Friday, October 10, 2008

Two Continents, One Ball

I recently read an article by Ethan Johnson, in his "Closing Comments" post at It's a great article with a great lead paragraph.

First and foremost, it's worth mentioning that the WNBA is something of a matinée feature while - take your pick - a) the NBA is between seasons, or b) the international women's basketball leagues are between seasons. What the NBA is for the men, the international leagues are for the women. The WNBA gives domestic audiences an opportunity to see top female players like Candace Parker or Becky Hammon without a passport. Therefore, I think the WNBA will be constrained by this arrangement for the foreseeable future, which means enjoy what they're offering, but keep expectations low about taking it to the "next level".

This inspired me to write about the life of female pro basketball players, particularly the salary aspects.

Average salary as of 2008 for Euroball is 5,000-6,000 Euros a month. This is for the players with no WNBA experience. If you're in Russia, you can go as high as 10,000 Euros a month to start. If you're in France or Turkey, probably less. This is an average of about $6,700-$8,000 a month at the current exchange rate. Once again, this is for players with no American pro experience.

The advantage is that this money is usually tax-free and wired directly into an off-shore account. Sometimes teams will provide apartments rent free. Mind you, in some parts of the world apartments are not up to the American standards of luxury. Crystal Langhorne is still trying to figure out how to make her combination washer/dryer work. One season, Diana Taurasi lived in a Russian apartment where the plumbing couldn't handle the flushing of toilet paper down the commode; used TP had to be collected in a can and disposed of separately.

The European season can start anywhere from September to November and end anywhere from February to April. It's maybe about five months of the year of ball. A WNBA player can expect to make about $35,000 and up in the off-season playing in Europe. If you're playing for one of the Russian teams, that salary can go up to $500,000, but you'd better be a Diana Taurasi player to earn it and the owner of your club has to be in the Russian Mafia.

However, let's assume that you're a WNBA player and you figure you can make it till age 35 in "the game" when your knees start to go and your body rebels from the fatigue and not even the European teams want you. (Note: this assumption is optimistic.) Suppose you want to retire at age 35 and never work again a day in your life.

If you could earn $35,000 a year off an annuity with 6 percent interest - assuming you can find one - you have to stock away around $380,000 to pay for it. And remember, this is the money you don't spend. Assuming that living expenses cost about $20,000 a year in a no-frills, Spartan lifestyle, you will have to earn about $650,000 over a 13-year career. You have to earn at least $50,000 a year and spend that money rather frugally to have any chance of having a financial cushion. And let's not even talk about raising children.

The elite ball players like Bird, Leslie, Parker, and Taurasi - the "name players" - have a shot of making that kind of money. Everyone else will have to work year round, playing in the WNBA and then playing overseas in the off-season to make even an outside chance of that kind of money. Whereas an NBA player could make that $380K in a year if he doesn't buy a fleet of Fiats with it.

You can almost be guaranteed a job on some European club if you have WNBA experience. The WNBA is the glamour league - it draws the biggest crowds even though it doesn't pay the most money, and crowds are the springboard to becoming a Nancy Lieberman-type player with some name recognition outside of the closed world of women's basketball. You can play in the Russian Leagues or the European Superleague for even more money but by God, you'll pay for it in fatigue, in language difficulties, and an increased level of stress, anxiety and aggravation. I suspect that European players want to play in the WNBA more than the reverse due to the small crowds in Euroball.

If you're a European player that can't make it in the WNBA, then you have to get a real job over the off-season. And it's hard to find a real job, even in Europe, where they'll let you take five months off every year. European players are a lot like American baseball players from the 1950s - a 1950s salary for most baseball players meant you spent the off season working in a factory, or selling refrigerators, or whatever you did to meet your financial goals.

So what does the above have to do with Ethan's post? Well, if player salaries reach the $400K mark in the WNBA for the best players, those players will actually have the option of not having to play elsewhere in the off-season, just like the NBA players. (As a matter of fact, you'd probably have to sign an exclusivity contract to protect the club against you being injured playing for another league.) Players with that kind of money have the option to play where they want, and when they want. If a league is willing to pay that kind of salary, you'd be a fool not to play there.

So until women's basketball players make the kind of salaries where they can retire after a few good years if they so chose, the current system will remain in place. The only advantage of such a system - we get to see our favorite players year round, if we have a good internet connection.

Teresa Edwards once wrote that she would like to be an NBA player in the respect that she could go to her parents and say something like, "You want a new house? It's yours." Unfortunately, it looks like those days are a long way off.

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