? When male professional athletes, and even many college athletes, fly private regularly so they keep their game and practice schedules, don’t have to force their bodies into cramped seats, and can ultimately be given the best opportunity to perform to their greatest ability, it seems ludicrous to say women don’t deserve the same.
I’m not saying that the Storm owners need to sell or step down (like the owners of OL Reign have done since selling majority ownership stake to OL Groupe) but I do think owners of women’s sports teams must enter a new world — one that’s due for more investment — or risk getting left behind.
And if the Storm owners are looking to bring on some new owners with deeper pockets, they wouldn’t even have to give up their women-owned label: two recently divorced Seattle women have billions to give (hint, hint, MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates).
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Maggie Mertens is a Seattle-based writer who covers the intersection of gender, sport, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, espnW, Glamour, VICE, and other publications.
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